Recently I have been on a bit of a Kyle Baker kick. Having not read much of his work back in the day, I felt the urge to go back and find 3 of the more acclaimed books and read them for myself. Why I Hate Saturn, You Are Here and The Cowboy Wally Show. While known as much for his work in animation, his comics work, while low in quantity, is of the very finest quality around.
Starting as an assistant at Marvel, then moving to DC, Baker’s first major solo effort was The Cowboy Wally Show in the 80s, followed by more work at Marvel and DC. Then under the Piranha Press imprint at DC, he created Why I Hate Saturn in 1990, which has become one of the most critically acclaimed books of the era. He was also known for the short story Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter, a story that was actually pulped and never distributed in North America. Still, it won the Harvey Award for best short story. (Take THAT DC!)
Starting with You Are Here, I found a wonderfully silly and surprisingly involving story. I should qualify that a little. The story, and its eventual resolution is actually on the dark side, but the characterizations and the style employed to tell the story are funny as hell. Baker has a great wit, sometimes a very dry one as well. His animation background and influences are on full display in this book. Full color, but with very little actual line work, there are moments when the art feels like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Panels are full of vibrant color and action, and the visual gags in the character’s facial expressions and physical actions are as funny as any cartoon I have ever seen. You really root for the main character and what he is going through. The supporting cast is a bit more outlandish in some instances, but that is balanced by the action and plot. The end was appropriate, but I was left feeling a bit sad for everyone in the story. While it is a happy ending of sorts, I can’t say it was what you hope for. Well, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. But a great book just needs to leave me wanting more, and this did that in spades.
Fortunately for me, I had purchased 2 other books at the same time. Why I Hate Saturn is one of the most famous
books to come out of the 1990s and is credited, at least in part, as one of the books that proved the original graphic novel format was a viable one. I have been working on this post off and on for about 3 weeks, mostly because I have to step away from these pages to digest what I have read. You are Here was read in a sitting, but this book took a while to really appreciate. Here the art is much more specifically structured to be like an illustrated book instead of a traditional comic. The art is much more loose and relaxed, with less emphasis on the design of each panel and more on a feel and impression. Black and white with some sepia shading, the dialog mostly takes place outside the actual panel and is short and direct. As wordy as this book gets at times, it never feels overwritten, just smart and witty. It does at time feel very episodic. Sometimes it gives the impression of being collected from a serialized strip. The chapters are uneven at times, and occasionally cover the same ground repeatedly, but I think that my be the point at times. This book deals with Anne and her life in the hip, shallow New York social scene of the early 90’s. When her sister comes to visit, claiming she has been on Saturn, and things are getting dicey, Anne’s world begins to spin out of control. This book has a very different feel to it. The structure of the story is not as familiar or comfortable as You are Here. Since it is not traditional panel to panel, and the chapters are clearly broken up as smaller vignettes, this is better read in smaller doses. The humor here is very topical, and since this was done over 20 years ago now, some of it is a little dated. I enjoyed it for the most part, but it seems as though this was such a critical darling in the 90’s more because of its differences from what was common then over what the subject and style of the book were. This is a quality book, to be sure, it is just somewhat harder to enjoy outside of its intended context. Most of its setting has changed enough that this may seem a little hard to buy into. That and the fact that I am not a New Yorker. Who knows, maybe NY is still very much like this today, but I kind of doubt it.
The Cowboy Wally show is a very different beast. This is a darker, more jaded story. Wally is not really a likeable guy and is very much a riff on all the talentless hacks that populate our pop culture and media. He gets his start with blackmail and despite never really being a success at anything, manages to stay in show business for the long haul. The art falls in between the above volumes in terms of style, and is fairly straightforward. The placement of dialog in the non-balloon word balloons is sometimes a bit hard to follow, and my edition has some odd printing errors, like missing letters. This is not a happy volume. While the previous two are funny and occasionally dark, this is dark and occasionally funny. Even then the laughs are uncomfortable and less like humor and more like irony.
These three volumes are as different from each other as can be, given they are all by one author, and are not all for everyone. If you like being challenged by the subject matter of a story, without wanting to be completely depressed, these are all a good place to start if you also want to have fun tracking them down.