Monday, January 31, 2011

Kyle Baker: From Bullpens to Self-Publishing

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I turned in the third issue and I finally got censored,” Kyle Baker laughs. We’re doing a panel at the King Con in Brooklyn on a chilly November day. The upstairs room in the Brooklyn Lyceum is chilly, but boasts an amazing view of Brooklyn through large warehouse windows. “I’m really pleased.”

Deadpool MAX, the new comic book drawn by Kyle over David Lapham’s scripts, is an adults-only book about a smart-ass mercenary from the X-Men comics is wrong in so many ways that it boomerangs back around to being right. Deadpool’s sidekick becomes the bitch of a closet gay mob enforcer; Deadpool gets it on with a psychotic obsessive mental patient posing as his nurse; Deadpool fights a Nazi KKK. Deadpool MAX revels in its own wrongness that you need a shower afterwards.

“The MAX stuff is supposed to be the adult line and, if you know Deadpool, it is pretty hard core, anyway. The idea was to make a Deadpool book that was totally offensive, even to Deadpool fans!” Kyle doesn’t laugh so much as cackle, like a wacky villain from the Batman TV show.

            “I’d take Dave’s [scripts], and the first couple of issues I kept making it more offensive…But he’s finally gotten the hang out of writing really offensive.”

            The irony of Baker’s latest obscene and harsh comics pursuit is in Marvel’s recent acquisition by the family-geared Disney, itself something Kyle jokes about as a full circle effect:

“I’ve been doing the indy stuff for the last couple of years, because I had wanted to do things like Special Forces, which was the most obnoxious comic,” he admits. “I was pleased with the fact that it pissed so many people off, which was the goal. Now you have the corporations call you up and ask ‘Can you make something really offensive and horrible? Now that Disney bought us, can you do something really rude and obnoxious that will kill our Disney deal?’”

            His writer, David Lapham, started back in the 1990’s with Jim Shooter’s company VALIANT, and moved on to his self-published and highly-acclaimed crime series, Stray Bullets, in 1995.

“I’ve been very lucky with writers. I usually write my own stuff, but when I do get a writer it’s like a Dave Lapham or an Alan Moore,” Baker says. “Coincidentally, Dave was also the guy who tried to talk me out of self-publishing. When I was considering self-publishing, I called him and Jeff Smith and they both went ‘Don’t do it!’ We’re both now corporate whores, so he was right.”

He laughs.

Kyle Baker came into the industry in 1983, at the height of Jim Shooter’s era as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel, an era that produced Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Walter Simonson’s Thor, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men, and Claremont and Bill Sienkiwicz’s New Mutants. It was also a Renaisscance for licensed comic books at Marvel, particularly toy crossovers G.I. Joe and Transformers, as well as the sci-fi film Star Wars.

“I’m one of the few people that liked Shooter,” Baker admits. “I talked to Simonson about this once, and went ‘Hey, everybody’s always badmouthing Shooter. I got some good advice from him.’ Walt went ‘You were the only one young enough to need the input.’

            “The funny thing about Shooter was that he spent the whole time trying to get rid of me. I didn’t think I was going to stay in comics, because back then, comics were where everybody started their career.

            “We used to all sit around the Bullpen, and the heroes of the Bullpen were the guys that had quit, like Jack Davis, who got the hell out of there, or Neal Adams or Bernie Wrightson, who would never come back. Frank Frazetta was a success story. I was there to get my portfolio together and get out. “

            When you put different generations of artists together in a single bullpen, there’s an inevitability that new artists pick up old ones habits, both good and bad, as Baker learned.

“I also worked with Vinnie Coletta, which was an experience,” Baker says of the Marvel inker, who was infamous for erasing backgrounds in the name of meeting an inking deadline. “The thing about Vinnie was that I learned how to do a book in a night. My favorite thing about Vinnie was when Eliot Brown was the editor of Indiana Jones and me and Vinnie were doing Indiana Jones. Eliot called us into his office and started yelling at us for doing a crappy looking book: ‘This book sucks! Vinnie, I would expect it of you but Kyle, don’t do this! Don’t throw your life away! Don’t listen to him!’”

Baker also learned from legendary editor and artist Dick Giordano, who was even prolific while working as a Managing Editor at DC Comics in the ‘80s.

“I still use a lot of tricks that they taught me in the bullpen to just hack it out,” Kyle notes. “Everyone who draws should do this: Dick Giordano told me ‘You sit with a timer on your desk. Every comic book page is about three tiers, and it takes about half an hour each tier. So, I wait until the big hand is at the top or the bottom, and I start inking and give myself half an hour. I ink all of the important stuff: faces, figures, a gun or a car, and then I look at the clock and go ‘Oh my god! Twenty-five minutes have passed and I’m nowhere near done!’ So, then I paint everything else black.’

            “It works! I’ve really gotten back to that lately with the Marvel stuff. I’m a lot pickier with my own stuff, just because if I’m publishing a book for myself and it doesn’t sell, I don’t get anything. It has to be a good job, but if you’re working for Marvel or Disney, you’ve already been paid. Also, there’s so much corporate interference that nobody knows whose fault it is that it sucks,” Kyle jokes.

            Despite learning the ropes and cutting his teeth, Marvel’s superhero focus didn’t leave many opportunities for a rising humor artists like Baker.

“In 1983, all the humor cartoonists were in the newspaper,” he points out. “Even Matt Greoning was in the newspaper. Marvel Comics and DC Comics were publishing one type of a book at the time—and that was superhero—so I didn’t see a future in the business. Shooter had me do something with Stan Lee, to try to get me into the syndicate that was handling Spider-Man at the time. Everybody would try to give me humor things to do. 

“At the time that I started, you weren’t getting your artwork back, there was no profit sharing, and you wouldn’t own your characters. I worked on a lot of the Spider-Man comic books that ended up in the movies, like Venom, and I didn’t get any money for that. My daughter came home from Spider-Man 3 and said ‘I want to tell you about this movie I saw where Spider-Man gets this evil costume,’ and I went ‘Stop, I drew those issues, honey.’ 

“I ended up in LA for about seven or ten years, because I figured that it was a total rip-off but you get paid ten times as much for that rip-off.”

Cowboy Wally was a failed newspaper strip that I was trying to get into the papers, because I didn’t really want to be in comics,” Baker admits of his first graphic novel. “I couldn’t get syndicated. I liked Doonesbury and Jules Feiffer, and they didn’t use word balloons. That one just had the words floating over everybody’s heads like Doonesbury or Jules Feiffer.”

Shortly after Wally’s release through Doubleday, DC came knocking on his door for a new graphic novel, inspired by Cowboy Wally, a book they’d ironically turned down earlier.

“At the time, comic books were just starting to be sold in bookstores, and Eisner had just coined the phrase ‘graphic novel’. It was a new market, and DC said ‘We’re going to do something for that market. We’re trying to attract new fans and make a new market. We’re aiming for people who hadn’t read a lot of comic books and needed a little help.’”

Kyle’s next graphic novel was Why I Hate Saturn, a black and white story of an alcoholic writer, her costume-wearing control-freak sister, and a gaggle of craziness against the backdrop of 1990s New York City. Combining his narrative Feiffer tricks with the needs of a book-buying audience, Saturn’s outside-of-comics appeal is just as much in its formatting as it is the content.

“I’d talk to people who didn’t read comic books, and in a standard comic book couldn’t figure out what panel to read first. Magazines are laid out in columns, comic strips are laid out in one row across the page, but within a standard comic book panel, you have to read left to right, then down, then over to the left, then over to the right. Again, I was aiming for more of a bookstore fan that was used to reading their cartoons in The New Yorker, where the dialogue is under the panel. At the time, that’s why I did it that way. It also separated the tiers, and I put a border, because it would be impossible for them to read otherwise. People would read across the spine onto the next page, because they didn’t know how to read a comic book. I don’t do that now, because comics are so ubiquitous that almost everyone has read a comic book now.” 

It was also one of the first computer-lettered comic books, done in a time when hand-lettering was still king.

“I was one of the first guys to do lettering on computer,” Kyle notes. “It took me a while. When I first started using a computer, a mistake I was making was to try to imitate what I was doing by hand before; my first fonts were designed to look like my handwriting, and I then remembered that my handwriting sucked. I went ‘I’ve got a computer now, and I can use any font I want.’”

Kyle, already frustrated with the comics industry, had a chance to break into television with a proposed Why I Hate Saturn TV show.

“It’s funny how everything changes: at the time, I was really hating working in comics, because no one knew what the hell I was doing,” he admits. “They couldn’t understand it or even knew what to do with it. They were asking me to change stuff and I’d go ‘That’s not a mistake, I did that on purpose.’ I was having no fun and couldn’t control the work, so I said ‘If I’m gonna have no fun, I might as well move to Hollywood and let them ruin my stuff and pay me well for it.’

“The whole book is about this character who’s an alcoholic: that’s the character, and there’s not much else to her. The first thing they do is ask ‘Does she have to be an alcoholic?’” Kyle laughs. “Again, at that point they’re paying you, and I was only there for the money, so I went ‘Yeah, you can change whatever you want.’ It turned into something that could not even be watched, and they ultimately ended up passing on the thing. 

“When it got to the network, the network passed on it because it appealed to too narrow of a demographic. They said ‘Everybody’s the same age, in their early twenties, and it’s a little too New York-ey.’

“I said ‘So, in other words, no one wants to watch a show about a bunch of young people in New York?’ 

They said ‘Yeah, that’s about it.’”

            The punchline: the successes of ‘90s TV staples Friends and Seinfeld, hitting the airwaves just a bit after Saturn’s descent into development Hell.

“[So] Seinfeld came out, and they called me back and asked ‘Can you do Why I Hate Saturn like that?’ I created another show and, then again, watched them go ‘Do they have to be black?’ 

“I saw Gilbert Hernandez at a show a couple of years ago, and he said ‘Hey, how come everybody else has a movie and I haven’t seen your movie?’

            “‘Because I’d rather butcher other people’s cartoons. If I ruin Bugs Bunny or something, it doesn’t break my heart as much as if I watch something I came up with that was once good just gradually get destroyed.’”

It was 1994 when Kyle jumped back into comics, and took his first shot at animation. The comics industry was on its way down, crashing under the weight of the speculators market and a struggling direct market of comic shops. Marvel, anxious to encroach on untapped territories and markets, started a short-lived Marvel Music line of comics, featuring musicians ranging from rock to rap.

            “I was alternating between these corporate things that I do so I can eat, and then there’s these other jobs that I do just because I want to do them,” Kyle elaborates. “KRS One is a hip hop artist, and growing up in New York I was at the right age to love hip hop. I had read something he’d written in a magazine and gone ‘Oh, I wish I could work with this guy.’ Then he actually called me up, out of the blue. We did this thing for Marvel, and that was just a mess because we were ahead of the game. Marvel was going to do the Marvel Music line, and had licensed things like Elvis and Woodstock, and the plan was to distribute to Tower Records, because that was a new market. 

“One of the reasons I did the job was because we were also doing a music video, and I had wanted to do animation. I still do a lot of animation. What bothers me about the way animation is done today (and I’ve worked for all the studios) is that they take storyboards from someone who’s really talented—like Bruce Timm, who I love—and they take it and send it off to a Korean sweatshop. Now, if you have any talent, you’re not going to work in a Korean sweatshop!” Kyle laughs. “You’re going to come over to America to work. So, you’re sending them to an inferior artist who is going to take the work and completely ruin it, send it back to America and (because it’s television) they still don’t move and they look like shit. And it costs a fortune to do!

“I do cartoons called comic books, and they don’t cost as much and are better. The reason I did the KRS One thing, and last year did the Dexter animation, was because they let me shoot the boards. If it’s not going to move, just shoot the boards. Everybody makes fun of me for this, but I am a big fan of Joe Barbera cartoons.”

            Barbera, with his partner William Hanna, perfected a shortcut style of animation that allowed them to produce enough cartoons to become the leader in kid’s television in the ‘60s through ‘80s. With limited animation, Hanna Barbera churned out Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Wally Gator, and The Flintstones. Baker feels the Hanna-Barbera mode of work fits in well with this new generation of computer animators.

“They had lower budgets and were cutting corners, but had guys who were really talented and knew which corners to cut,” Kyle points out. “There are episodes of The Flintstones that are drawn entirely by one guy, and they’re watchable. They’re limited, but they’re very funny. If we keep the stuff in-house, I actually know how to do a good walk cycle with three drawings, and you’ll actually laugh at the thing. The new breed of folks are also tech guys, so they know how to use Maya or AfterEffects or any of these other programs, but they don’t have the basis of animation. Everything, to me, looks like Terry Gilliam stuff where there are pie plates sliding around, except that Terry Gilliam has talent.”

            The Hanna-Barbera influence is obvious in Baker’s freshman animation effort, as sequences are repeated throughout, and animation is as limited as it needs to be. Just like Dick Giordano and comics art, he was learning the fine art of shorthand. It served him well through his later Looney Tunes work up to his current animation for Showtime’s Dexter short animations.

Baker made his major return to comics in 1999 with the graphic novel You Are Here, a screwball comedy/action-adventure about a crook trying to keep the truth of his shady past from his innocent and unsuspecting fiancé. The storytelling is similar to Why I Hate Saturn, with the New Yorker dialogue captions running underneath the artwork. The main difference, though, is in the animation influence from Baker’s California days: the characters are more expressively drawn, and the book is colored like a big animation cel. It was the advent of computers in comics, and although one of the first to fully embrace the technology, Baker was one of the few artists who knew how to seamlessly use it for his work.

“The first thing people do when they get Photoshop is to try to make it look like watercolors,” Kyle reflects. “If I have pastels, I don’t try to make it look like oil paints; I’ll get some kind of lumpy paper to show off the grain of the pastel. Now, people will go ‘Why is your stuff all digital?’ It’s a computer! I can do things that you can’t do, like silly things, even.

“I don’t see why we’re trying to make it look like [1930s illustrator] Hal Foster. People are still using tools that were designed for a type of printing we no longer use. The reason we were putting black lines with a dipped pen is because it was the only thing that would show up in shitty lithographs on crappy newsprint, with this hand-separated color that would never register properly, so you’d have to put a thick line around it. The colors were always bleeding out into the backgrounds, so you try to hide that [with thick lines]. Why are we still using the same tools? We’re the only people who are still doing it.”

“What I really enjoy doing, with almost all of my books (and something I think I do well) is that I tell unpopular truths. Every book I do, there’s something in there that make people go ‘You can’t say that,’” Kyle states. “‘Why? Because it’s the truth?’”

Kyle’s graphic novel King David tells the story of the Biblical king of Israel.

“I pitched King David to DC Comics, and they tend to leave me alone on the creator-owned books. They came to me and went ‘David is really an asshole!’

            “I went ‘It’s in the Bible!’

            “‘You can’t have that scene!’

            “‘It’s in the Bible! If parents protest, you say ‘Do you want us to rewrite the Bible?’’

            “What I loved about the book, and why I get behind it, is that of all the people who use the Bible to defend their point of view and support their racism (“I hate gays! It’s in the Bible!”) pick and choose and (more rarely than not) don’t even know the Bible,” Kyle observes. “You’re not doing animal sacrifices, since we decided it was a bad idea at some point, but it is in the Bible that we’re supposed to do animal sacrifices! There’s tons of stuff like that: If your wife cheats on you, you can stone her to death. 

“King David’s claim to fame is that he killed more Palestinians than anybody. That’s what the book’s about! That’s what the entire Bible is about. What I loved about that story is that the Old Testament is about the same war being fought in the Middle East today, over the same piece of land. 

“I had a Hollywood guy come up to me and say I love King David, it’s terrific. Can we tone down the Israel-Palestine?’ Who’s he going to fight, the Martians!?”

On the flip side of King David was his run on DC Comics’ Plastic Man. Created in 1941 by cartoonist Jack Cole, Plastic Man was an even more absurdist spin on the superhero, combining slapstick cartooning with action. Since acquired by DC, there’s been a tendency to make him either more ridiculous, or try to shoehorn him into being a more conventional superhero.

“When I do somebody else’s cartoon, usually (in my opinion) it’s a matter of getting back to what made it first work,” Baker says. “I usually get called in to fix something, for example when I was hired to do Bugs Bunny for a feature film: kids hated Bugs Bunny and Warner Brothers had to shut down their stores and wanted us to save Bugs Bunny. The reason Bugs Bunny sucked was because he hadn’t been in a funny cartoon since the ‘60s. So I wrote a Sylvester short cartoon and said ‘I’ve got a great idea for Sylvester: He’s trying to get Tweety and everything he does backfires on him and he gets hurt.’ They hadn’t done that in twenty-five years.

            “Same thing with Plastic Man, they said ‘We can’t sell Plastic Man and nothing’s working with him.’ But you look at the new Plastic Man comics and you look at the Justice League and you go ‘This character sucks. Of course nobody loves Plastic Man. But if you read the Jack Cole stuff, it’s fun, so why don’t we just do that?’ The plan was to go back to the original Jack Cole stuff where it was supposed to be funny. A lot of things they do with these comics is take something like Captain Marvel (which used to be funny) and try to turn it into Dark Knight and it doesn’t always work.”

            Baker’s take on Plastic Man involved his trademark animated approach, and a return to the character’s origins as a crook turned hero via the gaining of his bizarre superpowers. It brought a healthy dose of long-absent absurdism back to the character.

“The whole joke with Plastic Man is that he would turn into a lamp and then hide in the badguy’s hideout, and no one would seem to notice that there was a red plastic lamp with a yellow band about it,” Kyle laughs. “They’d be counting their money and then the lamp attacks them. He always turned into things that were totally illogical. 

“It took me a day to solve this one problem, where he had to sneak into a theater to kill Abe Lincoln. If Superman had to get in, he would tunnel underground and then up, Batman would climb in through the window—now the logical thing for Plastic Man to do would be to turn into a person and sneak in, but that’s boring. So, I had him turn into a piano and walk in with the band, because it’s funny.”

            Frustrated by the collective of Hollywood producers and book and comic book editors leaning on him to tone down his work, Kyle Baker took the self-publishing leap in 2006 with his four-issue history of African American historical figure Nat Turner.

“Nat Turner is one of my favorite historical figures,” Kyle points out. “Nat led the first major slave rebellion in the United States. It was a turning point in American history. The interesting thing about him is that no one talks about him because it’s a story about a guy who chopped up a bunch of white people.”

In Nat Turner, Baker presents the legendary figure’s birth into slavery and self-education through images, the only text is narration taken straight from Turner’s jailhouse confession. History is told through raw imagery, with Baker not sparing any of the unpleasantries heaped on or by Nat Turner. 

“The rebellion failed and he was caught and hanged, but he inspired so many others—Harriett Tubman said he was an inspiration, or Malcolm X,” Kyle continues. “I actually got the idea from reading the Malcolm X book, where he had a two page story about the Nat Turner rebellion because his father admired Nat Turner. It’s a great story: it has action and drama, and I also loved these rags to riches stories about guys who start from the bottom, like King David. King David was a slave, a shepherd, who becomes the king. I love these underdog stories. 

“Nat Turner was also a slave and he wound up changing history, even though he dies at the end. We have a black President because of him, if you really want to look at it that way. If you go down to where the rebellion happened, there’s no plaque or statue because no one wants to talk about it. I knew from experience that if I went into some editor’s office and said ‘I want to do Nat Turner,’ they’d say ‘What a great idea! We’ll buy it!’ and I would turn in the book and they’d then go ‘He chopped up a bunch of white kids! Does he have to do that? Do we have to hang him at the end?’”

“I knew that I didn’t want to puss out one way or the other. If I had sold it to somebody else at the time, you would either have people saying ‘Tone down the racism. Why are the white people so mean?’ Or you’d have people saying ‘Nat Turner looks really cruel. You have him killing all these people with an ax,’ which is a cruel way to kill. They’re killing people with axes and swords.”

Baker's uninhibited approach paid off: publisher Abrams picked up Nat Turner and published it as a trade paperback, letting him have his cake and eat it, too.

            “Another thing I keep getting, which cracks me up, is a lot of people don’t like the way I draw black people,” Kyle laughs. “They’re like ‘How come you have to draw black people with dark skin and big lips?’ It’s because they do have dark skin and big lips and it says more about the critics who think there’s something wrong with that. That’s how my family looks and I like the way my family looks! 

“I make a conscious effort to not pay attention to the critics. They make more entertaining stories for panels. I like talking about idiots for that, but you can’t let the idiots run your life.”

With ball-busting work like the Special Forces comic book, a War in Afghanistan book that glorifies the controversial war as if it were a Michael Bay film, through the exploits of a scantily-clad girl soldier and her slow platoon member. It’s as much a commentary on the reality of the war created by conservative media as a piece of pastiche.

            “With Deadpool, they censored me and I went ‘You know what this is about and I understand that. It’s your product,’” he cedes. “But I’m not going to sit there and water down something like Nat Turner or Special Forces, especially because Special Forces was designed to piss people off. What fascinated me about Special Forces was when I was working on the first issue, and I went ‘Man, this is really going to piss people off!’ I get to the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ guy, and then I had the overweight soldier—because I was trying to go through all of the clichés—and I was making fun of the President’s decisions. The only thing that seemed to piss people off when the first issue came out, and all I heard complaints about is ‘Why is she naked?’ She’s doing all these pin-up poses throughout, and I went ‘If that’s all that’s going to piss people off, I’ll just make her more naked!’”

Special thanks to Gabby Fisher of Abrams Books and Regan Jaye Fishman of the Brooklyn Lyceum for their help.