For you hard-core Kyle Baker fans:
The patient, professional Nina Habib Spencer of the Hunter College High School Alumnotes newsletter conducted this early-evening phone interview with Class-of-1983 Kyle Baker while he simultaneously tried to feed and bathe all three children (I had passed out, as the story embarrassingly points out). And he was preoccupied by an expected LA call.
I remember being in a semi-coma, waking up periodically to see Kyle with phone crooked in his neck, carrying a fussy baby in left arm, parenting the others with his right, yet giving this great, funny interview.
Kyle attended Hunter from 7th to 12th grades, commuting 3 hours each day to and from Queens. Robert Simpson of Dark Horse Comics, MAD Magazine writer Desmond Devlin and the Hollywood writer/producers Joelle Sellner and Eric Kaplan are also alumni/friends. Kyle called it "an egghead" school.
Thank you to Marge Kolb and Nina for the profile.
p.s. I tried to transfer this article in pdf form (which includes Kyle's art) from computer to this blog but couldn't; the blogger website says that this is a current "issue." Sorry about that; will keep trying.
Alum Profile: Kyle Baker ’83
by Nina HABIB Spencer ’90
Spring 2006 | ALUMNOTES | 5
4 | ALUMNOTES | Hunter College High School Alumnae/i Association
It’s not exactly a quiet evening at home for Kyle Baker. After a full day caring
for their three kids, his wife Liz is passed out on the sofa. Now it’s his turn.
He juggles a telephone in one hand (for this interview) and three squirmy kids in the other. The cat has jumped on the table and is eating the baby’s corn. And there’s that important phone call from L.A. coming any minute, possibly telling him that he’s one step closer to making his comic series of his family’s life, The Bakers, into an animated television series.
One look at a Bakers comic triggers instant recognition in the reader. Why, it’s your own family, right there on the page! How did Kyle know that my kids also hit the pavement like a whiny twoton pile of bricks whenever we’re late? How could he guess that, on occasion, I too have pretended not to notice a
sagging poopy diaper in hopes that my spouse will smell it “first” and change it?
The brilliance of The Bakers lies not only in Kyle’s hilarious renderings of his immediate family, but also with his recognition that every child and every parent—
regardless of the country or culture— have pretty much the same issues. “It’s a
mix of Cosby and Erma Bombeck,” Kyle says, laughing. It’s easy to see why it
would make great T.V.
Kyle’s parents, both of whom were artists, recognized his artistic talents early on. At age three, he had his first encounter with a comic book. It wasn’t the superhero kind, but the naughty, tongue-in-cheekspace- between-the-teeth Mad magazine kind. “It was a permissive time,” he says, laughing. He drew a great deal as a child, but didn’t consider it a possible profession. He changed his mind during senior year at Hunter. First, there was the chemistry class he failed (“possibly because I was drawing in class”), making a career in science, as he had originally intended, seem impossible. Then, there was his ICY project—an internship at Marvel Comics. Kyle had found his calling.
After college, Kyle spent several years shuttling back and forth between Marvel and
DCComics, illustrating many of the superheroes you know: Spiderman, X-Men, and the Shadow, among many others. But he wasn’t happy. “It was a bad business,” according to Kyle, “because as an artist, if you worked on Spiderman and the sales of Spiderman went up all of a sudden because of a movie deal, you got nothing.” In those days, the big comics houses treated their artists as if they were a dime a dozen. “They figured anyone could draw Superman,” says Kyle. “It was the character, not the artist, who sold the magazines, right?” In the late 1990s, though, when top illustrators cried foul and refused to work unless the terms of their employment were changed, Marvel had a terrifying brush with bankruptcy. What followed was a boon to artists like Kyle.
Kyle spent a good part of the 1990s in Hollywood writing television pilots and working on animated films like SHREK and LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTIONI. But he was never satisfied with the work, and continued to work on his own comic book amd graphic novel ideas. He also continued to sell cartoons to THE NEW YORKER, THE NEW YORK TIMES, ESQUIRE, ROLLING STONE and many othe publications. For three years, he illustrated the strip, "Bad Publicity," in NEW YORK MAGAZINE. When he completed work on his book YOU ARE HERE, he took advantage of the recent changes in illustrators' contracts with comics publishers and called around to comics houses in hopes of selling the book to the highest bidder. But word had gotten out about Kyle's book and DC Comics ended up calling him. And as he had always wanted, this time he received a cut of the sales and an interest in any future deals that might stem from the book.
Something interesting happened to Kyle when he gained more control over his work. He wanted more: more autonomy, more decision-making power and more ownership over the words and artwork that sprang from his mind. His work was becoming increasingly sophisticated, historical and political, and he knew the DC and Marvel Comics of the world wouldn’t be willing to take a risk on these new ideas. Kyle formed Kyle Baker Publishing so he could draw the stories that really mattered to him. “I knew DC Comics would not sell Nat Turner or The Bakers in stores. I knew that if I went in to them with it, they’d change it.”
“I was re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and came upon the one or two pages in the book about Nat Turner,” Kyle explains. “I thought it would make a fantastic comic. There’s a lot of action. Anytime I told a black person I was working on a book about Nat Turner, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s a great story!’ He’s a hero to black folks,” says Kyle. “But most other people don’t know about him. When I started, I wasn’t sure what the market would be.” Kyle combined Nat Turner’s actual prison confessions with incidents from a book he had read about modern slavery in Sudan to flesh out the remarkable story of the nation’s most important slave rebellion. He took a significant financial risk in 2005 when he published the first two of the four-volume series. The risk paid off.
Kyle’s story has few words. But it reads like Tolstoy. Every page fills the reader with rage, sorrow and adrenaline. No Spiderman storyline can compete with Turner’s real life tribulations and the pent-up anguish that led to his act of vengeance. A few sections in particular showcase Kyle’s masterful ability to tell a wordless story. At the end of Nat Turner Volume 2, Turner’s young son, infant, and wife are torn kicking and screaming from his arms at a slave auction. In the next frame, we see Turner’s white owners lovingly putting their own children in their downy beds that evening. From below, we see Turner, staring at the children’s lit window, eyes blazing with rage and fists clenched. When he returns to his shack and sees his own children’s doodlings in the dirt floor, the readers know a powerful transformation has taken place. For seven pages, Kyle hasn’t written a word. But his keen ability to render human emotion has spoken volumes.
Kyle printed 4,000 each of the first two volumes of Nat Turner. To his surprise, they quickly sold out. “I didn’t expect it to be profitable,” Kyle says of his first self-publishing venture. He expects Volumes 3 and 4, now in the works, to be received just as well. But don’t expect to find Nat Turner or The Bakers in those dark,
cluttered comic book stores that dot every major city. [“The guys who work in comic book stores really do look like the guy from the Simpsons,” Kyle jokes.] Perhaps these stores—filled with violent fare and the stuff of thirteen-year-old boys’ fantasies—are not quite ready for true stories of the horrors of slavery or even the sophisticated humor of family life. But Kyle is hopeful. If Nat Turner can sell out on his website (www.kylebaker.com) and if he can get mobbed at comics trade shows by fans wanting autographs on everything he’s done, the stores will come around.
For now, Kyle’s busy creating buzz about his self-published stories, even designing
a Bakers t-shirt for die-hard fans (and for the hundreds of thousands of fans he’ll
have after it’s a hit show). His new work, the sarcastically titled Important Literary Journal, will be published shortly. But one has to ask, as a husband and father of three kids, wouldn’t it have been easier to stick to publishing his own work through Marvel and DC? “I found that the winners and losers are determined by decisions they made twenty to thirty years before,” says Kyle. “I’m doing this
because in ten to twenty years I think I’ll look back and say I’m glad I did it.”
(art from From Nat Turner, Volume 2)