Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Kyle Baker: When Stupid is Smart
This story originally appeared in PW Comics Week on August 19, 2008
by Frank Santoro -- Publishers Weekly, 8/18/2008 3:33:00 PM
Kyle Baker's new art book should be shelved in the self-help, self-improvement, new age-y section of the bookstore where folks try to find some direction in life. Kyle Baker has a message for THE PEOPLE.
And what is Kyle Baker's message? Learn How To Draw, Stupid! No,wait, it's: Learn How To Draw Stupid. No comma after the word "draw", heh.
That's right. Draw stupid, stupid, and you'll feel better. You'll laugh. You'll learn how to draw and in the process learn how to live free of bitterness, cynicism and indifference. Baker basically says that if you can draw a funny cartoon with a pen and a piece of paper that you will make someone laugh and by doing so unlock a secret code that gains you access to higher levels of consciousness.
Just who is Kyle Baker? Basically, he was a teenage cartooning wonder in the mid 80's who worked his way through the infamous bullpens of both DC and Marvel Comics. He paid his dues and then went on to create two of the most groundbreaking graphic ovels of the late '80s: The Cowboy Wally Show and the still remarkable Why I Hate Saturn. After a stint in Hollywood doing Hollywood stuff he returned to comics in the mid '90's with a vengeance and hasn't let up on the pace, producing an average of two books a year for a decade. Presently, he has every demographic covered with a war comic, a kid's comic, a comic about the Nat Turner-led U.S. slave rebellion, and a How To Draw book all crowding the same New Releases shelf.
He’s prolific, and he’s good—a rare combination. His comics are straightforward. They’re realistic when they need to be and funny when they have to be. Kyle Baker can shift stylistic gears like no one else in the business. Maybe I was just high, but I laughed through the entirety of How To Draw Stupid;, every page is, well, funny. It just might be Baker's best book to date, his voice is so well represented. Structured like most "How to Draw" books yet devoid of the typical step-by-step, rote instruction that typifies the genre, this book serves more as an advertisement for Baker, his oeuvre, and his philosophy.
Baker completes this "advertisement for myself" by proudly displaying all the covers of his books from every stage of his professional cartooning career in the middle of the book. He writes honestly about how he didn't want to lose himself, his vision and creativity by working for some big animation studio or by continuing to slave away for the big comics publishers. He somehow literally draws a picture of his life, and it's quite refreshing: "There are some professional cartoonists who hate their jobs. [...] Why on earth are they working on cartoons they hate? It couldn't possibly be for the money. If I were going to do a job I hated just because I needed the money, I'd sell weapons. It pays better than cartooning."
Baker's "Yes! You can!" philosophy and the way he presents it in 14 clear and concise chapters is broad and expansive and really pulls the reader in. I couldn't put this book down. Reading it feels like you’re really getting the inside dope. He explains how to draw simply and how to create iconic images and characters and how get inside their heads "even when there's nothing there!" His technical specificity is minimal but that is his point. "It's just a freakin' cartoon! It's not the Sistine Chapel!" He has very real helpful advice, but he knows that he doesn't need to make a How-To book like everyone else. Baker admonishes and encourages the reader to just try it, to just pick up a pen and make something happen, what have you got to lose? "Zero start-up cost!"
And after years of flying just a bit underneath the pop culture radar, Baker's comics like Nat Turner are attracting a very diverse audience and he, as a professional, is growing beyond the confines of the comics industry. He seems poised to unleash his positive attitude towards life on to the masses, and when The Bakers (his comic-book-ification of his family life) materializes as a Fox TV show, he might really end up creating a new template for the modern cartoonist. So I'm thinking as I read his How to Draw: maybe this guy knows what he's talking about.
The thing that strikes me the most about Baker's approach is his range. The guy can draw "realistically" and also demonstrates how exaggeration is the key to all characterization. Meaning his characters act. He draws cartoons; it's visuals first, words later, like Charlie Chaplin, like Jack Kirby. It's not War and Peace. And by reminding us of this page after page through his own very successful (Scott McCloud approved!) stories, he truly does instruct the reader/student on what does work, how to draw stupid, how to make something funny. Baker's example, his sense of humor and killer timing really inspires one to act, to create, to find one's way.
[Kyle Baker's How To Draw Stupid And Other Essentials Of Cartooning is published by Watson-Guptill and costs $16.95.]
[Frank Santoro is a cartoonist the author of Storyville, which was reissued this year by Picturebox. He lives in Pittsburgh.]