Baker On Baker

Art by Kyle Baker

Columbus Alive | September 14, 2005
Cartoonist Kyle Baker has thrown himself into his work like never before with his new self-published comic book The Bakers. No longer a simple cartoonist, Baker becomes an actual cartoon in this collection of eight gag strips starring the artist, his wife and three kids.

As a creator of comics classic (You Are Here, Why I Hate Saturn), controversial (Truth, Birth of A Nation) and on the verge of being canceled (Plastic Man), Baker has long been a talent worth paying attention to, pretty much no matter what it is he’s drawing. His highly animated style can vary widely between fairly representational and wildly cartoony, but at it’s heart there always seems to be a lot of Chuck Jones in it, with a little old-school Disney here and a little John Kricfalusi there, depending on the piece. Reading a Baker book is like seeing the whole history of animation (or at least the highlights) distilled into a few well-chosen lines.

In The Bakers, the head Baker is at his Chuck Jones-iest in several silent tales of modern domesticity, including one in which the youngest Baker learns to walk right before being deposited in a playpen to prevent her from walking, and one in which he and his hellion children take an epic trip to the mall. (A tale that, probably inadvertently, reminds Baker’s childless readers of how lucky they are, and will have them putting off the thought of having kids for a good three to thirty years).

That it’s such a fun, funny and well-drawn book will come as no surprise to anyone who’s experienced any of Baker’s previous work, but what may surprise you is what Baker himself looks like (or, at least how he draws himself like). Tubby, kidney-bean shaped and with jowls and a big, honking nose that make Fred Flintstone’s features seem understated, Baker’s self-caricature most closely resembles his designs for Plastic Man’s dim-witted sidekick Woozy Winks. Not a very flattering portrayal, but it’s certainly funnier that way.

“Nat Turner #1”

It’s not all fun and games over at Kyle Baker Publishing, and his other major endeavor there is as tonally and stylistically different from the hilarious and heartwarming hijinks of his family as possible, but then it would almost have to be, given it’s subject matter—the life of controversial revolutionary Nat Turner, who lead a violent rebellion in 1831 in attempt to free himself and his people.

In the first issue of Nat Turner, Baker shows us the abduction of Turner’s mother from Africa by slavers, and the nightmarish journey from there to here, culminating in the horror of someone trying to throw their baby overboard into the waiting mouth of a shark to save it from the fate of growing up in slavery.

Baker’s art here leans toward the representational, and the whole story is silent, all of the potent emotions coming from the characters’ expressions, and all of the action told in the juxtaposition of the many black and white images. Highly sketchy and shaded, Nat Turner lacks some the bold solidity of The Bakers, but it certainly fits the story, which Baker tells at times by marrying his foreground art to historical background art.

The only words appear in little paragraphs outside the art in certain scenes, and they come from the historical record, like a passage from The Confession of Nat Turner and another from the memoirs of a slaver. That Baker can make the comic so gut-wrenchingly compelling without relying on words is a testament to his skills as an artist and storyteller and, in larger part, a result of vividly telling a story as operatically tragic as that of the slave trade.

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