Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #232: Special Forces by Kyle Baker

It's entirely possible to be so sarcastic that no one notices. You can craft what to you is obvious satire, so ridiculous that it couldn't possibly be taken seriously -- and then discover that thing really does exist, like the NRA video commentator who recently said it would be a great idea if more blind people had guns. Our world has become a tough place for satire: either you have to go so far that you're silly, or at least half of your audience will believe you mean it -- and write to thank you for saying out loud what they wish they could.

Kyle Baker's comics series Special Forces fell into that hole back in 2007-2009: it was sarcastic to its core, every word and picture dipped in acid, but that sarcasm was so close to the actual hoo-hah jingo Americanism of the time -- that was the point, of course -- that I'm sure many people thought it was to be taken straight. So perhaps it's not a surprise that the series ended after only six issues -- satire, as they say, is what closes on Saturday night.

The first four issues of Special Forces were collected as Special Forces, Book 1: Hot to Death -- I think the last two just stayed comics. And Baker never gives that nudge to the ribs to reassure his reader than he's just kidding: he tells the whole thing as if he were serious, with his tongue deeply in his cheek and his pens sharpened to razors.

The core "joke" is the one he never says outright: Special Forces is a pun. These soldiers -- fighting in Iraq, in the cartoon version of Iraq familiar from propaganda, Fox News, and Turd Blossom -- aren't special in the sense of being highly trained and skilled. No, they're special like the shortbus: criminals or mentally ill, young men and women with something wrong with them, one step worse than the misfits and losers of prior wars, the actually damaged and incapable.

This book tells the story of one eventful patrol -- of one squad of shouldn't-have-been soldiers and their recruiter sergeant, ambushed on the way to capture the noted terrorist The Desert Wolf. The black guy dies on the first page, and our main character -- a female solder known only as Felony -- tells us so; either because she's that genre-savvy or because Baker wants to start on the right note, to let us know what kind of story we're reading.

Quickly, there are only two soldiers left: Felony, who explains and narrates the whole thing in great detail (and a lot of Bushian turns of phrase). And Zero, blond and handsome and strong and serious...and severely autistic. But they still have to complete their mission: to take down The Desert Wolf, to foil his evil plan, and to save the world from those who (literally) hate our freedom.

Baker varied his style again for this series, moving away from his slicker early-2000s look to a more clearly illustrative look, with crisp Kubert-esque lines and flat traditional-comics color. The only discordant note in that symphony is his lettering, which is set in type. (Parts of Special Forces get so wordy that they look like a Mac document from the early '90s.) The art says: this is a story I'm telling you, a war comics story, like the war comics of the past. But the type says something else -- maybe that Baker wanted the text to be cold and flat, or maybe that he liked the cleanness of type. I don't know. I do know that it doesn't work as well as the art, and that it works against the art, which is organic and heroic and plays that sarcastic line utterly straight as it must.

Special Forces is not entirely successful -- maybe because of that type, maybe because it tried to be sarcastic about something that was already a parody of itself, maybe because war can only really be satirized from the inside (like Catch-22 and Bill Mauldin). But it's a fascinating artifact, and a milestone in just how sarcastic a work of art can be and still look straightforward.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index


randy said...

Hi, very interesting post thanks for sharing. Can I contact your through your email. Thanks!

randydavis387 at

Andrew Wheeler said...

Randy: Sure -- at the upper left of this very page, under "Networks and Contacts" is a link to email me.

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