Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Three Books of Quality Jollity by Kyle Baker

I've been trying to read a graphic novel/book-format comic every day I commute lately, since I have a lot of them on the shelves (and keep getting more) and it also makes me feel like I'm reading more books. So when I realized I had a) a week with three commuting days and b) exactly three books of miscellaneous funny comics by Kyle Baker, I smelled a theme and a combined blog post.

Dear Reader, this is that blog post.

The three books are 2003's Undercover Genie (which I think was the end of a multi-book deal Baker had with DC's Vertigo imprint around the turn of the century), 2014's Important Literary Journal, and 2016's You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance! Since I didn't check those dates ahead of time, I actually read them in the opposite order...not that it really matters.

All three books have a similar aim: gather a bunch of miscellaneous Baker work, in various art styles, for various publications, from a period of years, and turn it into a book that will make money for the creator. (What, you think people like to work for free?)

Undercover Genie additionally had a "hey, here's what I've been doing instead of drawing some long-underwear guy for the past decade," set by Baker in a somewhat defensive introduction where he explains that instead of drawing Spider-Man for a page rate, he was doing illustrations for national magazines, CD covers, and other well-paying design/drawing work as well as directing videos and doing other Hollywood stuff. I'd like to think such an introduction is no longer necessary -- the comic-shop audience has finally realized that there is a larger world with other things that are vastly more popular and lucrative than drawing Spider-Man for a page rate (mostly because of the Marvel movies, honestly), but I wouldn't actually put money on that.

Anyway, Baker in 2003 clearly thought he could have an audience in comic shops -- or maybe just realized that DC was at that moment the sole point in the center of the Venn diagram of "is actually publishing book-format comics collections that aren't either strip cartoons or monthly funnybooks", "can get those books distributed widely" and "was offering Baker money to do so." Thus begat Undercover Genie, which is very miscellaneous -- lots of Drew Friedman-esque caricatures of famous people [1] mixed in with parody stories, some oddly formatted stuff that might have been originally online, and a number of stories that feel like Why I Hate Saturn outtakes/exercises/follow-ups.

Undercover shows Baker working in a bunch of styles, from the stylized late-80s New York look of Saturn to various flavors of cartoony to those caricatures and a deadpan Tales from the Crypt pseudo-parody. This is, I think, right before he jumped into doing a lot of computer modeling, though there's a number of pieces clearly executed digitally.

Important Literary Journal is the shortest of the three books, but has the advantage of being in full color, unlike the other two. It was published by Baker himself, under the Quality Jollity label -- which he's used for at least a decade, since it appeared on Undercover, too -- in association with something called 5150 Glasscherben, which may or may not be an actual thing in the world separate from Baker.

(It looks like Baker got back into self-publishing seriously the last few years, gathering up a lot of his miscellaneous stuff and bringing out a half-dozen or so books since 2014.)

Amusingly, Important Literary Journal does not include the New Yorker parody that Baker did about a decade ago, under the title The New Bakers. (It was part of a loose series of gag cartoons he did about his young family in the mid-aughts.) That does appear in You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance!, though, confusing Your Humble Blogger when he came to start writing this post.

Journal is mostly single-panel cartoons, with a few multi-panel pieces and some fake covers and ads. I suspect it was mostly chosen -- assuming Baker was planning to do several books, which may be an unwarranted assumption -- to have stuff that needed the color presentation, or that really benefited from it.

And then there was Killed Me, which actually has a lot of the multi-panel comics from Undercover, plus some other work in the same vein. It's the standard comics-trade-paperback size -- like Journal, but unlike the album-format Undercover -- which means many of those stories had to be reformatted for the smaller page. They all still work, but they, like most comics, work better when presented in their original format. (There's one story, "Be a Man, Damn You!" that's clearly been reformatted different ways for both books -- I have no idea how that originally appeared. It may have been in a narrow column online or maybe on a newspaper-format page, but it wasn't either of these page sizes to begin with.)

Again, all of this is miscellaneous, and some of it is both topical and slightly dated at this point. But most of it was never topical, and it's all still funny. And it's a great reminder of just how varied Baker's work can be. My advice is to find a book of Baker's funny comics -- these, the utterly awesome Cowboy Wally Show, one of his other recent self-published collections -- and enjoy yourself.

[1] I keep forgetting what a great caricaturist Baker is, since he doesn't use those skills much in his regular telling-stories-in-comics-format stuff. But he is damn good at it, both in pen & ink and in full-color paint.

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