Monday, April 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #106: King David by Kyle Baker

America is more Christian than a lot of the rest of the world realizes. It's not just a right-wing thing, either -- the King James Bible is as central to the language of the USA as our Constitution is, and the question of what church someone belongs to [1] is important in hard-to-describe ways across a lot of this country.

It shouldn't be a surprise: most of the founding myths of the USA boil down to "Those People wouldn't let us do our weird Christian sect the way we wanted to, so we got the hell out of there and started in a new land, where We could be the ones oppressing everyone else." That got baked in early, and deeply. It's not a Christian country, officially -- because, when it was founded, trying to pick a flavor of Christianity would have torn the nascent country apart -- but it's a country dominated by Christianity in a million flavors...though most of them these days are much more sure that a rich man will get into heaven than that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle.

Thus Gilbert Hernandez's bizarre biblical sex-fest Garden of the Flesh. Thus R. Crumb's textually rigorous Book of Genesis. And, more than a decade before either of them, Kyle Baker's 2002 graphic novel King David.

As is typical for major comics-makers turning to biblical matters, King David is weird. It's from that era where Baker was shifting from making comics that looked traditional -- ink on paper, in separate boxes drawn on a page, and then colored by someone else -- into a more painted look that I think was mostly done electronically, and looks like the images might have been created separately and later assembled into pages. (Baker, then and now, had tremendous chops, so it's not easy for my eye to be clear on what tools he used to do whichever particularly impressive thing. ) That's not particularly weird, though.

How about this? King David is presented in a format more like a picture book than a comic: large pieces of art arrayed on the page in loose layouts, with text floating around them (often in very large passages) in a fussy italic font. There are a lot of words to read here, and a text that does not make that easy.

OK, and what about the tone? King David bounces back-and-forth from a relatively respectful style that echoes some Jacobean language without trying to sound Olde Englishe to snippy, snappy dialogue that would be more at home in Baker's What I Hate About Saturn. That's pretty weird, too.

For those of us brought up at least nominally Christian in America, most of King David will be familiar -- it's telling us a story we know, with a uniquely Bakeresque twist. (I have no idea how any biblical story plays out to someone unfamiliar with it, but at least this part of the Bible is relatively light on random massacres, plagues, and general horrible Bronze Age morality.) We start out with David as a cute kid, and see him first soothe the crazed King Saul, and then battle Goliath. The wars with the Philistines go on, and David grows into a popular hero, which of course does not sit well with paranoid, still-crazy Saul. Eventually, David becomes King, and we see him fall himself at the very end, cause the death of Uriah the Hittite so that he can take Uriah's wife Bathsheba for his own.

Baker calls out some of the problematic material in that occasional snarky tone -- the ancient Israelites were much more fond of one rich guy having a lot of wives than we are, for example -- but the religion at the core of it is taken seriously. I don't know what Baker believes, or what he did believe in 2002, but this is a book about faith in God and doing the right thing. None of the showy miracles come in, so it's all people talking about faith in God and doing the right thing, but they firmly believe it, and Baker presents that belief honestly.

Again, this is a biblical comic by a serious comic-maker, which means it's weird: it's neither a proselytizing work nor one that mocks religion, but nods in both directions alternately, and occasionally simultaneously. It may be the quirkiest work in Baker's career, which is saying something about the creator of Special Forces.

[1] Or, in the case of the lapsed or strayed, would have belonged to or used to belong to. Cultural markers aren't removed that easily.

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