[...continued from page 1]
Existential angst; yours for just pennies a day
[from Why I Hate Saturn]
This brings us to the question of how I choose what medium to work in.
Sometimes I create a project, sometimes I am hired to work on a project with other people. If I have an idea for a funny cartoon about current events, then I would try to sell it to a magazine or newspaper. Current events are innappropriate for most television, where the meetings and contract negotiations would take months and make the jokes obsolete. A comic book wouldn't work for current events, because it would take a month to draw 25 pages and another month to publish it. Current events cartoons also have to be drawn quickly, which necessarily limits the choice of drawing styles. If I have an idea for a long story, like "You Are Here", I prefer to do it as a long comic book. Serialization in a magazine would make the story hard to follow over many months. In television and movies, a writer's work is rewritten and edited without the writer's permission. My books are published exactly as I've written and drawn them. Nobody tells me what to write or how the books should look. "You Are Here" is a story I wanted to see in exactly the form it appeared. I also wanted to see my sunset paintings and landscapes published. I also wanted to work slower. Most periodicals want me to deliver an illustration in 24 hours. This limits the amount of research and detail I'm able to put into a piece.
When I started "You Are Here", my goal was to create a situation in which I would be able to spend hours in the park sketching squirrels and horses, days at the beach sketching sunsets and sunrises, and plenty of time at home sketching naked ladies. And I got paid to do it! How much money do YOU need to be paid to do what you love?
The only reason I don't do more comics is I don't have enough time.
Is the medium of comics dying in this country? Or merely going through a painful transition?
I don't know anything about the medium of comics. It's not my problem. If somebody makes something that entertains me, I'll buy it. I enjoy Sergio Aragoņes cartoons, Jeff Smith's "Bone" books, Frank Miller's books, and Will Eisner. When Pete Bagge's next book comes out, I'll buy it. Lots of people are buying "You Are Here", because it's good. All of the cartoonists I just named (including me) have had long successful careers, and will continue to make a living for many years to come.
I don't read super-hero books. I used to. Back when I was a kid, comics was the best place to see super-heros and rockets and giant monsters. Because when I was a kid, the effects in movies looked cheap. The TV Superman looked fake, Godzilla was obviously a guy in a suit smashing toy planes. Jack Kirby comics were better and more spectacular than TV's "Star Trek". After "Star Wars", I became less interested in Science Fiction or Super-hero comics, because the movies were better than comics. The "Superman" movie had better effects than the comic, plus sound and music. Now, if I want to see a guy fight a dinosaur or a giant robot, I'll rent a movie.
I'm not going to pay THREE DOLLARS or more for a "Starship Troopers" comic book that's going to take me five minutes to read when I can rent the film at Blockbuster for the same price and get two hours of entertainment, better artwork, prettier girls, plus stereo sound!
But I will pay TWELVE dollars for the latest Sergio Aragoņes "GROO" collection, because it provides me two hours of a type of entertainment I can't get anywhere else.
"You Are Here" is selling very well because for twenty dollars, you get something you can't get anywhere else. I use techniques that only work in comics, like freezing the action at a certain point (The EXACT moment a bullet hits, or a character in mid-jump), or using different typefaces for different voices. I show a funny expression on a character's face, using cartoony exaggeration you couldn't get with a photograph. The animals all have personalities, the carriage horse has an expressive face which tells you what he's thinking. The colors change to convey mood: At the climax, the sky is red and purple to create a scary mood, and the sky even turns green for one panel to add drama! I place cliff-hanger moments at the bottom of right-hand pages, so the reader is in suspense until the page turns, and they see an EXPLOSIVE full-page action panel! I also make use of the fact that print is the only mass-medium where you have total color control. The colors of film or television vary depending on the individual viewing system; "The Simpsons" on my TV doesn't look like "The Simpsons" on yours. A book (especially one designed on computers) will have the exact same colors in every edition, which means I can use more subtle color effects (like the blush on people's cheeks, the rain effects at the climax of the book), or I can place colors together that clash so specifically they seem to vibrate. Whenever possible, I tell the story with the pictures only, or use dialogue that has little to do with the art. All these elements combine to make the experience of reading "You Are Here" something you can't get anywhere else.
And it's less than twenty bucks. I had it in my contract that the publisher couldn't charge more than twenty. Twenty bucks is what most full-color coffee table books cost, like "Dinotopia" or "The Making Of Titanic". It's a little more than a music CD, the price of two movie tickets. And I made sure I put much more than twenty dollars worth of entertainment into the book, so it's a bargain.
Comic books that entertain at a fair price will always sell. The comics that no longer sell are overpriced and they aren't entertaining.
You're unusual in that you seem to be equally creative with both words and pictures. Yet even when presenting information visually, your images seem to be more about the ideas those images represent than the it-doesn't-have-to-mean-anything beauty of the thing represented. How did such an information-oriented mind ever end up doing illustration? Do you consider yourself a writer-who-draws, an illustrator-who-writes, or something else?
I've always admired Norman Rockwell. I think his gags are much more interesting than his painting technique. His painting is comparable to any "realistic" artist, like Vermeer or Rembrandt. But the jokes are funny, and I think that's why he was successful.
I like funny pictures. Jack Davis cracks me up. I look at his characters and think, "I know somebody just like that", whether it's a shy schoolteacher or belligerent wino. Davis obviously puts a lot of thought into costumes, body language, age, class, weight...all of these things make a character. Characters are stories.
A drawing of a four foot tall, sixty year old nun buying a wonderbra is funny because of the contrast. It's a funny picture.
I tell funny stories with pictures. That's what I do. Some people commission me to write funny stories without pictures, and I do that too.
How did you end up being a writer/illustrator? Were you both the class clown and "the kid who can draw" growing up? Did you read comics? What's the Kyle Baker "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in a nutshell?
When I was a little boy I loved the funny papers. The cartoons were a lot better back then, in my opinion. Al Capp and Walt Kelly were still alive. I used to read "Pogo", "Li'l Abner", "Peanuts" "Blondie" and "B.C." among others. I loved to draw Johnny Hart's "B.C." characters and the Muppets. I made up my own cartoon characters and drew stories about them. I loved "Mad" magazine. I had paperback reprints of the early Kurtzman stories, illustrated by Wally Wood, Will Elder, and Jack Davis.
I loved Disney movies. My mom took me to see "Snow White" "Pinocchio", "Bambi", "Cinderella" and others. I would come home from the movies and practice drawing the characters. I drew little animated "Flip books" on index cards. When I was 11, I had a super-8 movie camera and I made animated cartoons. I remember making a "King Kong" out of clay, and a drawing of a New York skyline, and I made a stop-motion film of King-Kong fighting model airplanes.
In junior high school, I drew comic books and xeroxed them at my dad's office. I sold the xeroxes for five cents each. I think I made fifteen cents.
In senior year of high school, I interned at Marvel comics. My job was to make xeroxes and file fan mail. I showed my cartoons to everyone I came in contact with at Marvel. Most people were very helpful, offering advice. I remember John Romita, Al Milgrom and Walter Simonson as being especially generous with their time and advice.
At Marvel, I met Josef Rubinstein, an inker. I became his background assistant, which means I inked the backgrounds of comics. Joe Rubinstein taught me a lot about inking technique. He's also a very good portrait painter. I also assisted Vinnie Colletta and Andy Mushynski (also inkers).
Assistant work led to work as an inker on superhero comics. For this I thank Jim Owsley, Ann Nocenti, Bob Budiansky, and Dick Giordano, who were all editors at the time. Budiansky and Giordano also had lots of good advice for me.
While I was inking, I was also trying to sell gag cartoons. Jim Salicrup at Marvel commissioned me to write a few one-panel gags about the X-men. Jim Shooter (then editor-in-chief at Marvel) tried to hook me up with a newspaper syndicate, but it didn't work out. I mention it because Jim Shooter was always kind to me and nobody ever says anything nice about him.
I really wanted to be in the funny papers. I sent gag cartoons to all of the major syndicates and got rejected. I tried to get Marvel and DC, who I was inking for, to publish my gags, but got rejected.
Ron Fontes, who was then a freelance artist at Marvel recommended my cartoons to an editor at Doubleday. She saw the twenty strips about a character named Cowboy Wally and asked if I had any more. I lied and said I did. in 1987, my first book, "The Cowboy Wally Show" was published. It didn't sell many copies, but at least it convinced DC I should be allowed to draw, not just ink.
Like a fair number of aspiring cartoonists, you attended the SVA (School of Visual Arts) in New York; Were there any teachers there who particularly influenced you?
I attended SVA. I had to pay the tuition myself, so I inked Marvel Comics. I never took a cartooning course, because I was learning firsthand from other pros. I studied printmaking. I learned color from a man named Tapley. I had to quit school because I got too busy with the Marvel inking and never had time to do my homework. I think I dropped out after two years, I don't remember exactly.
Early in your career you illustrated but didn't write things like the comics version of "The Shadow." Was there a point at which you didn't plan to write, or were you biding your time waiting for an opportunity?
I drew "The Shadow" because it was the only job offered me at the time. I had just finished "Cowboy Wally" and nobody asked me to write anything for a while after that. "The Shadow" was easy to draw. I used to do a whole book in a week.
I'd never planned to become a writer. I wrote short gags, like the kind you see in the newspapers and Cowboy Wally, but not stories. I only learned to write stories because people kept paying me to write them. In the years 1991-1994, 90 percent of my income was from writing, and I received very few offers to draw. I figured I should learn to write.
I knew the stuff I was writing in the early nineties was amateurish, but had the advantage of being hip and young. I also knew I wasn't going to be hip and young much longer. Writing and art have this in common: An artist who cannot draw well can still become successful if his work is stylish and current. An artist who CAN draw well, on the other hand, can always alter his style to stay fashionable, and will have a longer career than the unskilled stylish artist. I knew that unless I learned the craft of writing, I would soon be replaced by someone younger and cooler.
I spent the last four years studying drama, reading Shaw, Chekhov and Pinter, among others. You'll notice "You Are Here" actually has a dramatic structure that evokes emotional responses. I can now make you happy, sad, fearful, excited, romantic or angry on demand. I can make you want something to happen, I can make you want it to not happen. Compare that book to "Why I Hate Saturn". "Saturn" and "Cowboy Wally" just keep hitting the same note: laugh laugh laugh laugh. You are never emotionally involved in the characters. You laugh at them, you feel superior to them or identify with them, but you never FEEL for them. They are joke books. With "You Are Here" you care about whether the hero and the girl will end up together, you wonder if it will happen. You wonder what will happen next. You are afraid of the villain. You hope he won't kill the girl. You even feel sad for the villain before he dies.
"You Are Here" is very cinematographic. Was it ever intended to be something other than a graphic novel?
"So, you're a mugger. You like it?"
Baker tends to include at least one
irrepressibly cheerful character
[from You Are Here]
Your protagonists (and presumably to some degree alter-egos) tend to be bright, funny, cynical, and less capable of happiness than the flaky people they interact with. Do you believe flakiness is a commodity? Is ignorance bliss?
I'm a really happy and optimistic person. I love my life, my job, and my family. I tell jokes all day and laugh and sing songs. I sleep late, read comic books and never go to an office to work. I wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world right now. That's true. I understand that most people are unable to relate to such a reality. Most people are cynical, feel trapped in their jobs, dislike their lovers and wish their lives were different. If I am to write stories people can relate to, the protagonist must echo the audience's concerns and desires.
A protagonist who feels unappreciated at work, resents a parent or sibling, hates their own body, envies others their success, or is addicted to something (booze, sex, cash) is a protagonist who resonates strongly and deeply with audiences. Character flaws also generate conflict, and conflict is essential to drama. My own life is devoid of conflict, because that's the way I like it.
My books often have at least one character who's happy, loves life, adheres to a personal ethical code, and Doesn't Want Anything. Laura in "Why I Hate Saturn", Helen in "You Are Here". Cowboy Wally has no ethical code, and therefore no internal conflict. He's happy.
I have been known to run through traffic to watch a sunset.
I once wrote a story about two friends. The protagonist was a happy person who didn't want anything. The story was devoid of conflict. At the end, the second lead character chooses to follow her heart, having learned that material success doesn't bring happiness.
I couldn't sell the story. Nobody understood it. I added guns, tits and a villain, changed the ending, and it became "You Are Here". Now it's a hit.
If people want philosophy, they buy a philosophy book. Not a Kyle Baker book. People buy my books to see their own biases reinforced. They always relate more to the sad character than the happy. They laugh when the cynic tells the idealist to shut up. I don't mind as long as the cynic says, "Shut up," AFTER the idealist has had her say.
What's the "Cowboy Wally Show" story? Was it ever intended for serial release, like as a series of newspaper strips or comics single-issues? Why do you think it had such a difficult time finding an audience? Was it just a case of too little marketing support by the original publisher? How useful was it in leading to more work?
"The Cowboy Wally Show" was intended to be a newspaper strip, but I couldn't sell it. Doubleday published it as a book. The first part is the collected strips. The other three chapters were written for the book.
When it was first published, nobody knew who I was yet.The book was only available in regular bookstores, not comic book stores. People like a cartoon book that features a well-known character or cartoonist. This book had neither.
It's taken me years to teach an audience to buy a cartoon book for its author, not its character. Bookstores are finally putting my books together under "B" instead of alphabetizing them by title. "Doonesbury" is on the "D" shelf, not "T" for Trudeau. "Cowboy Wally" and "Why I Hate Saturn" were often displayed at opposite ends of the room because of this system. That's changed. I think changing the name "Kyle Baker" to a logo, and displaying it above the title have helped. The reprinted "Why I Hate Saturn" now has my logo above the title, as does "You Are Here", and so will my next book.
Is "Why I Hate Saturn" still in print? How many copies have sold over the life of the book? May I ask the sales figures on the Marlowe & Company edition of "The Cowboy Wally Show" and "You Are Here"? What percentage of your graphic novels sell through traditional bookstores vs. comicbook stores?
I really don't know the answer to these questions. I've had no luck getting sales figures on any of my books. Publishers are assholes about paying royalties, and knowing this I take a huge advance payment up front because I'VE NEVER RECEIVED A ROYALTY CHECK FOR ANY OF MY GRAPHIC NOVELS. We're investigating it now.
What projects are you working on these days? What's your typical week like? Can we expect any more major comics work from you down the road?
I'm writing a Christmas movie for Paramount. It should be out in December 1999.
I'm animating a film called "COREY Q. JEETERS, I'M TELLING ON YOU." That should be on TV next winter, too.
I'm trying to decide what my next book will be. I'm trying to get something out every six months. 1999 will see a new Kyle Baker graphic novel, and probably a reprint book.
Who are your biggest influences, both within and without comics? Are there any comics you still read? What do you make of Chris Ware's stuff, for instance? Who are your favorite comedy writers?
I like all the cartoonists I've mentioned so far, plus Chuck Jones, Mort Drucker, Charles Schulz, Hank Ketcham. I collect "Dennis The Menace" books from the fifties and sixties. I love the EC artists. I buy "Shock Suspenstories" reprints. Bill Sienkiewicz's Jimi Hendrix bio is great! I still read Mad (I get it free), and love Bill Wray's work in it. Jules Feiffer is funny. Roberto Benigni is funny in movies.
I like Pinter, Shaw, Kaufman & Hart, Mamet, Simon, and Chekov. I've only read their plays, because I think theater's expensive and actors usually ruin plays.
I like Dorothy Parker and Flannery O'Connor.
Did you consciously migrate from comics to television writing, or was it accidental? How big a part did "Why I Hate Saturn" play in opening up doors for you as a scriptwriter?
I wrote "Why I Hate Saturn" at a time when comic books had stopped being fun for me. I was tired of being told how to draw and what to draw. And I was sick of begging people to let me work the way I wanted. Editors told me my stuff was "Underground" and "Alternative". I decided that if I were going to work in a creatively opressive atmosphere and not even be allowed to own my work, I might as well go to Hollywood and be oppressed for big money. (Back in the eighties, DC and Marvel wouldn't let you own your characters, and Fantagraphics had no money.) So when I finally got permission to do "Why I Hate Saturn", a book I'd been trying years to sell, I decided to write it like a sitcom and send it to Hollywood.
I've been less interested in screenwriting now because I'm allowed more creative freedom in comics, and I get to own the characters, and the money's good. Things change. So now I'm doing more comics, less screenwriting.
In your "about the author" mini-bios, you seldom mention which specific television shows you've written for, or stuff like pencilling and inking the Rugrats comic. Do you divide your work between stuff-from-the-heart and that-which-pays-the-rent? Or is it blurrier than that?
I don't own my work in television, or the Rugrats. I see no point in publicizing anything that doesn't put the money in my own pocket. In the author bios I mention my other books, because I want to keep new readers buying my books until I can get a new one on the shelf. I'm cultivating habitual readers. Rugrats and Television see no need to advertise my books, so I see no need to advertise them. If they want to, they can buy ad space on the inside back cover of my next graphic novel.
You seem to have a few fonts particular to you. Am I correct in guessing you were an enthusiastic early embracer of Fontographer or similar font-making software, and have used your own custom set ever since? How else does the computer figure into your work? What made you decide to pepper "You Are Here" with a bit of 3d computer rendering?
I designed all of the fonts used in the graphic novels with Fontographer.
About the 3D rendering: Because this is an action story, it's important that the reader believe a cartoon character is actually in danger and might die. A cartoony man dangling from a cartoony boat over cartoony water isn't going to generate fear in a reader. It was important that the perspective be believable. The perspective drawings of the ferry were done by hand because it was easy. A horse carriage with lots of curves is not worth the effort it would take to draw realistically over ten pages. Same thing with a staircase; tough to draw, not worth it. The 3d art on the first three pages was done because there were no characters, every detail in the room was crucial to establishing the story, and I was moving though an elaborate room. If a table were to change shape, you'd notice, because there's no characters. In other scenes, background consistency is less important because you're too busy looking at the characters. In the diner scene, there's no point in worrying about where the salt shakers are on the table, because nobody's looking at them anyway. That scene is mostly dialogue and close-ups. No point in building an elaborate 3-d set. Many of my decisions on an approach to a page are based on speed: What is the minimum amount of work I can do and still get my point across? 3D is time-consuming and a lot of work. I use it only if the effect I want can't be achieved by one of my drawings. Dave Gibbons could probably give you a very good perspective drawing of a horse carriage and still get the page in on time. Not me. My idea of a perspective drawing is a T-square, a triangle and a pushpin. You use the T-square and triangle for your horizontal and vertical lines, and you use the pushpin as a vanishing point. You put a straightedge up against the pushpin, bingo! 3D! Try it! I did the whole subway chase scene that way, and the cityscape on page 15. Everybody thinks it's a photo, but I drew it with a marker using the pushpin. Then I defocused it on the computer. People are fooled because the perspective is right.
You've written quite a bit of stuff for magazines. Is there any hope of an anthology of your work appearing in the near future?
I may do an anthology. It would take time for me to put it together. And I'd have to make sure it didn't suck. A lot of the work I do for magazines is on current events. I'm not sure if people still want to read a cartoon about O.J. Simpson, even though it may have been funny when it was first published. That's the kind of thing that's a lot more interesting in a "25 Years Of Kyle Baker" book or "Kyle Baker looks at the 1990s". I think I may do a '90s retrospective in 2000.
There were rumors for awhile of a maybe "Why I Hate Saturn" movie. Was this a possibility at some point? Is it still? Are there any films for which you are the primary creative force out there or in development?
I don't have anything to do with the "Why I Hate Saturn" movie. DC controls those rights. I don't own those characters, so it is of no interest to me.
My Christmas movie is tentatively called "U Betta Watch Out". It is a Paramount picture. Christmas 1999. Take a bunch of kids to see it.
What changed between the publication of the "You Are Here" bits in Instant Piano and the publication of the graphic novel?
Those bits in the comic were part of a thing I was working on, but I didn't like it. I didn't want to do another book that was just like "Why I Hate Saturn". I figured I'd already finished the pages, I should at least print them. So I did, but I already knew I wasn't finishing the book. I was already twenty pages in and the story wasn't going anywhere. I liked the title, "You Are Here", and I figured I'd use it for the next book. I knew everyone who read Instant Piano would be looking for a book called "You Are Here", and word gets around. So I named this new book "You Are Here". It's pretty obvious by page three that this isn't the same book, so I didn't worry about disappointing anyone. And like I said, the "Instant Piano" stuff was pretty played out.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions as a creator? How have your career aspirations changed since you first started out?
I am doing exactly what I've always wanted to do.
[return to part 1 | return to jitterbug fantasia]