Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 08/12/1998.
Kyle Baker's still going strong: check out the Luxury Cartooning at kylebaker.com for details.
Words on their own can produce great art. Pictures on their own can produce great art. But combine the two, and generally you're assumed to be catering to the educationally sub-normal.
True, the kind of subject matter traditionally associated with the comics medium hasn't helped this perception. But there are plenty of examples of great comics art out there, where literate text mixes with thoughtful graphic design to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. (Some of these examples are discussed elsewhere on this site, if you dig around a bit.)
As a comics fanboy who has to prove this point to people in pub arguments every so often, it helps to have one book that you can fall back on as your ultimate weapon: one piece of work that you can hand to somebody who hasn't read a comic since childhood and say, "There, that's the sort of thing I mean." For several years now, the book I've been using for that purpose has been Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn, published in 1990 (and recently re-released by DC/Vertigo Comics for reasons which should become apparent). To be honest, the plot isn't up to much: it's the story of Anne (a neurotic drunk writer), her sister Laura (self-proclaimed Queen of the Leather Astro Girls of Saturn), and how they're pursued across America by Laura's psychotic ex-boyfriend. But it's lifted out of the ordinary by its distinctive look and its jokes.
Drawn entirely in black ink with occasional washes of grey, Baker's cartoony sketches look lovely and give real life to the characters in just a few scribbly lines. Rather than clutter the pictures with text balloons, he displays Anne's narration and all the dialogue underneath the relevant images, rather like a movie storyboard. The downside of this approach is that it's a little too easy to treat the text and drawings as two distinct entities: but when the text is this good you don't really care. Every character in Why I Hate Saturn is a rapid-fire one-line-gag generating machine, and the sheer density of the jokes leaves you out of breath, from Anne's opening observation on a Mexican theme bar ("It's not exactly authentic, but there's probably not much call for a restaurant that features cheap blankets, painted donkeys and two dollar blow jobs") to Ricky's closing delivery of the best line ever used by a guy who's just been dumped ("Can we keep having sex until I get a new girlfriend?").
Why I Hate Saturn gathered a small but perfectly formed cult following on its initial publication, but we've had to wait eight sodding years for Kyle Baker to follow it up. Finally, with the long-awaited appearance of You Are Here, Baker's back... and this time he's in colour.
After the muted sepia tones of Saturn, You Are Here's initial burst of colour comes as a real shock to the system. The early scenes in rural upstate New York are so vibrant they nearly make your eyes fall out. The first couple of pages drift serenely towards a woodland cottage and inside, only to pull up short as we discover what looks like a bloodstained corpse in a bathtub. It's quickly revealed that it's nothing of the sort, but already Baker has stated his main theme: appearances can be very, very deceptive.
The cottage belongs to Helen Foster, girlfriend of the artist Noel Coleman. They've lived in Phoenicia for close on a year now, Helen working in New Age therapy while Noel does kitschy hack illustration work to pay the bills. He's almost completely left behind his past life in Manhattan, and we follow him as he pays the city a final visit to sell off his old apartment.
What Helen doesn't know is that before she met Noel, he had a highly lucrative career as a jewel thief: a career that comes back to haunt him from the moment he walks into his old apartment and finds his former colleague Oscar having sex in his bed. With reminders of his secret past all over town, things get complicated when Helen follows Noel to Manhattan, and he has to lie frantically to keep all traces of his previous existence out of her sight. And things get really complicated when Noel catches a TV report on the release from prison of murderer Vaughan Dreyfuss. In town to promote his bestselling book Yes, I Did It, And I'll Kill Again, Vaughan announces on the news that his next task will be "to kill the bastard who was screwing my wife Serena".
"Hey, Noel!" says Oscar cheerfully. "That's you!"
You Are Here has all the strengths of Why I Hate Saturn, while managing to avoid the earlier book's weaknesses. The "storyboard" style is still in evidence, all the better to show off some truly gorgeous painted artwork, carefully enhanced with some subtle computer effects to convey depth of focus and motion blurring. The use of colour is incredibly striking, particularly during the scenes involving the sunsets that Helen's so fond of. And Baker cleverly varies his drawing style expressionistically from character to character, from the cartoon goofiness of Oscar to the realistic Robert Mitchum lookalike that is bad guy Vaughan.
Surprisingly for a writer whose last book was (to be frank) a series of brilliant jokes held together with a loose plot, Baker goes easy on the gags this time. They're still there: Helen's suggestion that their child is called Shakti is greeted with "We could move to India, and kids would still laugh at him!" But he's lost the compulsion to end every page with a punchline: it's a measure of Baker's increasing confidence as a storyteller that he doesn't feel he has to do that any more.
There's always a risk with painted art that you spend so much time looking at the pretty pictures, any feeling of narrative drive is totally lost. Somehow, that doesn't happen here: the art varies from the pastoral to the dynamic precisely as the story demands it. The artwork is so strong that Baker can get away with a number of great set-pieces that have absolutely no text at all: something that would have been unthinkable in the days of Saturn. Noel running through rush hour Manhattan with a bottle of gasoline as naked flames appear on every street corner: a ludicrously exciting horse-drawn carriage chase across Central Park: and a tense climax aboard the Staten Island ferry, pivoting on a brilliantly-timed full-page splash panel that takes your breath away with its audacity.
In the eight years between his last two books, Kyle Baker has dabbled in all sorts of media projects: directing rap videos, writing TV scripts, doing the odd strip cartoon. You Are Here shows that his real forte is in the long-form graphic novel. But if he dares leave it another eight years before writing another one, I'll be forced to wave my genitals obscenely in his direction. Being a monkey, and all.
DC/Vertigo Comics get mentioned all the time in these pages, but that's because they're dead good. DC's Direct Currents page [dead link] has info on You Are Here, the republished Why I Hate Saturn and all their other stuff.
Acses [dead link], the Universe's Smartest Bookfinder, scours all the Internet online bookshops it can find for the book of your choice, and works out the best deal available based on price and delivery time to your country. It isn't quite smart enough to be able to offer prices for You Are Here at the time of writing, but here's what it suggests for UK readers if they want to buy Why I Hate Saturn. [dead link - well, this was 1998 we're talking about here. Hang on, here's a better idea -]