Cartoonist Kyle Baker has produced a number of brilliant works, but my favorites remain the early ones. The Cowboy Wally Show is a flawed masterpiece, which starts out as one thing and then – because Baker didn't have enough material but lied to the publisher and said he did, and then had to produce it for the book – turns into something slightly, and oddly different. But that flaw is what makes it such a masterpiece; the absurdity of the (wicked) humor in the different chapters matches the sense of disconnectedness between the chapters, and the result is brilliantly funny and irresistably charming. If you can get your hands on it, do so.
Baker, disgusted with certain elements of the comics industry – like having to do things the way editors told him to – then went on to produce what is essentially a sitcom/Neil Simon movie in comics format, Why I Hate Saturn. With its sharp, clever and really funny dialogue, it would have been a masterpiece even if Baker's art hadn't been so exquisite. Also a must-read IMO.
And with that out of the way, we can now get to the actual subject of this review, namely Baker's self-published books of cartoons:
I have mixed feelings about these books. Baker's art is probably better than ever, but the jokes aren't really top-notch. Too many of them are of the "family strip humor" variety and lack something of the sharpness and edginess that make his best work so brilliant. A lot of it is OK jokes told in marvellous drawings, but the crisp, biting, sometimes absurd but always enjoyable and funny dialogue he excelled with in works like Cowboy Wally and Why I Hate Saturn is missing. It comes off a bit like one of those MAD paperbacks with Sergio Aragonés' cartoons, but lacking the never-ending stream of brilliant ideas that is Aragonés' hallmark.
And the MAD comparison is apt in more ways as well, as Baker's art reminds me of what you'd get if you managed to marry Mort Drucker's drawing style to that of Jack Davis – with a smidgeon of Jack Rickard, Bob Clarke etc. thrown in for good measure where needed. Occasional ventures into the MAD Magazine article style works well, too. But overall, this is too much Family Circus and not enough Aragonés or Frank Jacobs.
That doesn't mean that it's bad – besides, you may well prefer the recognition humor provided by the insights into the Bakers' family life that comprise not-quite-half of each book – and it's still worth reading for the brilliant drawing skills of Mr. Baker. But if you're going to buy something by him, I recommend starting with The Cowboy Wally Show and Why I Hate Saturn instead.