At the Kyle Baker spotlight panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, fans of the acclaimed cartoonist got the lowdown on Baker's career, warts and all, as the "Nat Turner" and "Special Forces" creator dished the dirt on his many years of experience working in the fields of comic books and animation in a laidback, easy going and, at times, quite humorous panel discussion.
Before things could begin, there was a few minutes of confusion as to who would actually moderate the panel -- when no one showed up to do so, Baker finally resolved to do so himself. "I've nothing prepared," the creator said with a self-effacing shrug. "Does anybody have any questions? Does anybody want to join me?"
Baker began by talking about "Special Forces," the bleakly comedic limited series about the Iraq war that he is currently writing and drawing for Image Comics. It was inspired by a story that Baker read in a newspaper about an 18-year-old autistic Oregon boy recruited into the U.S. Army in 2006. With the war in Iraq becoming more and more unpopular at the time, Baker said the army was facing a drastic drop in enlistment. Things were looking so dismal that, he said, "They immediately lowered their recruiting standards. Guys on Prozac were told not to mention that they were on Prozac. It got so bad that they actually recruited an autistic kid...the lowest thing is that the recruiter got him in by telling him he was gong to have friends.
"It occurred to me that, aside from the actual fighting, this kid would probably be the best soldier in the whole platoon," Baker continued. "Because that sort of condition thrives on repetition. Each day the whole platoon is given a laundry list of things to do -- wake up, brush your teeth, make your bed, eat breakfast, that sort of stuff -- which the autistic kid excels at. But the joke of the strip is that at the bottom of the list one day the sarge writes: 'today you guys are going to capture the terrorists!'"
Baker said that his intent with "Special Forces" was to skew the current war in Iraq, pointing out how stupid and absurd all wars ultimately are, but that he also wanted to create the "war comedy" of our generation and our current wars. "I wanted to do a Joseph Heller type of thing," Baker said. "Every generation has its 'war comedy' -- 'Catch-22,' 'Dr. Strangelove,' 'M.A.S.H.' -- but we don't really have one for this war yet."
Baker summarized "Special Forces" as "an ex-felon and an autistic kid against Al-Qaeda." All the events in the series, as absurd as they may seem, Baker said were all culled from newspaper reports. "It's in the middle of the paper mostly, like after Lindsay Lohan," Baker said. "If you read Page 10, they actually do mention the war from time to time."
On "Truth: Red, White & Black," the Robert Morales-written Marvel Comic series about the "black Captain America" that Baker illustrated several years ago, Baker said, "Everybody knows that [Captain America] was a science experiment from World War II. My friend Bob Morales joked that Cap would probably have been the first white solider in history that the military ever experimented on without testing it out on a black guy first," Baker said. "So Bob's idea was the story for the black guy that the military **actually did** test the super soldier serum on first. When he told me about it, I knew I just had to draw it."
Although, Baker said, editorial at Marvel didn't seem to get his take on the series, which he said he chose to illustrate in a more "urban" style. "When I turned in the first book Marvel actually said to me, 'do you need more time?'" Baker said.
At this point in the panel Baker told the audience that, if it can at all be helped, he plans on never again working for either Marvel or DC Comics, as he enjoys the fulfillment and creative control that working on his own creations and the material that interests him most affords him. Although, he did joke that when he first told his wife several years ago of his plans to quit working on the "Plastic Man" series for DC and instead pursue his own creative endeavors such as "Nat Turner," things did not go over so smoothly at first.
Baker then plugged his "How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning," recently released by Watson-Guptill Publications. "It'll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about cartooning. Or at least everything you ever wanted to know about my thoughts on cartooning," Baker said.
On his path through the comic book industry so far, which has seen Baker be most successful when he does "his own thing" like "The Cowboy Wally Show," "I Die at Midnight," or the almost-entirely-autobiographical "The Bakers" series that occupies much of the creator's time these days, the cartoonist said, "My ideas tend to be good ideas for anything but comics. The way I put it is, comic stores are the only stores that can't actually sell 'The Simpsons.'"
Baker went on to explain that he feels that comics are getting away from their roots as a widely distributed mass medium product meant to appeal equally to children and adults, citing DC's edgy "Identity Crisis" from several years ago which largely redefined the tone of the DC Universe and the current box office juggernaut "The Dark Knight" as two glaring examples of this. "Who makes a Batman movie that I can't take my kids to?" Baker said.
Baker's criticism of the current sate of Hollywood wasn't much kinder, either. "I once pitched an animated Noah's Ark movie. I turned in my first draft and got studio notes back like, 'Noah seems a little old. Does everybody have to drown?' and, my personal favorite: 'God seems a little angry."
Baker said he is currently working on adapting "The Bakers" as an animated series at Fox, which he is also producing independently via his Uncanny Valley production company and has total control over. He also said that he had been approached by other studios in the past that were interested in turning the series into a cartoon, with extremely limited success.
"[Hollywood] always wants to change things to what's hot right now," Baker said. "I talked to other networks in the past about 'The Bakers.' Everybody was like, 'What's your hook? Are they a family from space? A family of superheroes? Super spies?' No, they're just my regular family."
Baker's favorite show while growing up, and a big inspiration for his work on "The Bakers," was "The Cosby Show." "What's great about that show is you watch it and it was like watching what's going on in your own house," Baker said. "You watch that show and you think, 'Wow, Bill Cosby is just like me.' Bill Cosby's not like you! Bill Cosby's a black billionaire. There are like two people in the whole world like Bill Cosby."
When a fan asked why his run on "Plastic Man" ended, Baker sardonically responded, "Because all things end." He then went on to explain that he felt that DC was never really behind the book to begin with, and how some folks in editorial never seemed to like the fact that it was aimed at children and all-ages readers. "'Plastic Man' was the most work that I've ever done in my life," he said. "Because I did all the work on the book -- wrote, drew, lettered, colored, everything, not even John Byrne does that. It was way too much work, and all I ever got was complaints.
"The audience has changed to the point where kids don' read DC comics any more," Baker continued. "It's uncool to have your heroes get into fist fights now. There are whole issues of the 'Justice League' where they just stand around and talk, and hug, and cry. Am I joking?"
But, electing to end things on an upbeat note, Baker again mentioned the fact that he is working on adapting "The Bakers" into a primetime animated series for Fox -- noting that he has full creative control over ever aspect of the production. "The reason I'm at Fox right now is that I can actually name a Fox cartoonist. And it's the only place where the guy that creates the carton can actually get rich," Baker explained. "I remember I said to the Fox executives [when we first started], 'Okay, when do you want to see the script?' They shot back: 'No, no, no. No script. Just bring us a cartoon.' And they gave me the money to go off on my own and do that."
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