Kyle Baker’s Chinatown office is the embodiment of his busy mind. A 30-inch computer monitor erupts from a mountain of paper strewn across his desk. Bookshelves border the room, the frayed spines of old comics and reference materials peering at the clutter below.
“I know this looks like chaos,” Baker says on a recent afternoon, nearly knocking over a gigantic paper cup filled to the brim with loose change. “But it makes sense to me.” He stands at the eye of the storm, calm and steady as the church bell chiming through two open windows. His thick dreadlocks hang down the back of his orange and brown flannel shirt. He grips a can of “Rock Star” energy drink, fuel for his frequent all-nighters.
Baker, 41, is constantly working. He churns out animated shorts, plans new comics, and works on satellite projects like next year’s Andre 3000 Christmas special. He is also, as emails from Norway and the ragged stack of cardboard shipping boxes in his office attest, planning the expanded distribution of his most recent graphic novels.
The first, “The Bakers,” (2006) is a goofy and loving satire of his life as a husband and father of three young children. The second, “Nat Turner,” (2007) is a spare and poignant portrayal of Nat Turner, the African slave who led the most significant rebellion against white slave owners before the Civil War. It’s the third volume in the “Turner” series, which created a groundswell of interest and admiration after volumes one and two sold out in 2005. Since then, fans at international comic book conventions spread the word about the third volume, which took Baker almost two years to complete. Like “The Bakers,” it was released through Kyle Baker Publications. But unlike his autobiographical work, “Nat Turner” is actually more popular overseas.
“I’ve gotten a lot of exposure at the Comi-Cons,” said Baker. “I know I can always sell books at conventions, but the website has generated a lot of attention as well.” In the past six years, his projects have grown and Baker is considering hiring assistants for help with his website and animation. “I need help, I am starting to admit that. I just can’t do everything anymore, because there’s just more to do.” The artist who began his career on an assembly line may soon have one of his own.
Baker grew up in Queens and attended Hunter High School in Manhattan. But he spent more time at the neighboring Metropolitan Museum of Art than he did in class. At the School for Visual Arts in Chelsea, he met Milton Glaser, designer of the famous “I (heart) NY” logo and Baker’s first artistic mentor. Baker began interning with Marvel Comics in 1982 as an “inker,” tracing over the pencil lines of the “layout guy,” then passing his work on to the “coloring guy.” It was an assembly line process that helped him become a quick and versatile artist, but soon felt stifling.
Throughout the ’80s, he moved between Marvel and DC Comics, “using each as a bargaining tool with the other,” he said. “If I was doing inking and wanted to do layout, I’d go across the street to DC where they’d let me do layout. If I wanted $10 per page, I’d go back across the street to Marvel.” In 1987, he published “The Cowboy Wally Show,” his first book, through Doubleday.
In the ’90s, Baker created comics for Vibe Magazine and worked on album covers for KRS1 and other musicians. But “the world changed,” said Baker, and the demand for comics from newspapers and magazines dried up. So in 2000, he created Kyle Baker Publications, and began to self publish while also working on projects for HBO, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Saatchi and Saatchi, and Random House, among others. Baker published “King David,” an interpretation of the biblical David and Goliath narrative, under his own name. Animated shorts on his website, www.kylebaker.com, that would become “The Bakers” built an audience. The online response to his work was enthusiastic, and his fan base, including fellow artists and comic creators, continued to grow.
Now Baker is one of the most well-known, influential creators in the industry. He draws crowds at comic book conventions in New York and California, and his work has garnered critical accolades. He has won over 16 national and international awards for his groundbreaking ideas and artwork, including eight Eisners, named for cartoonist Will Eisner. Baker has also won three Glyphs, presented to African-American cartoonists at the annual East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention. And in September, he will be a presenter at the Harvey Awards, a ceremony named for Mad Magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman, at which Baker has won awards in the past.
“Kyle can tell a story without word balloons or dialogue, just with smart, great illustrations,” said Danny Simmons, director of the Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, which held an exhibit of Baker’s original artwork for “Nat Turner” last year. Simmons, a comic book connoisseur who spends $40 a week on his habit, has followed Baker’s work for over a decade. In 1998, Baker drew some panels for a book Simmons pitched to DC Comics called “Bad, Black, and Decadent.” The satire of flashy wealth in the hip-hop world (in which Russell Simmons, Danny’s brother, appeared as a character) never got off the ground. “They were scared,” said Simmons of DC Comics.
That trepidation to back new ideas is another reason why Baker left the purview of media conglomerates and why, according to Simmons, he’s better off without them. “Kyle is not corporate,” said Simmons. “His importance is as an independent thinker and someone who follows his own vision, his own stories. That’s how he has the most impact.”
To look at Baker’s body of work — the nine books he did with DC and Marvel, others published by Doubleday and Random House, his animation for Warner Brothers, his feature length animation “King David,” and other current projects — is to view that of a dozen different artists. He does the classic superhero with big muscles; dramatic realism; comic cartoons with their exaggerated expressions and goofy forms. He is also a skilled painter and an adept computer animator. While most graphic novelists and comic artists are known for their signature style, Baker’s signature is stylistic diversity.
“Kyle has the great ability to tell a story through artwork, through facial expressions and subtle, smart imagery,” said Jason Scott Jones, a New York-based filmmaker working on a short documentary about Baker. “And he can also do that with the boom and pop of comic books, or animation, or fine artwork. He understands the visual language of each one so well that he knows what makes them good and can access the strength of each.”
His diverse styles have won him a large and varied fan base. Some know him from his days drawing Plastic Man for DC, or Bugs Bunny for Warner Brothers. Others admire the solemn empathy of his Nat Turner narrative, or the far funnier but no less cerebral “Birth of a Nation,” a collaboration with Aaron McGruder of “The Boondocks.” Still others follow his animated shorts created under the logo “Quality Jollity” and available as podcasts.
But his most popular work so far has been “The Bakers.” Started as animated and still skits, these bits about his family life initially won a following on his website. “I wanted to do a cartoon that was very much like anyone’s home,” said Baker. “People come up to me at the conventions after reading ‘The Bakers’ and tell me, ‘my daughter is just like that.’ They see their own families in it.” With three small children, a “hot wife” and an aloof and loving father, Baker saw his family as a great candidate for a comic strip.
The walls of the Baker family home are decorated with Kyle’s artwork: ink drawings of his three children, a portrait of his soon-to-be-born fourth child, and a painting of Alice in Wonderland. On a recent Sunday morning, the smell of pancakes and syrup filled the Lower East Side apartment. Kyle’s son Isaac, six, watched a Wiggles cartoon on the computer as many times as he liked because it was his birthday. Lillian, eight, in a jean skirt and colorful striped leggings, stood on a stool, spatula in hand, mixing chocolate cupcake batter.
Jackie, three, wore pink pajamas and fuzzy slippers and walked back and forth across the living room, her dark pigtails bouncing under the radar. Elizabeth Glass, Kyle’s wife, had recently cleaned the toys from the floor, and Jackie was busy putting them all back. She carried bundles of dolls and miscellaneous plastic creatures, narrating her activities with a constant stream of sweet, musical mumbling.
Glass, 38, is the slender, sexy mom in “The Bakers.” She is also the administrative backbone of Kyle Baker Publications. Since their marriage nine years ago, she has been Kyle’s business partner. In response to any question regarding important dates, scheduling, or even the number and name of the awards he has won, Baker responds: “Ask Liz.”
Kyle sat on the couch, looking tired and content. He had worked all night and into the morning before coming home. “He works harder than anyone,” said Glass. “He has so many things going on, and he’s doing them all by himself.” But he never excludes his family. On weekdays, he may spend nights awake at his office, but he always comes home at 6 a.m. to put Isaac on the school bus and wake his daughters. He returns again in the evening for a family dinner. Occasionally, he trips on toys as he enters the room.
That inspired a cartoon in his 2006 compilation, “The Bakers: Do These Toys Belong Somewhere?” The opening frame shows Kyle’s caricature, a potbellied man with spindly legs and antennae-like dreadlocks, in mid air. His foot is lodged in a toy truck. His fate lies in the mess of sharp toys scattered across the floor. After surviving the fall, he is filled with parental indignity. Lillian’s character begrudgingly absorbs his tirade and stuffs her dolls and animals into a box. The next frame shows dad, a triumphant curmudgeon, working in his office. He is surrounded by papers and old food and upturned books and wires and boxes and bags. Do as I say, not as I do?
Courtesy of DowntownExpress.com