Archive for Kyle Baker

History Under the Mask


Truth: Red, White & Black

I’ve had a mind to review this one for ages, and African American History Month seems like a great time to do it. This was a seven-issue series published by Marvel back in 2003. It was written by the late Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker. It made a lot of racist douchegoblins really mad back in the day, so I figure it’s certainly worth reading.

Our setup here is that, after Steve Rogers becomes Captain America and Professor Erskine, the secretive creator of the Super-Soldier formula, is killed, the military is desperate to recreate the formula. And since they have almost no idea what was in the formula, they have to experiment with a lot of different concoctions, and they have to experiment on people they don’t give a damn about. So a bunch of black soldiers get recruited into the program, injected with variations of the formula, and die by the score.

“Why, that’s ridiculous! Black people would never be experimented on like that! All lives matter!”

To which, all you really have to say is Tuskegee. Which went on for 40 years, primarily for the sake of plain ol’ meanness.

Anyway, of the 300 men inducted into the new Super-Soldier program, only six survive, and are gifted with increased strength, stamina — and often, significant disfiguring mutations. They’re sent on dangerous missions against the Nazis, and over time, a combination of battlefield casualties and deaths from the unstable Super-Soldier formulas whittles their number down to just one — Isaiah Bradley. Frustrated by the military’s racist treatment and the inconsequential and foolish missions he’s been sent on, Bradley steals a spare Captain America uniform and takes the fight to the Nazis by himself — and he gets captured.

The story doesn’t take place entirely in the past — in the present day, Steve Rogers learns about the alternate Super-Soldier program for the first time and begins his own investigation of what happened to Isaiah Bradley. While he shuts down a number of racists who’d profited from exploiting black soldiers decades ago, he also discovers that Bradley’s ultimate legacy was perhaps even more amazing than his wartime career.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a great story, with outstanding action, characterization, empathy, and unpredictability. There are several points where you think the story is going to go one way, but it completely surprises you and goes the other.

It’s an intensely emotional book, too — not merely because the lead characters have strong emotions, but because the emotions are so realistic and raw. Early in the Super-Soldier testing process, the families of all the inductees are told that they’ve been killed — and many other black soldiers are actually murdered to cover up the crimes — and the toll on the families is covered extensively. The anguish that comes from these unexpected deaths is rendered amazingly well, and their pain is felt by the reader, too. It’s not just the writing here — Kyle Baker’s art really brings it home. Sometimes the sorrow is visible and unmistakable, and sometimes it’s hidden below the surface, but it all feels real.

Baker’s art is often very cartoony, which is initially a shock when you start reading. It’s very far from the Marvel standard, but for the most part, it’s something you get used to quickly. Baker is a cartoonist’s cartoonist, and it’s a thrill to see him work. His vision here is intensely important, too — you can tell the characters mean a lot to him, and he works hard to make everyone unique and interesting. His work is, like I said before, emotionally resonant, from the faces to the eyes to the body language.

The comic is obviously fiction, but Morales’ appendix at the end of the book is definitely worth reading. He details some of his research and outlines how some of the scenes in the story were inspired. For history buffs, it’s a good read and includes suggestions for other books worth checking out.

It’s a sad comic in a lot of ways. But it’s got its unique glories, too, in moments both crashing and quiet. It’s also not at all easy to find — you can’t get it from Amazon without paying $50 or more. But I found my copy a couple years ago in one of the local comic shops for a normal price, so do some digging around. You should also be able to find it digitally. If you can find it, you’ll be very glad you got the opportunity to read it, so go pick it up.

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For Freedom


Nat Turner

I’ve been meaning to review this for the last few years, always planning on posting about it during Black History Month in February, and every year, I get distracted and forget. Not this year — here’s Kyle Baker’s amazing graphic novel biography of Nat Turner, the leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in the United States.

Turner was a slave living in Virginia. He’d taught himself to read, because it was illegal to teach slaves to read — slaveowners didn’t want educated slaves because they were more likely to rebel. Turner’s interest in reading was mainly so he could study the Bible, and his knowledge and high moral character had many fellow slaves referring to him as a prophet — he also had periodic visions which he believed came to him from God. And one of his visions, combined with a few convenient solar eclipses, eventually convinced him that God wanted him to lead a battle against the forces of evil. And in the American South of the 1830s, evil was definitely well-represented among white slaveowners.

When Turner and his accomplices began their rebellion, they initially stuck with quiet weapons — knives, axes, farming implements — rather than guns, and they didn’t just kill slaveowners — they killed women and children, too. They spared poor whites who they felt were as downtrodden as slaves, but they still ended up killing 60 people and amassing a force of 70 slaves and free blacks. Turner himself is believed to have killed only one person — he was extremely smart, but he was a lousy fighter. The rebellion was put down after two days, but Turner was able to hide out for several months. When he was finally captured, he was tried and sentenced to be hanged. He was also beheaded, and his body was buried in an unmarked grave.

Kyle Baker’s book takes most of its text from Thomas Ruffin Gray’s book, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which included extensive interviews with Turner during his trial and before his execution. His art illustrates passages from the book, or interprets common episodes in the lives of slaves. There is very little dialogue or word balloons, and the art is entirely black, white, and sepia-toned brown.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Turner’s story is an amazing one — I’m really surprised that Hollywood has never made a major movie about him. Maybe his character and personality are too complex for film — he’s not a pure hero or villain — yes, he fought against terrific injustice, but he committed widespread murders. Baker depicts Turner warts and all — but I think it’s clear he sympathizes with him and his cause. (As do I — knowing what we know about the horrors and monstrous injustices of slavery, I don’t blame anyone for rising up against it.)

It’s a stark and brutal story, frequently very violent. Turner and his rebels massacre families, ambush people in their homes, behead children — their actions shock us, and I think, rightfully so. But it’s still very hard not to sympathize — Turner’s actions aren’t sugarcoated, but it’s also made very clear that he’s living in a terribly unjust world, where slaves were subjected to horrible punishments for crimes like reading and playing drums. Slaveowners were said to be terrified of slave rebellions — and a lot of that terror may have been because they knew they deserved whatever the slaves would do to them.

If you only know Baker’s work from his wonderful “Plastic Man” series from a few years ago, this story will probably knock you out of your socks. His cartoonish style on DC’s comedic series is nowhere to be seen here. The art is, at turns, rough-hewn and furious, and then lushly rendered and gloriously lit, sometimes crudely emotional, sometimes shockingly beautiful, and sometimes both at once.

It’s a fantastic story about an unsung American freedom fighter, beautifully illustrated by one of our great graphic storytellers. You bet you should go pick it up.

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Friday Night Fights: Lazarus Punted!

Busy days ’round here, not much time for rigmarole, so let’s just jump right into it. It’s time for… FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS!

Tonight’s battle comes to us from March 2006’s Plastic Man #20 by Kyle Baker. Plas and company are way in the background, ’cause all the action in this one is between Wonder Woman and Ra’s al-Ghul.






Busy weeks and months ahead — anyone willing to sell me a refrigerator, washer, and drier for cheap? How am I ever gonna get moved into that dang house?

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Between Iraq and a Hard Place


Special Forces #1

Kyle Baker must have one of the more varied resumes of any cartoonist out there, except for maybe Jack Cole. Baker does Warner Brothers-esque animation cartooning like “Plastic Man,” he does dead-serious superhero fare like “Truth: Red, White and Black,” and he does everything in between. And the guy’s got serious interests in politics, race, and social justice — hence the aforementioned “Red, White and Black,” hence “Birth of a Nation” with Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin, hence his series on Nat Turner, leader of one of the most significant slave rebellions of the old South.

And then there’s this comic, which takes as one of its inspirations an incident in which an autistic teenager was recruited by the Army and then released from his enlistment contract when the scandal went public. So our story is about a recruitment officer who’s given an ultimatum — make his recruitment quota, or he ships out to Iraq. Desperate, he signs up a bunch of completely unfit losers but just barely misses quota, so he is assigned command of the soldiers he recruited. And as you’d expect, complete disaster ensues. Our two main characters here are Felony, a juvenile delinquent whose torn mini-T and short-shorts don’t seem to be standard military issue, and Zone, an autistic soldier who, despite his other difficulties, is the perfect soldier.

The cover makes this look like it’s a comedy, but it isn’t. Holy cow, is this ever one non-funny comic book. The first page features a closeup of a guy’s head exploding. And it doesn’t get any cleaner from there. The comic is jam-packed with blood, guts, death, cussing — and not fun stuff, not a bit of it. This isn’t some “War is All Glory, Salute for Uncle Sam” action movie — this is violent, chaotic, terrifying, depressing stuff. And the characters really do draw you into the action — these guys aren’t Sgt. Rock or Nick Fury or recruiting-poster supermen — they’re schlubs, like you and me and 90% of the civilian populace. Seeing action heroes get blown up by RPGs wouldn’t be as affecting as seeing truly ordinary people get dusted. ‘Cause that could be you or me. And the real soldiers, with the actual training, are going through this every single day over there.

Artistically, this is pretty great stuff. I quibble with the way Felony is depicted — she’s got eyes like dinner plates and cheekbones you could land a jet on — but man alive, can Baker ever draw action. The chopper crash is one of the most exciting and cinematic pieces of artwork I’ve ever seen, and the first and last pages really do pack a big punch.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is harrowing stuff, but it’s really masterful storytelling.

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