Sunday, 9 October 2011

C is for...Cowboy Wally

Cowboy Wally was the second book I read by Kyle Baker.  Why I Hate Saturn was the first and I loved the banter between the characters, each character smarter than the last drawn in a style fast and loose with a wash thrown in to add some depth.  The book, first published in 1990, was already a couple of years old when I came to it.  I would later find out it had been Baker's second graphic novel done with with Baker's ever commercial eye on Hollywood pre-empting a trend which is rampant now.
Cowboy Wally, however, to me feels a lot more heartfelt.  Published on the back of the success of Maus and book publishers trying to be the first to put out new Graphic Novels, Baker bluffed his way in with a book about a fat alcoholic TV cowboy who, as the story develops, we discover managed to blackmail his way into TV and the various projects we learn about throught the course of the story.
The four faces of Wally
What particularly struck me about this versus any other given Baker book was the quality of his art.  At the time I hadn't read he and Andy Helfer's spectacular "could only happen in comics" run on the Shadow where the same style was used.  For the most part Baker hasn't gone back to it since (he has a massive range of influences including Jules Feiffer, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Charles Schultz and he's not afraid to flex his muscles).  The style used in Cowboy Wally and The Shadow is an incredibly effective mix of exagerrated cartooning mixed with highly rendered inks and perfect shadows and light sources which results in the feeling of watching vintage black & white footage with a hyper real veneer.

Baker's comedy is spot on, largely black humour dense with sparkling wit but as opposed to every character being whip smart (as in Why I Hate Saturn), Wally himself is oaf, savvy enough to more than get by in life, surrounded by characters who struggle to resign themself to being in his orbit, suborbinate to this essentially disagreeable crook who gets the money and as many vacuous, stunning women as he wants.
The third, most memorable chapter of the book finds Wally and his unwitting (and of course far more book smart) sidekick Lenny in prison on a drunk and disorderly while under an obligation to make Hamlet, which they proceed to do in their cell with their cellmates of a more hardened variety.
The Cowboy Wally Show's focus on the  nature of empty celebrity is even more relevant now, over twenty years later and remains timeless thanks to an art style that is both backwards looking and hyper real and still very, very funny!
Baker has maintained a foot firmly in the comics world throughout his long career and is constantly evolving his style, an early adapter to any technology that will facilitate his work.  Inteviews with him show him as being very comercially minded and confident, far from a naval gazing auteur but his output ranges from Truth for Marvel showing how the US military tested their Captain America serum on black soldiers before risking it on whites to The Bakers, a slice of life family comedy strip, personal, but ready for syndicates at any given point.
While I don't want to say that "I liked his old stuff better" I am always ready for a return to pen and ink over digital work but it can never be said there's a dull moment if Baker's on a book and it's pretty much always worth a look.

You can dip into real living legend Kyle Baker's world here and currently find him at work on Deadpool Max with the excellent David Lapham.
Below various bits pilferred from a Google image search: "Cowboy Wally".

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