In celebration of Black History Month, CBLDF has partnered with Black Nerd Problems to spotlight Black comics creators and cartoonists who made significant contributions to free expression. Visit CBLDF.org throughout the month of February to learn more!
Over a more than 30-year career, Kyle Baker has seemingly made his mark in every corner of mass media, from Cartoon Network to The New York Times. But it’s in the comics world that his boundless creative energy has truly taken flight, whether he’s reimagining existing characters or creating them anew.
Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, Baker was an avid fan of comics of all sorts, but particularly newspaper strips and Mad magazine. He honed his own cartooning skills by sketching characters from the Muppets and Disney movies, and also experimented with animation through homemade flip books and stop-motion films.
As a senior in high school, Baker landed an internship at Marvel Comics, where his duties initially entailed filing fan mail and making photocopies. Before long, though, his obvious interest and talent in the field led to a job inking backgrounds in Marvel superhero comics. Since his first love was humor, he also continued to draw original gag comics and shop them around to publishers and newspaper syndicates. He finally got a bite with his character Cowboy Wally, described as “an obnoxious, not-very-bright entertainer who nevertheless rises to fame and power as a TV host and executive, thanks to some underhanded schemes.” In 1988 Doubleday published his first book The Cowboy Wally Show. It didn’t sell much at the time but, he said, “at least…convinced DC I should be allowed to draw, not just ink.”
At DC he drew The Shadow series in 1988-89, then produced another original graphic novel for the Piranha Press imprint. The groundbreaking Why I Hate Saturn, featuring young curmudgeon Anne Merkel negotiating the trendy New York scene, quickly became a cult hit and won a Harvey Award in 1991. Meanwhile, Baker also continued to sell freelance cartoons and caricatures to a host of major publications including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mad, National Lampoon, and The Village Voice.
In 2003 Baker drew the art for Truth: Red, White, and Black, a Marvel limited series written by Robert Morales. The seven-issue series reimagined the origin story of Captain America as an experimental Nazi-fighting supersoldier. Calling to mind the contemporaneous Tuskegee experiments, Truth focuses on a group of seven Black soldiers who are forced to participate in super-serum experiments, resulting in the death of six soldiers and the survival of Isaiah Bradley, who is the first to don the uniform of Captain America, but his mission ultimately fails and the government imprisons him, mirroring the ways in which the Tuskegee experiments were swept under the rug and serving as a metaphor for America’s internal conflict with race.
The following year, along with Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) and Reginald Hudlin (Milestone Entertainment), he co-created Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel, a satirical graphic novel in which the city of East St. Louis secedes from the United States due to voting rights violations and becomes an “offshore” banking haven. Nothing is sacred as the book lampoons the Bush administration, systemic racism, disenfranchisement, and Black nationalism.
Baker had another critical and popular success in the mid-2000s with DC’s rebooted Plastic Man, winning five Eisner Awards and one Harvey for the 20-issue series. Preferring to retain creative control over his work when possible, he founded Kyle Baker Publishing in 2003 and began publishing his own books, including several collections of The Bakers, a charming comic strip based on his family. In 2005 he self-published Nat Turner, a powerful four-issue miniseries about slavery and the slave rebellion that Nat Turner led. Baker used very little dialogue in Nat Turner, instead telling the story through images and excerpts of Turner’s confession. Baker won Eisner and Harvey Awards yet again for this innovative storytelling.
In recent years Baker has continued to work in an astonishing variety of genres, styles, and formats including animation, comics, illustration, freelance cartoons and other art for periodicals, and game design. He contributed art for The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew Robinson, which won Eisner and Harvey awards in 2014. According to his website, Baker’s current work in progress includes a new sci-fi comic series called Benevolence, about a dysfunctional team of ex-mercenaries. He also reportedly has plans to continue Why I Hate Saturn with a new series.
CBLDF Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.