Bob's Comics Reviews December 1998 Arrows


Kyle Baker: The Cowboy Wally Show
OK, so I'm on a Kyle Baker kick. This one also looked unpromising, especially because of the nasty-looking cover. Fortunately, it's drawn in a different style inside, and it is, as Baker would say, vastly entertaining.

In form it's a review of the Cowboy Wally's career, which as his manager says is dedicated to removing the stigma of "being fat, loud, and stupid." Wally, interviewed by the nebbishy Oswald 'Glassy' Stairs, seems to have parlayed no discernible talent into an array of profit-making enterprises: variety shows, an amusement park, hair tonics, and feminine hygiene products. Wally, Lenny, and their backers

The media satire is amusing enough, but where Baker really gets going is the longer extracts from Cowboy Wally's oeuvre, starting with his French Foreign Legion epic, Sands of Blood, featuring Wally's friend Lenny Walsh, who's as lugubrious as Wally is jovial. In Baker's surrealistic version of the Foreign Legion, everyone is issued balloons, stalwart defenders ask for the really good cannonballs, and the soldiers debate whether a manly glow or the pathetic little boy act is a better way to pick up chicks.

But the absolute highlight is Wally and Lenny's version of Hamlet, filmed in a week, for tax reasons-- entirely in a prison cell. (Wally's ingenious use of the limited means available rather belies Dick Cavett's description of him as "the stupidest man on the planet".) To facilitate the understanding of Shakespeare, Wally has rewritten the play-- this is supposed to be a bad thing, but Baker is really incapable of writing without wit:

Francisco: Accidental death, says the Queen. The King fell on his sword.
Bernardo: Wow.
Francisco: Eight times.
Bernardo: Sounds fishy to me.
Francisco: Hey, I don't see nothing, I don't hear nothing. That's what they pay me for.
Bernardo: You're the palace guard.
Francisco: And I want to keep it that way.
The art isn't quite as impressionistic and repetitive as Why I Hate Saturn, but it's a good cartoony style (indeed, as the cover shows, a more realistic style wouldn't work as well with the material; Wally would look grotesque rather than comic). The strange thing is that parts of the drawings look photographed, as if Baker was using rotoscoping.

I suppose I should pick up Baker's latest graphic novel, You Are Here. But like Scott McCloud, he's got bit by the Photoshop bug. I really don't know that comics needs to go in that direction. If photorealism was so great, then fotonovelas and the National Lampoon's old Foto-Funnies would be the pinnacle of the medium. (P.S. They're not.)

Update: I did pick up You Are Here, eventually. It's good: it's essentially a screwball comedy with an undercurrent of menace. Like any such comedy, it starts slowly, so don't be put off (as I was, above) by the first few pages.

Jim Toomey: Sherman's Lagoon
This has been growing on me lately. There's a book of it out now-- Ate that, what's next?-- so you can see if it does the same for you.

You have to root for a newspaper comic whose main character regularly eats people (and most anyone else). I don't know of any other newspaper strip, besides Bo Grace's Ernie/ The Piranha Club, which can get stuff like this past comics editors-- the sequence at the Japanese restaurant, for instance, where in the course of the spectacular at-table treatment, customers and main dish manage to change places.

The main characters are Sherman, the oddly friendly voracious shark; Megan, his rather butch girlfriend; Fillmore, the sanguine intellectual turtle; Hawthorne, a hermit crab who likes to use beer cans for his shell, an assortment of fish (some walk-ons, some food), numerous tasty examples of the hairless beach ape, and a few wanderers-- a wayward polar bear, a marine biologist, and a trio of one-eyed disco aliens.

It's never going to get reviewed in The Nation, but it's consistently original and amusing, one of the (relatively few) remaining delights of the newspaper comic page.

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