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Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with 'Mary Tyler MooreHawk'

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Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with ‘Mary Tyler MooreHawk’

The writer-artist talks about the book’s infusion of prose, challenging readers, exploring pop culture, and writing for yourself.

When I spoke recently with Lonnie Nadler and Matthew Erman, they were unsure of but massively excited for their weird, deeply human collaboration, Golgotha Motor Mountain.

Then, by total coincidence, I spoke with writer-artist Dave Baker just a day later, and he too captured the same brand of cautious uncertainty. But perhaps unlike Nadler-Erman, Baker actually doesn’t seem to really mind if people like his forthcoming Mary Tyler MooreHawk.

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“I was watching a Michael DeForge interview the other day,” said Baker. “And he had said something about how when he was designing gig posters, one of the big lessons that he had to learn was that a gig poster’s job is not just to attract the right people, but to keep out the wrong people. I thought that was a really interesting design remit and something that I don’t know translates to comics because comics is so just like, ‘We need anybody. Please just read.'”

It’s not that Baker wouldn’t mind an audience, especially one that’s hungry and curious for a markedly different comics experience. It’s just that this is also a deeply personal project, and he’d rather have it come out as he intended than worry about generating whatever appeal.

“But there’s a root in there, there’s a kernel of an idea of, ‘This book is mine; I’m not going to compromise at all,” he said. “I’ve worked at a bunch of places, done a bunch of things, and it’s been great. All the people I’ve worked with and for have been very positive. But inherently when you’re working on projects collaboratively, there just is scope creep and there just is an ideological shift.”

Baker added, “I think I was working on this project initially really thinking that I would self-publish it because of the fact that I wanted to make something that was completely and utterly uncompromising. And then, foolishly, I went about the process of working on a book for four years, trying to get somebody else to agree with me that I shouldn’t compromise.”

At least part of that is born out of the idea that, much like Golgotha Motor Mountain, Mary Tyler MooreHawk is a massively complicated book that’s going to demand a lot from even the most dedicated of comics readers. Let’s allow Baker to summarize it all.

“The first half of it follows a family of globetrotting adventurers in the style of the [Jonny] Quest family or Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys as they attempt to stop a villain from a parallel dimension from committing spatio-temporal Holocaust,” said Baker. “Then the other half of it is a novel that’s told in the forms of zines and magazine articles from 100 years in the future that follow a journalist — also named Dave Baker — who is obsessed with a TV show that only lasted nine episodes called Mary Tyler MooreHawk. The added twist is that this young enterprising journalist who’s obsessed with all things old and nostalgic realizes that the guy who created the thing that he’s obsessed with is named Dave Baker.”

Mary Tyler MooreHawk

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

Still, it wasn’t Baker’s exclusive goal to make some overly-involved, decidedly meta commentary on pop culture (even if that’s exactly what he’s done). Rather, it’s about, as he touched on earlier, addressing both the personal as well as the decidedly “leisurely” nature of comics.

“Not that I want you to have a confrontational relationship with this thing, but I want you to have a good relationship,” he said. “I wanted to make an experience and I wanted to make something that couldn’t be digested in 15 minutes. I wanted to make something that aspired to almost be a little confrontational. I wanted to make something that was meaty and weighty and would be hefty in your hand and wouldn’t be able to be fully understood. And, frankly, at multiple points, I got offered deals by publishers who were like, ‘We’ll put it out — if it’s just Mary Tyler MooreHawk and her family running around doing shit.'”

Baker added, “I think there was a running joke for a while, between me and my friends, that I was trying to make the Infinite Jest of comics. Not in that I was trying to aspire to be David Foster Wallace. I was trying to make something where everybody claims they’ve read it and pretended like they’ve read it, but most people have read maybe a couple hundred pages.”

A huge part of Baker’s approach is that, having created already compelling books like Night Hunters and Everyone Is Tulip, he wanted to see just how far he could push his beloved medium.

“I think the two axioms that I had in mind while making this is that I wanted to make something that was fueled by attempt — to sound pretentious for a second,” said Baker. “Goddamnit, if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work, but it’s fucking trying.”

Baker added, “Also, for literally all great artists, the true medium is autobiography. Everybody is doing that. I wanted to make something that was both literally about that and metatextually about that and about how readers interact with that idea and how fandom is corrosive. But also about how nostalgia is both a great weapon and a terrible cross to bear, and how we all get lost in this maze of our own creation — whether it be the creator being lost in the maze of the thing that they’re actually doing or fans getting lost in the idea of what they perceive as the thing as opposed to what it really is.”

As an extension of that, it was also about embracing the uneven or “dirty” tendencies that such a project might invite inherently.

“I wanted that all to be in this big fucked up messy soup that would hopefully serve, in the best of terms, as something that said anything about the moment that we’re living in,” said Baker.”The worst case scenario, people might say, ‘We’ll just skip over the prose stuff’ and they read a fun action adventure comic. And, frankly, if they do that and they still buy the book, that’s fine.”

(For what it’s worth, Baker says reading one part and not the other means “you will miss things — literally. It knits together as it goes. As the ends get closer, the ends take shape and things.”)

It wasn’t solely about challenging himself, either. Baker also wanted to celebrate his heroes and his favorite kind of art, and to make something like those great works that blew open his own brain and had him questioning life, comics, reality, stories, etc.

“I wanted something that had long, discursive run-on sentences that have, like, 17 parentheticals and asterisks,” said Baker. “I wanted to do that because that’s the kind of stuff that I like. I like weirdo bullshit. There’s multiple points in the books where the footnote mechanics reference people like Henry Darger or Phil Tippett — these weirdos who are just by themselves in this morass of their own making.”

Mary Tyler MooreHawk

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

Baker specifically mentioned the work of the director/filmmaker Tippett.

“Phil Tippett, when he was making Mad God, spent 18 or 19 years making this stop-motion animated film that he ended up literally being hospitalized toward the end of because he was like, ‘I can’t let this go,” said Baker. “Like, ‘I can’t not have this thing lurking and sitting on my back,’ and him trying to get that thing across the finish line put him in the fucking psych ward.”

It’s not about torture for the sake of torture, though. The book may have been a way for Baker to work through these grand ideas of fame, legacy, and transcendence by making art. Despite his intense work, someone like Tippett isn’t a household name, and Baker resonated with that in a certain way.

“There’s a thin line between enjoying the process and embracing creative spontaneity and just doing the thing because it’s what you want to do,” said Baker. “And second guessing yourself and trying to define a life path for yourself is exterior in motivation and contemplation — like, that’s just bullshit, and who wants to do that? Nobody gives a shit about what anybody’s doing really at the end of the day, and we’re all going to end up forgotten. People now don’t even know Elvis [Presley] until that movie came out. There’s no cultural consensus around Elvis. He’s not a pop culture figure in the way that he was at one time.”

Baker added, “I will never have one tenth of the impact that Elvis Presley had. The best case scenario for a cartoonist is you die with a family who thinks you weren’t a complete piece of shit.”

It was ultimately about seeing the prospects for his very own career and making the most of it in a way that genuinely mattered.

“For a long time, all I wanted was to be a guy in the scene,” said Baker. “There’s that photo of Jack Kirby’s birthday where he’s got a cupcake and there’s people in the background. It’s Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller bullshitting each other while smoking or whatever out on a veranda. That’s all I wanted: to be a guy that’s in the back of the scene being like, ‘Oh, that guy did that one thing.’ And at a certain point, there was a fork in the road for me existentially. It really seemed like that wasn’t going to happen. It takes a lot of effort and there’s not a lot of reward. And spoiler alert, there’s no money in this. So to do it, you really have to fucking do it. I’m just trying to make stuff that I think would be cool to find in the wild.”

Case in point: Baker tells a story about bin-diving and discovering Vortex the Wonder Mule by Michael Halbeib, a series about a force-evolved super mule who battles aliens. It’s a perfect example of Baker’s own intended arc (not to mention the weird magic of searching for new comics).

“It was worth that 50 cents I paid to that really curmudgeonly guy in the back of that antique store,” said Baker. “I found [Halbeib] on Facebook after I was reading — and it blew his mind. He’s been making new weird Vortex comics and really gotten back into art and stuff. I think that’s, for better or for worse, what we’re all looking for — a means of connection and a means of feedback. This thing where you do something and somebody else says, ‘Oh, that sparks this.’ And then it makes a kind of perpetual motion machine, right?”

Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with 'Mary Tyler MooreHawk'

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

That idea of a “perpetual motion machine” seems to be at the heart of Baker’s efforts with Mary Tyler MooreHawk. He’s hoping that by doing something he knows is purposefully difficult, he can offer comics creation a certain kick in the pants.

“I think a lot of stuff that’s produced draws from the same well,” said Baker. “I like Chip Zdarsky and Scott Snyder and Matt Fraction. But I don’t know that it behooves any of us to have seventh generation Alan Moore. That’s not a recipe for a lifeblood. I’m not saying that any of those people I just named are that; I’m just saying a lot of times [that’s the case], especially when writers are first starting out and figuring their voice out.”

Baker added, “We want people who start as seventh generation Alan Moore and then become something else. Bill Sienkiewicz is a perfect example; his early Moon Knight is Neil Adams, and then he just went off. He’s totally not Neil Adams whatsoever.”

It helps that, at least in some ways, Baker isn’t entirely “alone” on his path to tell these deliberately weird, self-referential stories.

“There are books in comics that have incorporated text, like Tales of the Black Freighter [from Watchmen],” said Baker.

But there’s one slightly more important tome for Baker: Phantasm Exhumed from Dustin McNeill.

“It’s a behind-the-scenes book all about the making of the Don Coscarelli Phantasm films, and it’s a weirdly intimate thing where not only is it a complete timeline where they tell you all the secrets that like, ‘Oh yeah, the reason those Phantasm movies got made is because Don Coscarelli has a very rich father who believed in him and loved him and gave him a lot of money and help and support,'” said Baker. “But it just shows you how the idea of bootstrapping, especially in film, [and] that you just can’t do it by yourself. Plus, every chapter has excerpts from the journal of Rory Guy, a.k.a. Angus Scrims. Seeing what he was going through while they were doing it provides a really interesting dual narrative.”

Baker added, “I really wanted to make a book that was a ‘journal’ of what it’s like to be making a graphic novel and get lost in it and have no faith that anyone’s ever going to read it and that you’ve destroyed your body and wasted years of your life. And it’s going to end up on the cutting room floor, which I think is more sexy when it’s positioned as a film since they can make a lot of money. Like, there’s no winning in comics, you know?”

For Baker, that meant making something that “drew from sources that had never really crossed paths with comics.” That inevitably meant playing around with the very structure of the story — it’s not just comics and prose together but also this wondrous “third thing.”

“A comic is separate images that sustain and are separated by a gutter that have words in them and maybe some sort of art that provides a grounding in some sort of narrative,” said Baker. “The way that [David Foster] Wallace and [Mark Z.] Danielewski do it, the picture plane of the real estate of the book is broken up into separate and disparate literal squares of footnotes, main text, and body. It makes you read a book in a different way that is visual, and where the collective shape of the words is its own picture plane. And then you’re reading the words inside of those picture planes, which to me is a comic. So I wanted to do something with that.”

Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with 'Mary Tyler MooreHawk'

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

Now, then, seems like a great time for an interlude about Mary Tyler MooreHawk‘s “third head”: the photography from David Catalano. For one, Baker said Catalano has similarly odd sensibilities, as he’s a “musician and a weird tape collector and he’s super into VHS.” And through their rather unique connection, Baker found a lot of the insight and inspiration needed to help forge the book’s core “elements” in the first place.

“Initially, he does these amazing house portraits, where he’ll walk around New York and take photos of the misty landscape with a single house with a weird neon red light coming out of one of the windows,” said Baker. “And they’re very haunting and strange. They feel almost [John] Carpenter-esque. I could see them being a movie poster or something. At first I was saying, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll just do a bunch of these house portraits that you’ve done and I’ll write the fake biographies of the house or the people who live in the house or like some sort of weird journal of this made up thing.’ Over the course of working on [the book], I said, ‘We’re going to use your photos as the zine photos and I’m going to riff on your photos in addition to the stuff that I’m doing.’ So I’m not going to say that I wrote the exclusively off of his photos, but there’s definitely stuff where I was pulling from the atmosphere.”

It’s not just about drawing inspiration from books and photography, either. Baker also touched again on filmmaking insights/inspirations, and how that form of creativity is often compared to comics (even as the two remain drastically different). Film, at least, has a kind of language to describe its own efforts.

“There are proper nouns that describe individual components of major filmmakers,” said Baker. “Like the Spike Lee dolly — we all know what that means, right? Or, Hitchcock sound effects. The Edgar Wright whip pan.”

Comics, meanwhile, is clearly lacking just such a vocabulary.

“You need to have language associated with it in order to effectively communicate whether you do or do not enjoy the thing,” said Baker. “And in comics, because it’s a fucking kiddie pool and there’s nine assholes who all just want to read the same thing, myself included, we’re all just like, ‘But isn’t it fucking sick when Daredevil wears the black costume again?’ Like, that costume doesn’t even have a name. The medium is worthy of evaluation, and language needs to be invented. Also, we’ll probably have to be a little pretentious about it.”

Luckily, Baker is more than prepared to help craft this “language” — even if that prospect is inherently a little ridiculous.

“Oh man, I 100% commit to the bit,” said Baker. “I literally wrote the phrase, ‘Bakerian visual tropes.’ I don’t know if anybody else will read it that way, but to me that’s a joke.”

It’s all a part of what Baker calls “high-brow, pseudo-literary critique.” It’s an effort, extending back some time, to give comics a creative language as well as further highlight just what can be done when comics the medium works at its peak levels.

Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with 'Mary Tyler MooreHawk'

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

“Many moons ago on ComicsAlliance, David Brothers wrote a piece about the Geoff Johns’ Justice League, and he said something along the lines of ‘Johns-ian reductionism,’ and I loved that because that is such a great way of constructing a synecdoche that instantly tells me what the thesis of the argument is and also that is insightful about a creator,” said Baker. “I think that when Geoff Johns is at his best that’s what he does: he boils 80 years of continuity down into a simple premise. ‘Superman is about hope, period. Moving on. Green Lantern is about emotion.’ And so that to me is such a funny, interesting conversation to have that doesn’t exist. Like, I couldn’t literally tell you a term associated with a comic book creator after that. There’s no stylistic remit or voice or artistic tic that deserves a term? That just goes to show there’s not enough people talking about the thing in a high-minded way.”

Similarly, Baker also realizes that he’s got a few “enemies” or just roadblocks when putting forth a rather intense project such as this one. Namely, there’s already a machine in place (one removed from his perpetual motion machine analogy) that doesn’t exactly leave room for experimental offerings like Mary Tyler MooreHawk.

“I’m so entrenched in a dogmatic, recursive propaganda feedback loop online, where algorithmically served content is just brainwashing me that I can’t divorce my identity from the ever-evolving mercurial state of navigating the human fucking condition,” said Baker.

The goal then isn’t to smash down walls, per say, but rather to get people to see the larger value of investing (time, money, energy, etc.) into anything new and left-of-center.

“That’s part of the problem that the book is attempting to wrestle with — how do you breach the horizon of the new when the masses and the corporations that control the means of production are obsessed with mining the past,” said Baker. “How do you construct any sort of bridge in between what could be possible and what has been done before? Because inherently in a capitalist society, people are only going to give money and resources and time and effort into something that’s demonstrably similar to something that has worked before. And, frankly, I don’t know if Mary Tyler MoorehHawk is that.”

While attacking something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe might seem a tad trite and clichéd by now, Baker raises a genuine concern about the kinds of stories being told as opposed to everyone simply loving them a touch too much.

“Look at the phenomenon of what we’re consuming in terms of media,” said Baker. “The MCU is the biggest thing in the history of the planet in terms of a connected cinematic universe of stories fed to a global population. Those stories are cool. I like them. I’m not saying the cowed masses are pieces of shit. But it also gives me concern when all of those stories are basically stories from a hundred years ago at this point — not literally, but we’ve heard them before. And I understand the need for a modern mythology and I understand the need for mass dissemination of a moral code through aspirational figures. But, like, fucking come on.”

And that core notion ties directly into another “concern” across both in comics and modern fiction nowadays: nostalgia (which Baker touched on briefly beforehand). People, it seems, spend far too much time and energy focused on the supposed good old days of their favorite heroes.

“Whereas the word nostalgia, initially its intention was to evoke an emotion that is a wistful, borderline negative thing about something that you had experienced in the past, right? It’s a painful thing,” said Baker. “Like, I’m experiencing nostalgia for the dichotomy that you can never go home again, where I want to go and re-experience my childhood, but also you just can’t ever do that. There’s a pain and a friction that comes from that. Whereas now the definition of nostalgia is it’s something I’m familiar with — I saw that as a kid.”

Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with 'Mary Tyler MooreHawk'

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

He added, “It’s just something that’s like, ‘Oh, I know that this is safe. I know this is not going to be confrontational. I know that this is going to allow me to have exclusively a positive experience because I am going to be able to accurately predict the beginning, middle, and end because I’ve literally experienced it before under the weird soft eggshell of ‘It’s New TM.'”

There’s also another side to that nostalgic tendencies. Given the inherently “disposable” nature of many comics stories, readers have forged certain habits and tendencies.

“It’s not like, ‘No, you have to commit to this War and Peace,” said Baker. “Not that I’m saying I’m Dostoevsky, but comic book readers don’t like to read prose is a prevailing truism that may or may not be real. I was told that many times over the course of this pitching process at many different publishing houses — you can’t convince comic book readers to be readers of novels.”

While baker admits that convincing readers may be impossible given the scope of the book, he’s thinking there’s enough shiny tent poles here to do the work.

“It’s a story that’s rooted in more tropes that our culture is familiar with. And so because of that, by the time you hit those walls of text, you’re like, ‘Oh no, I have to fucking listen to you talk about some TV show that’s not real and I know it’s not real. I’m inherently and immediately not invested as much.’ Which is part of the reason why I tried to make it as funny as it is. Larry the Boy with Werewolf Arms is one of the fake novel things in there, and that’s a funny title, right? So it’s that idea of trying to at every point give somebody the carrot and the stick simultaneously.”

Perhaps some folks may not even need convincing in the first place.

“I think honestly the flipside of that…if somebody bought it and then were disinterested in the comics side of it and were more interested in the weird post-apocalyptic 100-year-future where physical objects have been outlawed told in [zines] that are influenced by Riot grrrl zines and tokusatsu magazines from the 1980s,” said Baker. “That to me is really funny because it’s the reverse of the band poster/Michael DeForge idea of if you made it into the comic and were like, ‘Eh, this thing that is easily approachable and easily digestible and understood, that’s too easy for me.'”

For all his talk about trying to push the medium forward, or making people see the larger power of this specific art form, Baker understands that life as an artist is hard — and you can only make it work if you’re willing to be absolutely honest with your creative wants/needs.

“This inherently weird Ouroborosian thing of being a creative,” said Baker. “You want to do the thing that you hope will make people happy, but sometimes the thing doesn’t want to be that, and sometimes you’re not happy, so how can you make something that makes somebody else happy? You can only depict your reality. So if your reality is this thing, that’s what the end product is going to simulate.”

That notion, then, speaks to perhaps the most essential thread of Mary Tyler MooreHawk: passion. It’s the burning, ceaseless drive to show that which matters most in the world and find ways to connect that thing with the similarly silly hearts of other people.

Dave Baker cracks comics wide open with 'Mary Tyler MooreHawk'

Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions.

“This is making me think of one of the original issues of Matt Fraction’s Casanova,” said Baker. “There’s an essay in the back where he talks about Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ principle. That idea of just [being] overloaded by an idea; I find that to be my natural mode. I talk fast. I’m loud. I like lots of disparate things. So I want to have a bunch of conversations with a bunch of people all the fucking time. But I like that idea as a guiding principle for an artistic project because instead of one idea that you have to get perfect, it’s 500 ideas that you could do more or less OK and then synthesizes that into a greater vision of an idea. It’s almost like impressionism, where if you squint it forms something that requires the viewer to think, which is all I’m trying to do. That’s all any artist is trying to do is make people experience something.”

While Baker’s interests may lean toward the experimental and/or the avant garde at times, it’s all still about the shared pursuit of something magical and life-altering through important art.

“For me, I’m always looking for [the] new, weird, and different,” said Baker. “So I hope that people find a sense of solace and a sense of belonging maybe in that bizarreness. It’s those idiosyncrasies that are the things that stick with you. It’s that best friend from middle school who sucked his teeth in the back of the class and you hated it in that moment, but then 10 years later you still know that idiot. I hope that this book, if it’s not something that immediately seems like someone’s cup of tea, it could be where it’s a thing that presents a conundrum that isn’t easily solved.”

Despite his lofty ambitions and important talk about evolving art, Baker readily admits that this project pushed him to his breaking point over its four-year development (at which he was also working a full-time day job).

“There were so many opportunities to just be like, ‘Eh, I’ll just call it a day,'” said Baker, crediting the support of his publisher, Top Shelf Productions. “You’ve got me at the time where the book hasn’t quite come out yet, and I don’t know if it’s a success or failure. I don’t know how it’s going to be received. I don’t know the room temperature of what I’m going to be dealing with in terms of, ‘Am I going to be on the convention trail all next year apologizing?’ Maybe we’ll see.”

As such, all Baker can do is try and get the book in as many heads as possible to see if the world’s ready for Mary Tyler MooreHawk — and maybe not just lose himself in the process.

“Obviously I’m doing everything in my power to make it a success,” said Baker. “But at the end of the day, I never gave up. I stayed the course. I got the thing through. Unless there’s a tidal wave of New York Times or Los Angeles Times thinkpieces about how brilliant the book is, I think I’ll manage to not be a big-headed asshole. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, sick, we got two comic book websites to give it a thumbs up.'”

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