I had the pleasure of speaking with Dave Baker, the passionate, frenetic creator of such indie comics as “Action Hospital,” “The F*ck Off Squad,” and “Shitty Watchmen.” Dave and I discussed his work, but out conversation took us all over the place, from the things a comic artist needs to do to get by to his fervent views of creators’ rights.
Let’s start with your latest book. Tell me about “Action Hospital: Half-Light Bleeds.”
Dave Baker: It’s kind of like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Men in Black . . . but set in a hospital. It’s about a slacker nurse named Joan Michelle Basquiat, who has the ability to see the real essence of things. This volume is about her trying to figure out her life and trying to figure out how to balance her creative projects, all while trying to defend the titular hospital from a time traveling cavemen and ten-headed (well, nine and three-quarters-headed) demon monster. You know, hospital stuff.
The first volume of “Action Hospital” was a webcomic, put up as 18 mini-comics of various sizes. That all got collected into one volume. This new work is volume two, and is being put one as one 300 pages story.
This Kickstarter is a bizarre victory lap of sorts. I created the comic, worked on it for 2 and a half years, and got some carpal tunnel in the process. I had to change my art utensils and alter my style, but I got it done. Now we’re trying to pay for the print fees.
Tell me about your daily grind, the one you post all over your social media.
DB: As a cartoonist, you don’t have much to talk about on the interweb except for whatever it is that you are working on. I like to post photos and progress shots of my work, mostly to remind the Earth that I am still here. But I have had a lot- well that’s an overstatement. People tell me that they like my videos. I like making my work seem less like magic, or something put out by a computer. I am trying to show my process, with contour lines, the real nitty gritty grind of everything, to show people what it takes to make the thing. It’s demystifying in a fun way. Like, magic is fun, but understanding process and technique is even better.
I know that comics only sometimes pay the bills, so what are some of the odd jobs you’ve been doing on the side?
DB: Oh yeah, I’ve done movie scripts, ad copy, commercials, theme park rides. I’ve written some horror movies scripts, some of which have yet to be produced.
The weirdest story I could tell is this: I was in a meeting with a company talking about a script for a direct to DVD horror film, something based on an existing franchise. They needed me to write it in three weeks, straight up Roger Corman style. Fine. One of the plot points was that there were aliens, and one of the financiers says, “Oh and when the script is done, I’ll need to have approval on the aliens.” So I ask him, “Why?” Without missing a beat he says, “Because I want them to be accurate.” And I sort of vacantly smile and ask him, “Accurate to what?” That’s when he tells me. “Well, I was abducted by aliens and lived with them for 13 years and I wanted them to be lifelike. I want you to respect the aliens.” So I nodded. And I wrote the script. I think it was a positive abduction for him. He told us that they gave him the key to faster than light travel, and taught him an insane number of languages. When he returned, only a year had passed on Earth and he had partial amnesia. Things came back to him in flashes.
I walked out of the meeting and was like, yeah, I made it. This is it. That dude was so rich that people just have to agree with him. Poor people are crazy, but when you’re rich you’re eccentric. My life goal is to be eccentric. In Hollywood you fail upwards. I want to fail upwards.Continued below
Of every comics creator I’ve ever spoken to, you’re one of the most outspoken when it comes to creators’ rights. Way do you think about the way comics industry treats the people who make them, particularly the recent trend of hiring people from outside the industry?
DB: I don’t want to talk trash about people I one day may work with but . . . I’ll say Fuck Stan Lee to anyone who’ll listen. I’ll sell them a pin too.
But I hate how non-comics folks keep getting hired to write comics. Being a good writer has nothing to do with being a good comics writer. It’s not just writing, it’s math. It’s breaking a linear narrative down into musical beats. Suspending minute moments in amber. It’s not asking artists to put captions, an inner narrative, on top of unrelated fight scenes. When I see that I throw down a comic. If the words and pictures don’t match up, the captions will override the images. Comics creators get that.
People can learn to do it. I’m not saying that there’s a secret, but you have to work at it. Just because you can do one thing, write a certain way, doesn’t mean you can do the other.
Yeah, a lot of people seem to be taking their love for Alan Moore-style 80s comics and making a career out of it. Have you noticed that trend?
DB: I thought we were done with ’80s decontructionist bullshit, but here we are. It’s not that every comic that wants to pay tribute to “Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” are trash. Some are a fun read, but then when you critically look at the mechanics, they’re all stolen from Alan Moore and Frank Miller (who himself is a thief of manga artists). They don’t ask themselves whether the choices they make are serving the story they’re trying to tell.
Like OK, “Watchmen” was a deconstruction of superhero books and so much else. But then people will bending it right back into the sort of story it’s criticizing; it’s missing the emotional core. You see it all over the comics industry. People not understanding the importance and novelty of the original 80s work, and when they re-purpose it the stories aren’t bad, but they use the 9-panel grid, or the talking heads TV, because it’s what the thing they like used. Not because it has something to do with the story. When you use that for a story that’s just about some guy, why are you telling the story this way? The beauty of comics is that you can choose how you tell the story. Comics is a Hieronymus Machine, filtering words and pictures into a single simple data-stream. You should choose to tell the story in a specific way that works.
It’s not only the 80s though, right? Do you see comics people taking cues from famous 90s creators?
DB: Oh man, Todd MacFarlane is like the unproblematic (the less problematic) Michael Bay. He’s great, so much fun while you’re in high school. The way he went on to found Image I have nothing but respect for. I can relate to that so much, can’t you? To walking into the office and wanting to yell, “GO FUCK YOURSELVES!” I think it says something that he can draw the way he can draw, and still evolve his business ventures the way he has. He’s someone I wish more people would take cues from. Instead of always paying tribute to the same four comics, pull of Todd MacFarlane. Start your own thing. Tell the stories you want to tell.
What are some other influences on your work? I’ve noticed a similarity between your art and James Stokoe.
DB: Me, and James Stokoe, and Winsor McCay, and Geof Darrow, we’re all compulsive dudes who put 900 lines on paper for no reason. That’s a flattering comparison, I love James’s work. One time I saw him at Thought Bubble, and I thought it was my moment to meet they guy, but the line was super long and I backed off. He doesn’t give a shit about me, right?
I brought up Stokoe. Are there any books that you’re enjoying, or taking your cues from, right now?Continued below
DB: This is a complex question. I’m so depressed by the state of everything- I’m a Wednesday Warrior. But I go to the shop, and I find myself buying just one or two books. Extremity by Daniel Warren Johnson is goddamn amazing. There’s something about those speed lines. Whoo. Adopt me.
I just bought a bunch longboxes with crazy stuff in it, old Kirby stuff, 25 issues Kamandi. First prints! I also got really into Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers. It’s one of those books with Jack going “Space! It’s crazy out there!” It’s nice to see him drawing like himself later in his life. He had his health, he wasn’t blind, his hands still worked, he had his entire life of drawing and his 40 years of experience and partnership with Mike Royer. But I don’t want to be one of those people who only lists really old stuff. Can’t stand it when people do that.
I just bought Jim Rugg’s “Street Angel.” Jim is unreal.
Oh and “Fantasy Sports 3” by Sam Bosma. Unreal good. He makes me sad. I can kind of do what I’m trying to do. I know my lane, and I can do it, fine. Sam Bosma… oh my god. His pages are dense by not cluttered. He breaks everything down into these concise tiers. Each tier has multiple orientations as to which direction the panel is going. It can go any way, but it’s not messy, even a less experienced reader can follow it.
Finally let’s close out with some other projects he’s working on.
DB: Me and Malachi Ward are doing a pirate book called The Wraith Cannot Die. Picture an art house version of Lee Falk’s “The Phantom,” like if “The Phantom” was a prestige miniseries on HBO or something, and then was also like Twin Peaks. We met this awesome crazy guy at a yard sale who claimed to be the last historian who remembered a pirate called the Wraith. And me and Malachi started riffing on that, and we came up with a whole comic series. It starts with us at the yard sale.
I’m also doing a book with Nicole Goux, a longer project, I’m very excited about it. We got a contract, we’re scheduling, it’s for real, it’s so exciting.
To tell the truth, a ton of my time is devoted to “Action Hospital.” I’m already working on volume 3. I don’t sleep.