Rich Kreiner: Minis Monday

Posted by on June 28th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

A Cowboy Comes To White River Junction
You Gotta Get Your Lips Right
Rowdy Rail Aboard the H.M.S. Challenger
The Meanest Greenest Frog
By Eric Baker

One is not often introduced to a young cartoonist the way I was introduced to Eric Baker. At the most recent Maine Comics Arts Festival, I picked up no fewer than five comics of his, each in a different format with different designs, styles and intents. We’ll progress from his lesser to most developed works:

Despite its trim and blue paper, Impatient is a true mini, a “Dream Comic” narrated in four quick pages. It is simplicity itself in theme and execution: a bank robbery followed by a (relatively) extended chase curtailed by a tricycle pedaled along a highway. As brief, stand-alone narrative it lacks the resonance and depth that additional exposure to Baker’s dream logic might yield (an effect available to, say, Rick Veitch in an issue of his Rare Bit Fiends, where interludes grew interrelated and more chaotically coherent through sheer accumulation of scenes and situations alone).

A Cowboy Comes To White River Junction is a single-page, color gag strip rendered on a stiff 5 ½”-by-8 ½” card,  in which said cowpoke rides into the hometown of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. It’s a nice vignette of acclimation and acculturation (“5 PM and the town’s shut tighter than a snare drum”) all the funnier for those who’ve visited the nestled burg. The sheet represents a more concerted bit of drawing, bolstered by saturated colors. On back, a full length portrait of the protagonist shows off Baker’s illustrative cartooning to fuller fluid effect.

It’s back to textured, shaded black and white for You Gotta Get Your Lips Right, a 20-page, 7”-by-8” comic in which a skilled young trumpeter is aided in an extra-musical challenge by no less than the likes of Louie Armstrong. Here Baker’s drawing responds more to the demands of sequential development and thematic exposition. It is more purposeful and directed even while being less labored and embroidered. Still, the book highlights several distinct visual effects, like the prominent line drawings of conjoined faces and, especially, the patterned representation of visual music and the power it manifests.

Rowdy Rail Aboard the H.M.S. Challenger may be no more than a nicely packaged teaser but it most clearly demonstrates Baker’s abilities as comics-maker. This largely silent, 24-page, black-and-white comic, the first chapter of a longer, more involved story, has its protagonist, a flightless bird of the South Atlantic, hitching a ride to an English sailing vessel in 1873. Baker previews some of the drama to follow in a full-color panel and the wraparound cover. The drawings here of man, beast and boat represent his most accomplished and bode well for the completed project.

Until then, The Meanest Greenest Frog will stand as Baker’s most unified work. From its opening “This book belongs to _____” signature page to its concluding moral, the 38-page title represents itself in tenor and trappings as a children’s book. Accordingly, its color art is highly accessible and straightforward. With principally single full-paged pictures, Baker’s drawings are at their most enlarged. While rendering remains sturdy, the large patches of colors, planar and dense, are heavily ladled, compromising the possibilities for a livelier presentation. Children’s books are a little alien to me, but to my ear the rhythmic writing in dialogue and caption is hobbled by shifting cadences, wandering beats and false rhymes, all of which would seem to make it challenging for kids to pick up and would put no adults in mind of Keats or Pope. An editor, or sterner reader, might have suggested a smoothed delivery while just an additional set of intervening eyes could have caught “boistrous” and punctuation anomalies.

Collectively, these books and comics and pamphlets and cards suggest a wide-open playing field for Baker and for the reader.

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