From The Archives- Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn (1990)
Why I Hate Saturn shows a creator at the beginning of the graphic novel age leading the way and figuring out how to tell a 200 page story.
This is a book that I feel like stared at me from comic store shelves for a long time and I don't remember why it took me forever to pick it up. And by forever, I probably mean 3-4 years. I'm pretty sure I picked this up at JC's Comics in Toledo, Ohio in the couple of years that I was there after getting married. I can even see the shelving rack that it was sitting on, probably toward the bottom. My copy is a bit messed up but it's all from love.
This comic established a long love of Kyle Baker and his urbane wit. This piece was published on my now defunct Wednesday's Haul sometime in mid 2012.
"Tarantino before Tarantino"
"Thelma and Louise as written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Woody Allen."
Those are the kind of descriptive yet meaningless quotes a jaded New York intellectual like Anne, the main character in Why I Hate Saturn, would despise. They show off a pseudo-intellect with an easy shorthand that falls well below writers of her own obvious stature and greatness. Yeah, Anne is one of those kind of writers, a columnist for a high-minded magazine. She's also a New Yorker, with the arrogance and the low self-esteem that goes along with that. Her best friend Ricky is a great guy and you've got to wonder why they aren't sleeping together. She's got a great job, turning in one column a month for a posh magazine even through she detests everything about it. Basically, she's your typical self-destructive young urban professional who can't be happy no matter how good life is to her. And when it seems like it just can't get worse, her sister Laura, the self-described "Queen of the Leather Astro-Girls of Saturn" shows up, bleeding from a gun shot wound.
Yeah, Why I Hate Saturn is kind of all over the place but that's one of the fun things about the book.
Kyle Baker's 1990 graphic novel starts out as a slice-of-life story in the first half before it turns into something completely different in the second half. Once Laura shows up, Anne tries to change. Laura may be crazy (the whole "Queen of the Leather Astro-Girls" thing) but she's also more together and confident than Anne could ever hope to be. Before you know it, New Yorker Anne is off to sunny and wonderful California to find her sister before dangerous ex-lovers do.
Baker's book predates Reservoir Dogs by two years and Pulp Fiction by four years but it's curious to see how Baker is a bit ahead of Tarantino (or, at least, one the same track as the movie director.) While it doesn't have the language or violence that those other films had, it does have a similar pacing and snappy dialogue that Tarantino became famous for. It's quick, rhythmic and idiosyncratic to the story and setting. It's probably not how people talk but how we'd like them to talk. Anne and Ricky are quick witted, fun and always there with a smart-alecy comment or observation. They talk about everything without really meaning anything. Their dialogue portrays the person that they want to be but as the story moves along, we see how it's just a costume for the people they really are. Of course, Baker and Tarantino are also building on the work of a lot of people as well, from Woody Allen to David Mamet. Baker plays with the dialogue and narration, using them to create a beat and pulse to his story.
In many ways, what Baker does here reminds me of what Gilbert Hernandez does with his Locas stories, creating characters first that end up finding themselves in unbelievably fantastic and unreal situations. Anne could be the east coast equivalent of Maggie, with all the neuroticism and uptightness that comes from being in NYC. And like Maggie, Anne goes through many physical changes in this book, mostly cosmetic but the character does change her appearances often. Why I Hate Saturn doesn't have the breadth and depth of characters that can be found in Hernandez's comics but the characters have the same kind of life that are found in Love and Rockets. And like Hernandez, for Baker the characters come first and the plot comes second.
Why I Hate Saturn contains Baker's more enduring and memorable original characters (maybe tied with or just behind Cowboy Wally.) He would try to capture some of the energetic dialogue later in his pieces in Instant Piano but his later graphic novels would rely a bit more heavily on plot than Why I Hate Saturn does. From what I remember, You Are Here and I Die At Midnight are more structured stories, hinging on events and plot points where I Hate Saturn is more about the characters, how they relate and get along. The weirder plot points about Laura's ex and his compulsion to get her back are almost a background to Anne and her need to constantly complain and not be happy or Laura's weird belief that she's the Astro-Leather Queen of Saturn, a character flaw that's allowed to simply exist without ever really being explained.
Why I Hate Saturn may already be a lost classic or it may just be a really good book. I'm actually not too sure right now. It's not a book that's discussed and picked apart ad nauseum and that allows it to still retain its charm and hipness. Over the past twenty years, Baker's cartooning and storytelling would become more defined and crisper but Why I Hate Saturn shows a creator at the beginning of the graphic novel age leading the way and figuring out how to tell a 200 page story. Stories like this would become fairly common in the later 90s and into the 2000s but Baker was there when it all started.