Review by Frank Plowright
Until his publication of the Cowboy Wally Show Kyle Baker was primarily known as an inker of Marvel comics, and while working on them he developed Cowboy Wally hoping to sell it as newspaper strip. Instead, as Baker relates in the Modern Masters book devoted to his work, it was taken on by Doubleday as large book publishers thrashed around for their own hit graphic novel in the wake of Maus‘ success. We can all be grateful for their ignorance.
Baker creates a monster of a man, a corpulent, vulgar, appallingly self-obsessed, yet insecure TV host with no appreciable talent who treats all around him abominably. Except when there are cameras around. Could he be the basis for Krusty the Clown? We enter Cowboy Wally’s world via a documentary film. Wally is keen to portray himself as just a regular guy, but is too dim to maintain the façade, particularly as the beer cans pile up on the table around him.
Memorable lines abound: “Before C.W. there was something of a stigma connected with being fat, loud and stupid”, “No, no, any permanent damage they suffer is usually just psychological”, “Chester used to be Vice-President at Warner Brothers, now he’s the janitor at CWE. We kid him about it.”, “Say Freddy, do you think you could fit a nickel into that light socket over there?”
The first sequences betray their putative newspaper strip origins, but are gag-packed, before Baker veers off course to present the French Foreign Legion film Wally produced, followed by his hilarious adaptation of Hamlet and an episode of his talk show Late Night Celebrity Showdown. These diversions might not work elsewhere, but they’re consistently funny, so it’s worth going with the flow. In Modern Masters Baker reveals how the format was determined by his ignorance regarding story construction, working without a conclusion in mind: “I’d just get up every day and do a page or two until it was done”.
The stream of consciousness approach supplies a freshness and unpredictability. ‘Sands of Blood’ features an effete French Foreign Legion, prone to self-doubt, obsessing about picking up girls, and self-consciously attempting to do so. Hamlet, shortened to twenty minutes and filmed in a jail cell to save money, is even more riotous, framed within another fly on the wall documentary sequence amid some chickens coming home to roost for Wally. They return for more roosting during the talk show.
Baker’s art was a revelation at the time, and still stands out as expressive and impressionistic. Wally was based on a fusion of W.C. Fields and Fatty Arbuckle, the attitudes of the former surely also informing his manner. There are some cultural references that have now dated, but The Cowboy Wally Show otherwise remains as off the wall and hilarious as when first published.
The Doubleday edition has long been superseded by a Vertigo reprint, which is now in its second edition with a new cover.