Hup, two, three four, I like reading comics at war – Propaganda gets drafted
Special Forces # 1
Written and illustrated by Kyle Baker
Kyle Baker is one of the funniest cartoonists working in comics today. A rather grand statement perhaps but one I genuinely believe. Cowboy Wally, Why I Hate Saturn, You Are Here – all incredible, funny books. Even his slightly more serious works (King David) or his work on other people’s material (Plastic Man) are well worth picking up to see a unique talent at play (you can read some of Richard’s previous reviews on Kyle’s work here – Joe). But his recent work has been a wonder; giving us a gag cartooning tour de force with The Bakers (the latest volume, Babies and Kittens, has just been released) and a hard hitting dramatisation of the slave trade in Nat Turner that showed he was more than capable of producing serious work.
His latest is Special Forces; a six issue series from Image Comics. Baker’s putting the social commentary right alongside the comedy here, producing a work of immediate frivolity that holds a far more serious investigation within its pages. To take Baker’s own copy:
“Special Forces follows a small-town autistic teen from his recruitment, through basic training, and then off to war in Iraq. With violent felons, mental patients, a violent mental hot chick felon and at least one “Don’t ask don’t tell”, his unit is composed of the military’s last line of defense. The very last line! What happens when desperate army recruiters fall below quota at the same time the President calls for additional troops? Find out in Special Forces!”
It’s at least partly based on real event. In 2006 an 18 year old autistic boy was recruited into the army highlighting the increasing pressure being put upon recruiters in a time of increasing US commitment to that stupid war we’re all in. Baker, seeing the potential for both drama and comedy in this, serves up an entire unit of “special” forces (more like special needs) and sends them off to battle playing it out like National Lampoon’s Iraqi Vacation. Except funny and interesting.
(violence and sudden death reach almost Steve Dillon Preacher levels in the opening of Special Forces #1, published by Image and (c) Kyle Baker)
Any book where the first page is a splash of a soldier’s head being blown in half and a single caption; “The Black guy dies first” is certainly not afraid of pushing a few contentious issues our way. The art may be Baker’s stylistic mix of exaggerated cartooning and digital effects but the subject and the content is cutting edge. He’s rushing headlong into a complex and difficult situation and delivers an intriguing look at the horrors of this asinine war, whilst still managing to drop in nuggets of great comedy:
“Apache’s coming. We just gotta hang tight”
“You’re sure we’re out of range? I mean the air strike.”
“We’re safe. They got smart bombs”
The Apache appears in the background behind Felony.
“Coming in from the South. They’re going to have to circle around”
“You’ve been in a Muslim country how long and you don’t know where south is?”
The Apache fires….
The one slightly strange aspect of this is the overtly and overly sexual look given to the female lead in the book. Now I’m sure this is meant to be a comment on both modern comics and increasing sexualisation of the media and culture in general, together with commentary on exactly how sexy modern America seems to find its warfare right now, but at times it just comes across as cheap titillation. Or maybe that’s just my Guardian reading sensibilities coming out? It’s the one bit of the book that doesn’t work for me.
(fightin’ for freedom in an army bikini, Kyle Baker mashes up Lara Croft with Tank Girl with Felony in Special Forces, published by Image, (c) Kyle Baker; picture borrowed from Kyle’s website)
But luckily that’s the only bad thing I can say about Special Forces. I’ll be back for the collection when it comes out. After many years of making some of the funniest comic books I’ve ever read, it seems Kyle Baker is developing into the Woody Allen of comic books. Just without the annoying accent.
Richard Bruton is a lifelong comics fan and former Comic Book Store Guy; you can read more of his thoughts on comics and life on his blog Fictions.