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A Conversation with Eisner Award-Nominated Cartoonist Dave Baker: Graphic Novels and Prose Mysteries

A Conversation with Eisner Award-Nominated Cartoonist Dave Baker: Graphic Novels and Prose Mysteries

Embark on a mind-bending journey into the creative cosmos of Eisner Award-Nominated Cartoonist Dave Baker as TOONS MAG delves into an exclusive interview exploring his latest graphic novel masterpiece, “MARY TYLER MOOREHAWK.” Baker, celebrated for his acclaimed works like “F*** OFF SQUAD,” “STAR TREK VOYAGER: Seven’s RECKONING,” and “NIGHT HUNTERS,” presents a groundbreaking fusion of genres in his latest creation, described as a meeting between Jonny Quest and Infinite Jest.

In this interview, Baker shares insights into the inspiration behind “MARY TYLER MOOREHAWK,” a hybrid graphic novel and prose mystery that captures the essence of action-adventure comics, dystopian detective stories, and postmodern narrative techniques. The protagonist, Mary Tyler MooreHawk (MTMH), emerges as a beacon of optimism, reminiscent of classic adventure characters like Nancy Drew and Jonny Quest, setting the stage for a narrative that challenges the norms of contemporary comics.

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Here are the TOONS MAG questions and Cartoonist Dave Baker’s Answers:

Toons Mag: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind “MARY TYLER MOOREHAWK”? How did the idea for this mind-bending graphic novel come about?

Dave Baker: Mary Tyler MooreHawk, or as I affectionately refer to the eponymous character MTMH, is a hybrid graphic novel and prose novel. The first half of the book is an action-adventure comic, influenced by Buckaroo Banzai, Nancy Drew, and Jonny Quest, that follows a family of super-scientist adventurers who are tasked with attempting to stop a super-villain from an alternate timeline from committing spatiotemporal holocaust.

The prose half of the book is a series of journalistic articles and zines titled Physicalist Today, from 100 Years in the Future, that follow a journalist also named Dave Baker, who is obsessed with a short-lived TV show, also titled Mary Tyler MooreHawk, that only lasted nine episodes. This journalist sets off on a quest to find the reclusive creator of the TV show and comics, who has been missing for decades.

The book took me close to four years to produce. I wrote, drew, lettered, and colored it. I also worked with the fantastic designer Mike Lopez and photographer David Catalano to bring the prose sections to life. Throughout the project, we had many long discussions about its style and tone. Many of the design inspirations come from Japanese Tokusatsu magazines.

I’m a big fan of Shotaro Ishinomori and his universe of cyborg, usually bug-themed vigilantes. DC area hardcore zines, Riot Grrrl zines, and Japanese street fashion magazines also inspired us. Mike and I also talked about the design for the Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean? Cover. That was another touchstone for us. I will stop talking now because I could talk for two hours about all the fun, weird stuff I pulled to make this book.

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Toons Mag: The combination of graphic novels and postmodern prose mystery is intriguing. What motivated you to explore multiple formats and dimensions in this retro-futurist palimpsest?

Dave Baker: That’s a great question. The longer I’ve been around the industry and the more books I’ve had a hand in helping to bring to life, the more I’ve realized that compromise is every artist’s proper medium. When I started this project, it was initially going to be just an 8-page mini-comic… 300 pages, and four years later, that didn’t pan out. I wanted this project to be where I didn’t have to compromise, which obviously made things more complicated for me. I kept having ideas and sparks of inspiration that I felt would make this book, unlike anything I’d seen.

So, for lack of a better term, I followed my muse. I wanted to make something that took everything I liked from authors like Mark Z. Danielewski, David Foster Wallace, and Steven Hall, shake them up, and spill them onto the page. Then, combining those novelists’ approach to a story with a straight-ahead, earnest comic book adventure just seemed so funny and weird to me. I had to roll with it. My life would have been much easier if I hadn’t done things this way, but I know… far less attractive. And that’s what I think being an artist is—pushing, evolving, attempting.

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Toons Mag: “MARY TYLER MOOREHAWK” blends genres like action-adventure and dystopian detective stories. What themes or messages do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Dave Baker: Well, I don’t want to talk too directly about the exact point of things because I think that would get us into spoiler territory, but I will say that my overarching goal was to create a book that felt both familiar and wildly new. Suppose the reader experiences something that approximates the drive home’s warm embrace after back issue diving… only to realize that they’ve accidentally picked up the wrong issues of Jack Kirby‘s Kamandi. In that case, I’ll have done my job correctly. I think the book and MTMH herself represent an amalgamation of many experiences I’ve had in the trenches of the comic book world, both as a fan and as a pro.

I guess I’ll leave it at: I think there’s a kinship between detective stories and what it feels like to be an isolated fan digging through ‘The Bins’. Both are usually focused on reconstructing things that have happened in the past, both on a literal level and a meta one. Being a hardcore fan is almost like being in direct dialogue with the creator or creators. And I think there’s a sense of emotional ownership, both in good and bad ways, that comes from this experience. And the story of Mary Tyler MooreHawk plays with both of these ideas in some obvious ways and some less obvious.

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Toons Mag: The protagonist, Mary Tyler MooreHawk, sounds fascinating. Could you share more about her and her challenges in the story?

Dave Baker: Absolutely. MTMH is a young and preconscious action-adventure protagonist, cut from the same cloth as Nancy Drew, Jonny Quest, and Tom Swift Jr. She’s someone who has a romantic outlook on life, and she believes that she’s capable of solving any problem put in front of her. That earnest optimism seems to be missing from many contemporary comics. Look, I’m someone who’s written a lot of flawed and weak characters in my time. They’re attractive, I get it. I’m usually drawn to that archetype of a personality. However, with MTMH, I wanted to make someone so good and pure that it was undeniable.

I wanted to write about someone whose default was that the positive outcome wasn’t just the most likely outcome but the required one. And, of course, as you might guess, that positivity will be challenged and put in its place when a mysterious figure from her past appears.

I also wanted MTMH, the character, to be the purest and best version of the human spirit, to juxtapose against the less-than-ideal things that happen to her creator within the future segments of the book. Astute readers will notice not-so-oblique references to the mistreatment of many of the titans of the comic book field lurking within the pages of this book. And that irony is not an accident.

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Toons Mag: What challenges did you face in creating a narrative that explores the intersection of comics, cartoons, and the actual creators behind them?

Dave Baker: Another truism that resonates with me throughout creating a body of work is “all good art is autobiography first.” Another way to put this would be the rote “write what you know” phrase that gets lobbed at any young writing student. Strange alchemy happens when someone dedicates years of their life to making a creative project come to life. The medium or genre it’s positioned in almost doesn’t matter; you can feel it in the bones of the thing when the creator connects with the material spiritually. Creator ownership is something I’m very passionate about.

I think the people who have created so many iconic characters and beloved stories deserve to be treated with respect and financially remunerated accordingly. Tragically, that’s rarely the case in today’s industry. There are many varied reasons for this that I won’t get into right now, but let’s say the story of a comic book character who has their creation stolen and then retreats from the world because the pain of that experience was too great… is something that speaks to me on a bone-deep level.

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I'm Sondre Borg, but you can call me Sondre. I'm a cheerful Norwegian Digital Nomad and writer, ready to embark on exciting adventures through words and pixels! 🌍✍️

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