*The Cowboy Wally Show — Recommended

Back in the 90s, Kyle Baker’s The Cowboy Wally Show was one of the great lost graphic novels, a legitimate cult classic. People would pay hundreds of dollars for a copy due to its impressive reputation and rarity. (It was originally released by a book publisher in 1988 before being brought back into print in 1996, then picked up by Vertigo in 2003.) There are two lessons to be learned from this: 1. Today, when comics with a spine are kept in print, it’s important to remember how good we have it, and 2. This book is really funny, funny enough to inspire fanatic devotion.

The Cowboy Wally Show cover
The Cowboy Wally Show
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Cowboy Wally is a legendary Hollywood entertainer, a mix of W.C. Fields, Ed McMahon, and P.T. Barnum. He’s a fat, stupid drunk who nevertheless became a celebrity due to determination alone. Ultimately, he’s one of those famous for being famous (a type we’re ever more familiar with these days), a star obsessed with seeming to be a regular guy while inviting camera crews into his mansion. The book’s four chapters cover various of his attempts at fame, within the frame of a career retrospective documentary, along the way pointing out how idiotic this all is.

The first chapter looks back at the star’s beginnings as host of a kids’ show, a role he’s singularly poorly suited for. But then that’s true of all of his many many TV tries, all lovingly captured here. As this sections opens, with a pack of bodyguards and hangers-on surrounding the lead, it feels like every walk of fame you’ve ever seen. Except that Wally’s ridiculously high hat, visible as a raised finger above the crowds surrounding him, lends it all an air of lunacy. Other chapters feature “Sands of Blood”, Wally’s French Foreign Legion film; an attempt to film Hamlet in a jail cell; and his stint hosting a late-night talk show. This last is surreal, as an accomplished actress assumes his work must be a put-on, because who could play that garbage straight, while Wally talks his way out of being taken hostage and argues with an old man about when he should best die to get his revenge.

The art is simply astounding. Baker populates a standard framework of eight panels per page (four rows of two each) with line drawings that beautifully capture expression and attitude with the skill of an old-time cartoonist. Then there’s the dialogue. Baker’s sarcastic wit has never been more directly presented, aimed directly at the business of popular culture.

This couldn’t be anything but a comic. With real people, it would be too mean and painful. As this, what it is is lots and lots of jokes taking on Hollywood celebrity. By the end, it’s hard not to like Cowboy Wally, dumb as he is, just because he’s an eternal optimist.

If you liked Why I Hate Saturn, be sure to read this. There are preview pages available at the artist’s website.

9 Responses to “*The Cowboy Wally Show — Recommended”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Oct. 6, 2008: The Wizard of Aaaargh Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson on Kyle Baker’s media-culture satire, The Cowboy Wally […]

  2. Martin Says:

    I love Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show, but I haven’t liked anything he’s written since. I wish he’d do more comics like those two.

  3. Ryan Says:

    For Martin:
    Religious or not, Baker’s “King David” is a great read.

    I actually picked up The Cowboy Wally Show a while back during a store clearance, but I’d forgotten about it until now. Sounds like I’ve been missing out. I’ll pull it off the shelf this week. Thanks, Johanna!

  4. Johanna Says:

    I need to reread King David sometime. I didn’t care for it when it came out, but I probably had the wrong expectations. I hope you like Wally — let us know what you think!

  5. odessa steps magazine Says:

    I was one of those people who pined for it to be re-released in the 90s and was ecstatic when it was finallly reissued in the mid 90s. I was always envious of those people who had copies and then would put quotes in their sigs, saying “ha. I have the book and you don’t.”

    such a great book.

  6. kris dresen Says:

    I actually stumbled across Cowboy Wally in a bookstore when it first came out. I read that thing over and over again until it was completely worn out. (I still have it.) It was exactly everything that I wanted comics to be – smart, funny, sarcastic, and with incredible artwork. Then when Why I Hate Saturn came out and I wore that copy out, I knew that I had to get back into comics. So, yeah, these two books kicked me back into wanting to be a maker of comics. I wanted to try and be as good as those two books.

  7. Johanna Says:

    What a cool inspiration!

  8. How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] sees how special Baker’s work really is. (For examples, check out Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show.) After reading, I now understand why even Baker’s illustrations look like animation […]

  9. Read a Lot of Great Kyle Baker Comics Online for Free » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] include some all-time classics, including Why I Hate Saturn (my review) and The Cowboy Wally Show (my review), plus his how-to book How to Draw Stupid (my review), his family cartoon The Bakers (my review), […]




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