The Cowboy Wally Show
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.
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.