Baby is a comic about a baby. Baby is a baby who would very much like to not be a baby. Baby learns how to not be a baby: wait 18 years. So baby does that. No longer a baby, Baby decides to regress. A baby once more. Baby lives to become history's oldest baby. When Baby dies, Baby is reborn as a baby.
I first encountered Patrick Kyle's art in the "_ Comic" series of jam zines he did in collaboration with Mickey Zacchilli and Michael DeForge - fine titles like Butler Comic, Medicine Comic, Pixar’s Cars Comic and so on. (God, were those a decade ago? I do not feel like a baby.) Those comics were defined by a childlike anarchic humor and otherworldly wonderment, starting from an abstractly base definition of its titular subject and working outward to spin brief little vignettes about what butlers, medicine, and Pixar’s Cars really do. Kyle has elaborated on that improvisational adlibbed swagger in many of his longform works - Distance Mover (Koyama Press, 2014) was a stoned look askance at tabletop roleplaying campaigns, while The Death of the Master (Koyama Press, 2019) riffed semi-sarcastically on the notion of a crumbling totalitarian state. But Baby feels like a major return to the semiotic swagger of the _ Comic zines. Baby tells you what it is about in the title and proceeds to be about that the entire time, while rendering the concept "baby" as alien as possible. Baby refuses to teach us anything we expect to learn about babies, instead confronting us with provocative questions: What is a baby? What isn't a baby? When does a baby cease to be a baby? Can a baby stop being a baby? Are babies even supposed to stop being babies?
Each chapter of Baby places the Baby from Baby in a predicament tied to his status as baby. Initially, he ages out of babyhood and becomes a cop, only to find authority a mere status within the societal prison. In the next chapter, his status is challenged by a trendy new baby, Baby Goo Goo; he experiences jealousy toward his imitator, a false baby of sorts. The later chapters revolve around aging, death, the future, and metamorphosis, the baby now an eternal meme busting out of his lonesome cycle hoping to experience a rebirth which does not awaken him once more small and helplessly cradled in the arms of a mother.
Like the eponymous protagonist of Anke Feuchtenberger's & Katrin de Vries’ recently collected W the Whore, Baby is a creature of shifting forms defined by identification with a societal role. Something of a cross between the Eraserhead baby and the heroes of Jeff Smith’s Bone, Baby squashes and stretches like putty, never a fixed icon for long. Baby’s entire identity is summarized in his name–all he is and can ever be is a baby–and yet the nature of being a baby is as ambiguous and absurd as Baby’s form. A baby can unbaby simply by growing up, yet can remain a baby for thousands of years. Babies are made on demand and purchased on apps, discovered in jars, and recreated by consumption of pills. Rhetorically, a baby can be many things: a newborn; infantilized innocence; prized youth; immature “man-babies”; naïve greed; ignorance; utter helplessness; dependence; servitude; a political underclass; vulnerability; total freedom. Baby can be all or none of these things at once.
The semiotic chaos of Baby lends itself to an anarchic humor and looseness - rapid-fire punning, visual and verbal alike, careening across the page. Kyle peppers each jokey page with his trademark visual abstractions: patterned shapes and cobwebs lending a jazzy air of improvisation. But it is hard to miss a different kind of anarchy with a political bite simmering in Baby, a world where babies live outside the rules of adulthood yet live as society’s most rigidly enforced denizens, their actions and status monitored and controlled. Most (human) adults in the world of Baby are parents, police and doctors, a rigid surveillance paradigm that places boundaries on Baby’s world. Baby dreams of escape with a fervor that grows into an outright spiritual liberation; Baby may, in fact, succeed.
Baby is a phenomenal work of comics in every way possible. It is as basely funny as a Garfield strip, as philosophically heartfelt as Tezuka’s Phoenix - it stands as the synthesis of the formal experimentation at the heart of Patrick Kyle’s cartooning to date. This is a comic to tear through in an afternoon, then to pour over for weeks. It is truly a great comic about a baby, a mature expression that speaks to the baby in all of us.