Break The Chain (1994), by Kyle Baker. Marvel.
There's still such a thing as ten-cent boxes in the comic shops worth going to (namely the ones that'll never show up on any list of "comic shops worth going to"). They reduce the act of buying comics to something slightly less contemplative than buying gum. Peep the cover, make a snap decision. Object lesson: this book. A flat-color background and Kyle Baker in 1994 drawing sneaker treads like Frank Miller in 2002? Worth my dime. I'm into that.
Of course, even with the element of financial risk basically gone, there's still a gamble involved in buying comics. The space they take up in your house, the time they take up in your life. For obvious reasons, bargain-bin comics carry a chance of disappointing pretty hard. There are some killers too, don't get me wrong, but I've never come across one that earned its keep like this. I mean, I opened it at the subway station and:
Suddenly I'm hooked.
Break The Chain is one hell of a bizarre artifact, both a symbol of the ridiculous excess of '90s corporate comics and an example of how said excess worked pretty well some of the time. There's no publisher information or even a barcode on the cover because it originally came packaged like this. Included a KRS-One single to listen to while you read, retailed for 6.99. Yes, I got this rare first-issue collector's item at one seventieth of its cover price. The comic's indicia lists it as a product of "Marvel Music", whose publisher was one Stan Lee. The music video for the "Break The Chain" single indicates that the song was published by the same company. Yes folks, Marvel had a hip hop record label, Marvel hired established, popular artists to record for said label, and Marvel then hired talented comics-makers to create promotional pamphlets for the recordings rendered. How it was ever decided that this was no longer a viable practice, I have no idea. Spider-Man Fever? Pff, I'd rather see Brendan McCarthy's Lil Wayne miniseries. And what's Paul Gulacy doing that he can't draw that Ghostface hardcover we all know he's had in him for years?
Break The Chain is a comic that gets by (from the dime bin to my boards and bags, anyway) on context alone, but its content is easily as double-take-inducing as anything that came printed on its polybag. After the air-raid siren statement of intent above, we're blitzkrieged again with what may be the single craziest panel Kyle Baker's ever drawn.
Which is saying something. That panel signifies pretty well for the rest of the comic: Break The Chain casts its nets wide, both in story and in art. Baker's panels are totally fearless throughout, drenched in the stale Kool-Aid of early computer coloring, bursting with rubbery pinball cartoon characters, torn to ribbons with ink lines whose boundless exuberance curl into a deeply elegant alphabet of trails and shapes. The Kyle Baker of 1994 had worn the journeyman's hat for a while, the relentless style change-ups that define him today already very much a part of his artistry. But he really puts it all together here, shotgunning Kirby and Bakshi and Avery and Miller onto the pages all together with sugary glee and amphetamine conviction. At its best, Baker's art here edges into George Herriman territory, characters so purely cartooned they no longer represent anything "real", thrashing and dancing and pontificating against technicolor backgrounds pieced together from the loosest scraps of free inking. This is comics art on full blast, too loud and self-assured to make an effort at being anything but what it is.
The plot, such as it is, goes straight ahead with equal force, though of course it can't match the sheer quality of Baker's art. But what it lacks in virtuosity it makes up with its refreshing weirdness and novelty. This is not your average comic story. The journey begins with Big Joe Krash (KRS-One in one of his numerous secret identities) walking around the streets of New York to get the word out about his new record, which just happens to be the one that comes with the comic. With a few truant elementary-school kids and his buddy Malcolm in tow, Joe repairs to Grandmoms' house, where the tape in his boom box shares its messages of hope, pride, and racial unity over the din of the Oprah episode in the background. In the end the importance of new ideas and positive thought is roundly proven out, and we've learned that you can get these keys to success "anywhere! Including school!"
So yeah, Break The Chain is comics as discourse in a lot of ways, Steve Ditko's Mr. A philosophizing reimagined as a savvy after-school special for underprivileged kids. It's actually pretty astonishing just how much Baker manages to put across in 32 pages, hammering the message in with grid after eye-popping grid of visualized lyrics. Somehow it never comes across as dull or preachy, though: there's enough immediacy and verve to every panel that this comic feels like fun all the way through. Cut loose from the literality more plot-driven material demands, Baker turns each of his drawings into some kind of a showcase, whether for warped political cartooning, overamplified caricature, or simple deranged hilarity. (The panel of a successful, well-educated surgeon taking a scalpel to his patient's brain with Bugs Bunny gusto was a particular favorite of mine.) As ever in comics, the narrative is carried more by the art than its own power, but that's hardly a problem, and when the art goes this schizophrenic, this panoptical, this loud, it's hardly like reading a narrative at all. Sequence is discarded for impact -- one panel hits, then the next and the one after that. Each carries the weight of a minor revelation.
In the vast index of Marvel comics, Break The Chain certainly falls somewhere in the "weird" category. As mere product, like I said, it's little more than a symbol of the ridiculous decadence mainstream comics achieved at the height of the speculator era -- one of our greatest cartoonists turned to illustrating what basically amounts to a feature-length ad. But as comics, as story and art and that indefinable third something the medium carries, it's great: a meeting of two revolutionaries' minds across their media, an escapist kaleidoscope with few parallels, a chance to see panels and word balloons and color go way more bonkers than they usually allow themselves to, at Marvel or anywhere else. Interestingly, Break The Chain also works pretty well as a mid-'90s version of Marvel's Silver Age "social conscience" stories, the ones where Spider-Man would fight dope pushers or Nick Fury would remind us that a man is a man no matter the color of his skin. Decades after that, why not let us see a rapper as a superhero, why not just lay it on the line about the state of black America, why not make that dedicated, passionate preaching the whole thing instead of just the trimmings? Lord knows it's a hell of a lot better than the rest of what Marvel was doing in '94. And honestly, it's a hell of a lot better than most of what's come since as well.