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A Discussion With Marty Baumann By Rick Chandler
One of Marty Baumann’s earliest memories is of waking up one morning, piling into the car with his parents and driving out to the airport for a very special event.
“I was very young, but I remember that the people came out in droves even though it was pouring rain,” said Baumann, whose parents lived near Washington D.C. at the time. “We were all there to get a glimpse of John F. Kennedy and John Glenn. There were hundreds of us there, all standing in the rain just to see them get off the plane, wave to the crowd and drive away. They were only there for a few minutes, but it was such a big deal.
“When I got older, I began to wonder, where did that fascination go? What happened to our heroes, and to the clean, progressive promise of the future? We put a man on the moon! Damn, if we can do that, we can do anything.”
Fast forward some 40-odd years later, and behold: The Crater Kid is born. Baumann’s online space adventure strip is an ode to the bright, hopeful sci-fi comics and B movies that enthralled him in his youth. And now it is climbing to heights not seen a lot these days by online heroes – The Kid is now in trade paperback form.
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Baumann’s creation chronicles the adventures of a bullied schoolboy who is whisked away from his ordinary life to save the inhabitants a distant planet from a succession of attacks and catastrophes. And in the process of saving other worlds, he learns a lot about himself.
The Crater Kid Collection made quite a splash when it was introduced at the Monster Bash Convention in Pittsburgh on June 20 (Published by Dinoship, it will soon be moving into wide distribution).
“Also, I’m just back from Los Angeles where I dropped in on Alex Toth and delivered a copy of The Crater Kid Collection in person,” Baumann said. “I’d like to convey to one and all that Alex is alive and well. Space Patrol star Ed Kemmer and author Ray Bradbury also have their copies.”
How popular is The Crater Kid? Although it’s now in reruns, at its peak an estimated 150,000 people saw the free, syndicated strip each month – and it appears on hundreds of web sites and in individual e-mail bins throughout the world. The Crater Kid also appears as the monthly companion story to Steve Conley’s Astounding Space Thrills comic book, which debuted in October, 2001 with Image Comics.
The trade paperback includes all 400 strips so far, plus new material and an illustrated introduction by legendary EC Comics and Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis.
The strip is a throwback to the science fiction comics of the 1940s and ‘50s, with an additional nod to Jonny Quest and the Star Wars films. It has also been compared to Calvin and Hobbes and even Space Ghost. Baumann’s fun, retro artistic style gives the project its sleek good looks, but the storytelling is the fuel that makes it soar.
At first glance The Crater Kid may seem as if it is geared toward kids, but don’t say that to its legion of adult fans – among them such luminaries as Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Jeff Smith. And Ron Osborn, former executive producer of The West Wing, calls it “A valentine to the kid in all of us when we believed that all things were possible. It’s good to be reminded that perhaps they still are.”
Baumann’s creation does indeed have that crossover appeal. Witness The Kid’s companions: “Diz,” a green-skinned, hipster scientist who acts as The Kid’s mentor (or is it the other way around?). There’s also a menagerie of thinking hardware, such as “The Sponge,” a brain-in-a-flying-saucer that soaks up data and dispenses advice. There’s also a female kid counterpart named Molly Cool. And along the way in his adventures, The Kid is just as likely to wrestle with questions of honesty and heroism as he is with menacing aliens.
One story line, for instance, has The Kid coming to grips with the notion that he is indeed capable of heroic deeds despite previous evidence to the contrary. Another centers on efforts to repair a communicator so that he can keep in touch with his mother back on Earth. When she learned that her son would be traveling to a distant world, she had packed him a sandwich and made him promise to call her every evening.
That’s something you just don’t see in Spawn.
“That parent-child connection seems to be lost on the modern audience, but I think that it’s very important,” said Baumann, who was born in Maryland and now resides in Arlington, Virginia. “Those themes are largely missing from today’s comics, where everyone seems to want to create an imitation of Quentin Tarantino. What good is it? How are we enriched by this?”
Baumann didn’t start drawing comics until the age of 40 – he was coaxed into it by pals Conley, Davis and Jim Steranko, the former who had worked with Baumann at USA Today (the two co-created that paper’s web site). Thus encouraged, The Crater Kid debuted on Jan. 1, 2000.
“This is a book for the millions of people who feel that science fiction and comics have somehow left them behind,” said Dinoship’s Bob Madison. “In most recent science fiction, the future is already here and it’s terrible. The Crater Kid says it doesn’t have to be that way. Marty and I jokingly call it ‘The anti-Matrix.’
Baumann says that one of his greatest influences is the late Jack Kirby.
“Kirby was so great at choosing that one moment, which is what great comic book art is all about,” Baumann said. “That’s what guys like Kirby and Steranko and Wood all have in common; that ability to capture that precise moment in time that readers need to see.”
The first comics Baumann actively collected, however, were Joe Kubert’s Sergeant Rock.
“They were compelling, self-contained stories which actually had something to say,” Baumann said of the D.C. war title. “Sergeant Rock fought in the same war as my dad, and as a child I thought that was cool. And those stories hold up now; there’s nothing pro war or hawkish about them at all. The best of them were stories about humanity.”
Many of those themes are evident in Baumann’s work today.
“The Kid struggles with many of those same issues of heroism and courage. He is the son of a war hero, and so he is constantly dealing with the fact that he has to live up to that ideal.
“My own father was seriously wounded in World War II. I did some research on my own, because my father would never talk about it, still won’t. He was in the 102nd Infantry Division, and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. And I think that, when I discovered his past, that’s part of what gave rise to The Crater Kid. I found that I had a certain amount that I had to live up to.”
Baumann is also your host at the web site The Astounding B Monster, which devoted to interviews and profiles of the people who gave us classic sci-fi and horror B movies. Another of his online creations is Dick Profane, a parody of foul-mouthed, pointlessly violent, cliché-riddled crime dramas. A team of writers headed by Osborn is currently developing that idea for television.
Baumann has also become a spokesman for Childhelp USA, which offers comprehensive programs and services for neglected and abused children. A portion of Crater Kid merchandising proceeds, including t-shirt sales, go directly to that organization each year.
“This is an organization that says to kids and families: ‘Here’s an address where you can go and you’ll be safe.’ I love that, and I worked hard for them. I did my best.”
That is something you need to know about Marty Baumann and The Crater Kid -- they both tend to wear their heart on their sleeve.
“I remember one reviewer called my comic ‘preachy,’ “ he said. “Of course it’s preachy! Every time a writer puts words forth, he’s preaching something. Yes! Thank you! I hope to do a lot more preaching.”
Or, listen to The Kid tell it:
“Just because you can’t see the stars doesn’t mean they’re not there. You might not bump into heroes every day, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. … Call ‘em dreams if you want, but when reality needs changing, you can aspire to dreams, or resign yourself to nightmares. The decision is yours.”