There are some comic book artists whose work you could hand to someone who’s never seen a comic before and it would immediately inspire awe. Alex Ross, J.H. Williams III, and Bill Sienkiewicz are just a few I’d put in that category; creators whose work possess easily identifiable qualities that both seasoned comic readers and new readers can immediately recognize as impressive.
But then there are the artists who are best appreciated by those who’ve invested their time in learning what makes sequential art click. That’s not to say their work would repel newer readers, but that their talents won’t immediately be evident. Even Jack Kirby, quite possibly the single most beloved artist of the superhero genre, can initially seem too blocky and strange for modern tastes.
I’m saying all this because I have a bold statement to make: Kyle Starks is one of the greatest cartoonists working today.
Starks’ art isn’t flashy, and his writing shows little pretension of grand philosophical ambitions or ostentatious musings about the human condition. His work is unlikely to be taught in AP Literature classes or displayed in bougie art galleries. But his mastery of sequential art fundamentals, paired with a wicked sense of humor and an unapologetic embrace of the low-brow, makes his oeuvre utterly transcendent.
I discovered Starks’ work in 2014 with his graphic novel Sexcastle, and immediately fell in love. The title refers not to a castle full of orgies or anything like that, but the title character, Shane Sexcastle: a one-liner spouting badass whose eyepatch and shaggy hair is a clear tribute to Snake Plisken, Kurt Russell’s character in John Carpenter’s 1981 classic Escape from New York. Fittingly, Sexcastle is loving homage to ‘80s action movies, but it’s so much more than mere pastiche.
That’s mostly because Sexcastle is hilarious. I wouldn’t describe Starks’ sense of humor as “dry,” because when he does something funny it’s immediately clear, but there’s an effortless quality to it. He has the confidence to make readers laugh without calling much attention to the attempt, because he immediately moves on to the next sight gag or one-liner. Comedic timing is a difficult thing to pull off in comics, because allowing the reader to control the pace of the story is such an inextricable part of what makes comics the medium it is. Starks bypasses that obstacle by largely doing away with setups and ambushing readers with left-field punchlines that they’ll never see coming.
He’s a funny writer, of course, but like any great humor cartoonist, Starks is a master of drawing funny as well. From his page layouts, to the composition of his sight gags, to the silly faces of hapless goons getting their asses kicked, Starks’ ability to consistently make readers laugh is unmatched.
Starks’ cartooning is perfectly-suited for action as well, which he continued to prove in his next graphic novel (colored by Luigi Anderson), the 90s action movie tribute Kill Them All. It could be seen as a spiritual sequel to Sexcastle, and by amping up the high-octane violence, he proved that his unfussy style is anything but “simple.”
Kyle Starks probably isn’t the kind of creator most comic book devotees would think of when it comes to great action artists. His work isn’t slick or flashy in the way that would appeal to the typical Wednesday Warrior who gravitates toward the likes of Jim Lee and Bryan Hitch. To put it crudely, it’s the kind of art that, to people who equate “realistic” with “good,” looks “bad.” But Starks’ disregard for frills in favor of unassailable storytelling fundamentals is precisely what makes him so great.
Look at the fight scenes in Karate Prom, which you can literally do right now, for free (or via donation). Notice the clarity of movement that Starks is employing; there’s never any question of who’s hitting who, with what, in which part of the body. That may sound elementary, but pull a half dozen fighty comics off the shelf from the last 30 years and you’ll see how smooth, fluid comic book action isn’t nearly as easy as Kyle Starks makes it seem.
That visual storytelling finesse doesn’t just come out through Starks’ gut-busting depictions of violence. Look at how sleek those basketball scenes are in Old Head, Starks’ sports-action-horror-comedy.
For all the laughs, Starks takes his craft seriously. That’s why all his comics display a strong emotional core, even if the streaks of earnestness come out unexpectedly. On the surface, the premise behind Starks’ Rock Candy Mountain (with colors by Chris Schweizer) may seem crass: in the post-World War II United States, a hobo named Jackson embarks on a perilous journey towards the titular hobo paradise of legend, fighting other hobos along the way, as well as The Devil. Yet Jackson’s journey is filled with honest-to-goodness pathos, and Starks put real effort into researching hobo culture and history so that the central premise (at least in execution) doesn’t read like a cheap joke.
Starks’ considerable writing talent is made evident by his collaborations with other artists. In Mars Attacks, fully drawn by Chris Schweizer, Starks hid a deeply affecting story of a strained relationship between a man and his father within the pages of martians zapping humanity into oblivion. And with Assassin Nation — his collaboration with the similarly brilliant Erica Henderson — the fact that one character is named “Fuck Tarkington” doesn’t change the fact that it’s a gripping thriller that keeps readers guessing as much as they’re laughing.
I sometimes have to resist the urge to get defensive when I talk about Kyle Starks on such superlative terms. The comics reading community can have rather rigid ideas about which creators belong in the same ranks as Will Eisner or Charles Schultz. Part of me wonders if I should instead be talking about an artist who’s achieved more mainstream recognition, or has more ambitious things to say about the state of the world and our place in it.
But I love Kyle Starks because his work shows so little concern for being anything beyond exactly what it is. It may not be what snooty academics are looking for, but it’s idiosyncratic, witty, and entertaining from top to bottom. For Kyle Starks, making his readers smile, laugh, and pump their fists in the air is a noble pursuit of its own, and he approaches it with the same passion and care as Simone Biles perfecting her floor routine. Any time I pick up a new Kyle Starks comic, I know I’ll be in a better mood by the time I finish it. It may seem premature to call him one of America’s greatest living cartoonists, but if someone so reliably, tremendously entertaining doesn’t deserve G.O.A.T. status, I struggle to imagine who else does.