J. M. DeSantis

Remembering a Friend and Mentor

Bill Baker
In Memoriam
William “Bill” M. Baker
November 12, 1958 – February 20, 2014

I didn’t know Bill Baker a long time. We were first introduced at the 2010 New York Comic Con by a mutual friend and colleague, Mr. Mark Mazz (who holds the distinction of “discovering” me at the 2007 Big Apple Con). It was my first year exhibiting at that show, and I only spoke with Bill briefly then. Mark introduced him as a writer and journalist–but this was not just any run-of-the-mill wordsmith. Mark acted as though Bill was something of a legend and with good reason.

In that brief meeting, Bill spoke to me about his (then) upcoming book, ICONS: The DC Comics & Wildstorm Art of Jim Lee, and an acclaimed interview with Alan Moore. However, what struck me most about Bill was not his accomplishments but rather how humble and personable he was even in the presence of an unknown creator. I find very often those who have “made it” have little time for those who haven’t, but that wasn’t Bill’s way. I’m not the comic historian Bill was, so at the time I had no idea who Mark had introduced me to. However, over time, I learned just how legendary Bill was and not just as a writer, but as a person as well.

When I’d speak with him at other conventions over the years, he was always warm and encouraging, asking me to keep him updated with my life, projects and publications. Sometimes it felt like very little was happening worth mentioning, but that didn’t matter to Bill. He seemed to have faith in the people around him and always made one feel like what they were doing was important and that it was only a matter of time before everyone else finally caught on.

It was a little over a year ago, (again at the New York Comic Con in 2012–that show always seems to have significance for me, which is probably the lasting reason why I keep applying for space there) that my relationship with Bill at last developed from acquaintance to friend. This was the same show at which the first Chadhiyana comic debuted. Though Bill showed interest in my work before, he seemed particularly interested in this project. We went to dinner the first night of the show (with Mark Mazz and my friend Ralph Gilmore, owner of Orange Moonwerks). There we swapped stories and talked about the craft and the industry. It was then that Bill and I decided to make good on our yet-unfulfilled and then on-going promise to keep in better contact. We did and little did I know the effect it would have upon me.

Given the distance between us (he in Michigan and I in New Jersey), our relationship was mostly over the phone (often for hours late on a Friday night). There was something about Bill which made me open up to him almost immediately. Perhaps it was his gentle, friendly nature, perhaps it was the sense I got from him that he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. Whatever the case, I talked to him about things I had never related to anyone in the industry before.

At the time I was in the midst of a transition, making changes in my life and career, and determined to have great success in both. I had struggled for years and experienced many disappointments. Yet now I had this new, exotic character I was only just beginning to explore, and (as Bill could see and he told me as much) I was passionate about and believed in the project completely. Still, I was locking up and unsure how to move forward, but determined to start moving in the direction I had always wanted.

Bill was extremely kind, to put it lightly. Not his attitude towards me (he was honest, but never cruel), but rather the amount of precious time and patience he gave me. We spoke about Chadhiyana, where I wanted to take the character, the controversial issues I wished to tackle through her and how I envisioned the project in its entirety. We also spoke about my career, the people I was surrounded with and the people I wanted to surround myself with, the comics industry and the larger publishing industry. We spoke about my long-term goals and what I wanted to accomplish in my career and life. And Bill listened. Never judging, never exhausted by me (and I don’t know how, as I would sometimes talk, generally worked up, for hours). He was there when I needed him, and he never asked for anything in return except that someday I would be equally helpful to someone else who needed it. I hope still to make good on that.

Bill didn’t just listen either; he gave advice too–lots of it. It was Bill Baker alone who encouraged (almost insisted) that I post my graphic novel, Chadhiyana: In the Company of Shadows, as a web-comic while I worked on it and looked for a publisher. It was also Bill who encouraged me to continue to pursue a job in education (which I had turned to, I thought, in a moment of desperation some years before). He knew I wanted to work full-time as a writer and artist and believed I could, but he felt, for now, a teaching job was a smart choice so that I didn’t have to continue struggling (as I did in my twenties) while I built up my name and body of work. While at times I was skeptical of his advice (I think a healthy amount of skepticism is healthy, mind you), sometimes to the point where he’d rehash things a few times over until I felt comfortable with it, I knew that this man had such a love and knowledge of the medium and the industry and I could sense he was genuinely trying to help, that I felt he wouldn’t steer me wrong.

We agreed on many things, especially on some of our ideas about comics and where we felt the medium was and could be heading. It was because of this that he invited me to go with him and Bob Sodaro (whom I’ve known a long time) to the BEA (Book Expo America) this past year. Bill claimed it was a show I needed to start going to in order to meet the people I wanted to meet. (Bill was of the mind that my audience should not be limited to comic readers alone–I always felt this way, but he was the first to acknowledge and encourage it.)

I should say the focus wasn’t all on me during our conversations either. I got to know Bill better too. As much as he gave me his patience and advice, I listened to him speak about the troubles he was facing in his own life. In fact, I was initially surprised how much he opened up to me about them. Perhaps he felt the same sense of friendship for me as I did for him. I’d like to think so. Perhaps it was that we got along so well. We are both Scorpios, after all. Whatever the case, he confided in me too, and with that came a greater sense of trust and friendship. As for Bill’s troubles, I will pass over them silently, as that would be Bill’s to share. What I will say is that for every long hour he selflessly gave to me, I’m glad I was able to reciprocate in some way. After all, that is what friends are for.

When I last saw Bill, it was at the New York Comic Con again this past year. We hadn’t spoken much through the summer (both of us having been busy), but he was pleased to hear my graphic novel was online. After the con, we spoke only briefly here and there. Again, we were both busy. He with a multitude of new interviews and articles (he kept saying he was doing really well, and I was happy to hear that), and I with my new teaching post, Chadhiyana, and a new relationship. But he was always in my thoughts. How could he not be? And then the phone rang.

On Monday, as I was packing up at the end of the day at the teaching job which Bill encouraged me to take, going home to get as much done on the next page for the graphic novel he supported from the beginning, I got a phone call from Mark Mazz, the man who introduced Bill and I some three years before: Bill had passed away before the weekend from complications from pneumonia.

I regret that I didn’t have more time with Bill, to allow our friendship to grow further and to get to know him even better. You see, with Bill, it was never about his experience or his connexions (and he had many) or his knowledge of the industry. It was about the way this man made you feel when you were around him. He was always encouraging, and even on a rough day, the man always had a smile on his face. He was pleasant, kind and honest without being crass (all things I hold in high esteem). There was never anyone I spoke to who didn’t smile when I mentioned the name Bill Baker.

I also regret that Bill never got to see the dedication I planned to give him in the finished graphic novel. Though there are many people who I have to thank (and may still need to thank yet before its completion), it would be remiss if Bill did not get that honour first. He was supportive to the end, and even when we weren’t in constant contact, I’d always see him liking and commenting on my Facebook posts and even reposting a link to my web-comic once or twice. That’s more than I can say for some friends who I’ve known longer, and if you’re a creative person, you know that there’s no greater show of friendship than the support of your work. Bill knew that too. Intimately.

I will miss his friendship, the one that was and that which still could have been. I’ll still dedicate the book to him, of course. It’s the least I could do, especially with how supportive, understanding and patient he was with me when all I needed was a little reassurance and guidance. We all do in life sometimes, and Bill was happy to give it. Though now it feels like too little too late to thank him in this way. I wish I was able to in person. Face-to-face is always best. Though I suppose there really isn’t any other choice now.

The industry has lost a living legend, but I lost a genuine friend.

(Bill Baker died at 55 years of age from complications from pneumonia in his home in Escanaba, Michigan.)

J. M. DeSantis

J. M. DeSantis is a writer and artist (Write-ist). He is best known as the creator of the medieval Indian fantasy heroine, Chadhiyana. DeSantis has also authored a number of short stories and artworks, mostly in the fantasy, horror and humour genres. He is also the writer and artist for the humorous web-comic, Gentleman Cthulhu: Emeritus Moribus Monstrum (gentlemancthulhu.com) and the writer and owner of this blog.

Comments:

  • Mark Mazz says:

    JM, I was at work today and read this…
    It literally brought me to tears as you captured the spirit of who Bill was to all of us (and roundly why I was so broken by his death).

    Bill had all the qualities that make us the Best of who we could be. He cared deeply for his friends, and was there is a heartbeat to help those that wanted to help others. I think i related to you once about how I had discovered just how much charity work my brother-in-law had done after he had passed. This is true of Bill Baker as well, and it speaks volumes to who he was and WHY he was so well respected by others.

    Thank you for this. I cherish my experiences with Bill as a true friend, and now I have some more in your moments with him as well.

    Sincerely,
    —mark

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