Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shades of Autobio: Baylis, Martin, Runkle

So Buttons #6, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. This is yet another solid issue of bite-sized anecdotes related by Baylis and rendered by an increasingly-impressive group of collaborators. Fred Hembeck continues to be an ideal artist for Baylis' stories about his time as an intern at Marvel Comics, and printing this story in full color adds to its effectiveness. Baylis has a front-line view of exactly how Marvel treated its most talented creators, and the anecdote here where he chose to give Joe Simon a couple of Golden Age comics that Simon himself did not possess instead of just getting them autographed shows how a fan treated the creators with more compassion than Marvel itself. Baylis made an interesting choice by also running the superb Josh Bayer story "Trimpe Survives", originally printed in black & white in the Rub The Blood anthology broadsheet. Printed in color and on a smaller scale, this story that interpolates a fantasy sequence with Trimpe's real struggle to get work from Marvel in the 90s is in turns profane, poignant and hilarious. It also dovetailed nicely with the first story. "So Begrudgingly" and "So This Is Where I Got It From" (drawn by Sam Spina and T.J. Kirsch, respectively), are the sort of short, gag-oriented strips that Baylis does well. Spina in particular adds exaggerated body language and flopsweat to a story about living well being the best revenge (but tweeting about it not hurting things).

The centerpiece of the issue is "So Basquiat". One of my early criticisms of Baylis' writing, especially with regard to longer, more serious pieces, is that he tended to overwrite. Too much narrative caption text and too little room for the artist to do more other than functionally describe that text was a frequent problem, though not a surprising one for a writer trying to figure out how to write a comic. As Baylis has evolved, he's come to trust his artists more and more; in turn, the artists he's working with are more adept at taking what he's written and transforming it into something visually striking. This suite of three stories works so well because it begins with Baylis' own personal experiences discovering Jean Michel Basquiat, the famous graffiti artist/painter who emerged in the 1980s. Baylis discovered his work through the biopic about his life, which tied into his own unsatisfying experience at NYU film school and that the downtown art scene was not what he had hoped. That segues into a sequence drawn by Becky Hawkins (jammed full of eye-pops) that saw a naive but enthusiastic Baylis take the money he got after being downsized by Topps to go to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. The cartoony nature of Hawkins' line and the soft use of color was a perfect match for the delightful weirdness of the museum's design, and Baylis let the art do the talking as much as possible while still adding in key expository points that talked more about his emotions than actual events. Victor Kerlow did the first and third segments, and his comparatively, scratchy & dirty line further communicated how much seeing the museum and Basquiat's pieces there affected him as a person, creating a sense of not necessarily relating to him but getting a sense of what they had in common. This story is a true breakthrough for Baylis, and when you tack on the cover by Jay Lynch (combining Topps' imagery with Basquiat's likeness) and a back cover portrait by Noah Van Sciver, you have his strongest issue to date.

Runx Tales #3, by Matt Runkle. Runkle is a fine general-interest storyteller who moves seamlessly from talking about a beloved drug store that closed to weird spots in San Jose to an interview with a beloved author to a series of anecdotes about a couple of ex-lovers. There's something pleasingly crude and beautifully ugly about the way he draws people: bug-eyes, stubble, skewed mouths and slouched, often amorphously drawn bodies. I think the best way to categorize him as a visual essayist, as he eloquently and colorfully spins yarns about things that interest him. His extended essay about seeing Prince on the day that fringe Christian Harold Camping claimed the world would end was jam-packed with interesting bits of trivia that went off on fascinating tangents. It was like reading a personal, emotional version of Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, stripped of its hyperbolic qualities. That was especially true when he segued into discussing the famous Winchester House. The story goes that Mary Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, kept on adding to the house in order to appease the ghosts of those killed by the rifles. Runkle goes deeper, discussing Winchester's roots in theosophy and spiritualism but also making note of her innovative architectural concepts.

The interview with author Jincy Willett is also tremendous, combining quotes from her novels, quotes from the interview, a variety of cleverly-composed illustrations and some solid literary criticism. The feature on the bizarre variety store SuperLongs was a bit tougher to swallow because of how esoteric its subject was and how text-heavy the feature turned out to be, but it did give Runkle a chance to draw the interesting objects one could find in there. Finally, "My Two Daddies" finds Runkle literally cutting a horizontal line in the middle of the page to create dual flip-books about two life-changing relationships when he was a "failed rent boy". It's a fascinating look at Runkle coming to terms with a stereotype, dealing with the racial implications of his relationships (he's white, but both of those sugar daddies were African-American), and how injecting money into personal and sexual relationships made things more complicated, not less so. It's a beautiful, haunting and bracingly honest account of his past and just the sort of story that makes him such a sharp writer.

Driftwood City, by Jason Martin. This is a 100-page collection of Martin's Laterborn minicomics series. Martin's comics are all about capturing small, powerful and poignant motions. Above all else, they are about trying to capture particular strong feelings. "Lily, or Save Your Pity" is about being a teen and meeting a girl with whom he had an intense phone-and-letter relationship with for a couple of months. It eventually fizzled out, but Martin really gets at that feeling of going through an experience that has an indelible impact on one's experiences and memories. It's a personality-forming experience. In the first section of the book, "Home", the stories inevitably turn to either brief, funny anecdotes or life-changing experiences or individuals. The strip about his class reciting the lyrics to "The Humpty Dance" to a teacher who inadvertently says the first line of the song is hilarious. "Who Are You" is about a teacher who inspired him to be a better human being, one more empathetic, caring and courageous. Martin himself would downplay this, as some of the strips in the book depict a breakdown of his own moral courage, but there's no question that there's a sense of being more evolved than the average high schooler.

"The College Years" gets at the heart of Martin's stories, which is the relationship between him and his friends. He had the fortune of meeting and cultivating a group of friends that had a nourishing and sustaining effect on his life, and he likewise for them. The strips here are about small moments, shared moments of beauty, funny stories, and the ways in which emotions from grief to joy are felt. It's clear that Martin is powerfully affected by what the philosopher Kant refers to as the "sublime" experience, which is a moment where one is overwhelmed by beauty. The moment can be talked about and around, but the moment itself is beyond descriptive language. Sharing these moments through the poetic language of comics, in a manner similar to John Porcellino, is one of the best ways of attempting to communicate the experience.

Martin's line is crude but functional. He's allowed himself to try to draw less and less in terms of detail and lines, which has made his actual comics look better. Some of his more labored drawings get in the way of understanding the feelings and experiences he's trying to relate, but for the most part his sense of restraint as both writer and illustrator meshes well enough to get across his meaning. That's true in some clever strips, like "The San Joaquin Route" and "Nocturnal Waltz", where his drawings and page design have qualities that affect the narrative. The third section of the book, "Drifting/Nocturnal Waltz" was my favorite because it wasn't tethered to a particular chronological era in his life, but instead allowed him to jump from anecdote to anecdote about traveling, especially traveling with others. The book concludes with Martin once again expressing his devotion to his friends, old and new, and the ways in which they obviously drive and affect his art. This is a deceptively simple and beautifully sincere book with many moments of wry humor and more moments of how wonderful and difficult it is to be alive and interact with others.

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