Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Autobio and Collaboration: Jonathan Baylis

Jonathan Baylis has been plugging away at his autobio series, So Buttons, for a number of years. He's put together a handsome and well-organized collection, titled So Buttons: Man of Like, A Dozen Faces, that's greater than the sum of its parts. Inspired by the Harvey Pekar formula of having a stable of illustrators to collaborate with depending on the sort of story he wants to tell, Baylis has become more and more adept at pulling back on over-writing (and indeed, writing over) the art and trusting his collaborators to "show, not tell." The book is organized into sections on childhood, working in comics, his thoughts on film, his relationships and his love of animals, among others. When some of these pieces originally appeared in his minicomics series, they stuck out in a discordant manner. Recontextualized in this book, these strips are far smoother and make much more sense.

Baylis is less interested in "spilling ink" about his deepest feelings and more interested in relating anecdotes and opinions. Indeed, in one strip where he talks about a doomed relationship in the context of a trip to Los Angeles and the discovery of what appeared to be a body on the beach, his musings on how the trip cemented the notion where he and his girlfriend were drifting apart seems wedged in unnaturally. Better to provide a little less information and let the reader pick up on context clues than repeatedly try to hammer home symbolism. On the other hand, Baylis reveals a lot more of himself when he simply relates funny stories about trying to edit the work of his professional comedian wife, or plays off his OCD tendencies as a gag. When he shifts into overly-sincere mode and feels the need to explain darker emotions, his stories just don't ring as true.

Fortunately, he keeps things on a fairly light but entirely sincere basis for most of the book. My favorite stories tended to be those that focused on his reaction to works of art, be they film, comics or paintings. The "Basquiat Jam", a trio of stories drawn by Victor Kerlow and Becky Hawkins, get at the heart of how seeing Basquiat paintings in Spain affected him at a deep level, both because of the art and because of the way it connected him to his native New York City. "So...Crumby", about a friend of his who shared R.Crumb's passion for obscure records, was drawn by Crumb descendant Joseph Remnant, who actually goes a little cartoony at times in this story. Indeed, Baylis reveals much about himself in the stories he chooses to tell about others, like his father, his mother and his wife. That's true of little memory fragments from his childhood, surprising revelations and details about the ways in which he was loved and loves them.

There is an essential warmth at the heart of Baylis's comics that's best exemplified by his ongoing collaboration with cartoonist T.J. Kirsch. It's accessible and slightly cartoony. The storytelling is solid and clear. Kirsch has a way with body language that's a perfect match for Baylis' character-driven stories, creating a naturalism that a more realistic style wouldn't necessarily convey. It's pleasing to the eye without trying to be funny. When Baylis is going for a specific kind of laugh, that's where Noah Van Sciver and Rick Parker come in. Van Sciver's wobbly style is perfect for embarrassment-related humor, while Parker's skill as a caricaturist who can go over the top makes him ideal for more outlandish anecdotes. Stories about his days as a Marvel intern are fittingly drawn by fan art legend Fred Hembeck.

While Baylis and his collaborators don't always stick the landing on every strip, what makes this such a delightful read is the obvious care and thought that went into each collaboration as well as the design of the book. Outstanding cartooonist and designer Will Dinski designed the book, showing off some of the drawings of Baylis that he commissioned from the likes of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, Ed Piskor, MariNaomi and Jim Steranko (!). The book looks great and reads smoothly, so much so that even some of the more disposable strips feel added value rather than wastes of time. That Baylis has chosen so wisely and so well in his choice of artists speaks well of his eye for talent that works well with his project. That said, I expect Baylis to continue to grow as a writer, developing an even stronger sense of how to write visually without overloading his comics with text.

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