Monday, May 9, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: Punk As Fuck

Kicking off Josh Bayer week, below is a reprint of an article I wrote for Studygroup Magazine #2:

Reading a Josh Bayer comic for the first time is an electrifying experience. His manic, scrawled art overwhelms the eye at first glance, daring you to immerse yourself in the image until the moment arrives that reveals a rock-solid sense of structure underlying all of its madness. His figurework can be as alien as it is familiar, the work of an artist who has clearly spent hours studying a wide variety of comics art, merging any number of disparate influences in a single page. Bayer effectively captures the energy of a comic drawn by a ten-year-old boy. One can sense the immediacy of each drawing and the simple urge to draw page after page, the images exploding out of his pen. That immediacy, even intimacy, is shored up by Bayer's obvious foundational skill and craft. This visual craziness is paired up with a probing social and political consciousness; it's not just a simple expression of his id like S. Clay Wilson or Victor Cayro. Bayer explores the space between nihilistic/gleeful violence, scatological humor and personal/political commentary. He's not always successful in maintaining a balance, but when he gets it right, the result is some of the most interesting comics work of the past fifteen years.

Bayer's alignment with punk is obvious, given the DIY nature of his comics and his keen political consciousness. there's another element at work here, however: punk's ability to reach out to the dispossessed, the disregarded and the disposable. Punk finds and embraces inspiration in all sorts of sources and, in its purest incarnation, shuns corporate manipulation. This is easier said than done, give the way that corporate America manages to co-opt everything, punk included, but all it takes is awareness, attitude and the understanding that punk is not so much a pose or a fashion statement as it is a way of looking at the world and living one's life. Bayer's ability to create meaning out of 1980s Marvel comic books is an example of taking a long-forgotten comic (Rom #29), reinterpreting it, and then following it up with an intense and personal story about a disaffected little kid obsessed with superhero comics.

ROM starts with the artist, his face obscured by a dark scrawl, furiously attempting to come up with a name for this very project. the reader gets a sese of the artists's impatience and frustration in trying to do something that's obviously important to him, until he goes the most direct route: simply calling his book ROM and telling the reader that it's an adaptation of a comic written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Sal Buscema. Bayer tells the reader a bit of Mantlo's sad story later in the book; he quit comics, became an attorney specializing in social justice and got hit by a car while jogging. He is alive but requires around-the-clock care. Mantlo was a marvel workhorse in the late 70s and early 80s, writing as many as four titles a month and filling in on others. Like many writers of the era, he had a tendency to overwrite, with much of his prose turning out rather purple. At the same time, he was obsessed with social justice in his stories, even if he obviously felt the odds were stacked against people trying to do the right thing. As a result, his stories always had a grim, fatalistic quality. Rom was a comic based on a toy, which quickly became Mantlos's pet project--a fable about paranoia that later transitioned into an epic about how war inevitably scars all its participants. Buscema drew the initial run, and the pairing was fitting given his status as Marvel's workhorse artist. While known for his speed and the stiffness of his characters' body language, he's also a tremendous storyteller with a powerful sense of anatomy. One was never confused about what was happening in a Sal Buscema-drawn comic book, even if the art wasn't dazzling by the standards of the time.

Bayer internalizes the solidity of that structure and storytelling in his comic; the quality of his line is obviously influenced by Gary Panter and Robert Crumb, but Buscema's figurework and storytelling sense shine through. That said, Bayer's art is so idiosyncratic that even when interpreting a specific artist's work, his own eccentricities pop up on every page. The silver, alien Spaceknight Rom here is a chunky,  hulking figure frequently hunched over with sadness and resignation. The story is a typically downbeat Mantlo tale: Rom, after burying one of his fellow Spaceknights, flies off to a small town with a strange radiation signature, only to find a family dying of radiation poisoning. They were accidentally irradiated by an old Hulk villain named The Missing Link, who was lurking down in the mine because of the guilt he felt in accidentally getting them sick after being accepted by them. After an obligatory fight, Rom manages to cure the townsfolk and the Link himself, who had been adopted by his family. They blamed it all on the Hulk, saying it was his radiation that caused the sickness. Bayer infuses this story with skewed perspectives, grotesque figure distortions, odd beats of humor and a rawness to the proceedings that fit snugly with the original story but adds a filthy, underground quality. He gently mocks some of the dialogue by slapping the word "Exposition" on top of it, but the essence of the story remains the same.

ROM is an interesting staging ground for the true masterpiece of his young career, Raw Power. Published by Box Brown's Retrofit Comics, Raw Power continues to mine '80s Marvel Comics in intriguing ways, from its cover announcing that it's a "King Size Retrofit Comics Annual" to its bizarre interpolation of an issue of the New Universe comic D.P. 7. A short-lived line that was supposed to present a more realistic shared universe that was "the world outside your window," the New Universe was a sales fiasco and was cancelled within a few years. Raw Power, deriving its title from the classic Stooges record, is a fascinating polemic against fascism and its ue of power to shape consensus reality. The cover images of a hulking G. Gordon Liddy (called G.G. Liddy in this comic-- a knowing wink to nihilistic musician G.G. Allin, I would guess) slashing his chest with glass a la Iggy Pop is both hilarious and entirely in line with Liddy's bizarre philosophy. The comic satirizes Liddy scathingly, imagining a scenario where this real-life super-villain might have been called upon by president Jimmy Carter to help eradicate the threat of punk rock, an idea that may well have been rooted in truth. The parallel narrative involves a brutish admirer of Liddy's named Terry who dons a cat mask and beats up criminals and punk rockers. He's a lunatic who witnessed his parents murdered by "punks" as a child (the classic Batman origin), who deludes himself into thinking that his case worker is his girlfriend as she tries to get to the heart of his pathology. One woman who is victimized by Cat-Man takes refuge in a squat and is given a violent comic-book to read by one of its residents, an offer she refuses. It turns out to be a reinterpretation of D.P. 7, featuring one of Bayer's characters in the lead role, and the reader is given a chance to see what this comic's about.
Most of what Liddy says really does come from his own writing, giving Raw Power a "truth is stranger than fiction" quality. Similarly, the D.P. 7 comic is quite faithful to the original source, an exceptionally weird and frequently disquieting series by oddball writer Mark Gruenwald and straight-ahead artist Paul Ryan. Once again, Bayer uses an otherwise undistinguished penciler's storytelling fundamentals and warps them.

The original story involves a young "paranormal" runaway who gets beaten up by a gang of bikers. His power allows him to create a highly corrosive acid from his bodily fluids. He gets taken in by a creepy barmaid and nursed back to health; just as she's about to seduce him, his acid tongue burns her and she freaks out. Despondent about never being able to have sex with a woman without scarring her, he returns to the bar to wreak havoc and attempts suicide to no avail. Yes, this was a Marvel comic presumably aimed at children. If Gruenwald had been born twenty years later, he may well have followed a career track not unlike Bayer or Michael DeForge.

In his reinterpretation, Bayer merely exaggerates the action a bit and adds a touch of the grotesque. It dovetails with the rest of the issue's denunciation of both fascism and nihilism, taking the tragic origin stories of their protagonists and correctly reassessing these events as traumas that brutally twist a person's capacity to feel empathy. The effect is a powerful one, as Bayer himself sometimes seems to revel in the violent images he produces while constantly compelling readers to quest what they're seeing and what impact these violent acts have.

Bayer really cuts loose in Raw Power after getting his feet wet with ROM. The cover is an obvious tribute to Panter, but the interior contents are a stunning mish-mash of styles, varying not only from page-to-page but panel-to-panel. Some figures are constructed with an almost fragile line and Crumb-like hatching. In the next panel the line weight might change dramatically to reflect a fight scene, hearkening back to Floyd Gottfredson-style speed lines and raggedly thick black lines. The way Bayer stages the particular brutality of his fight scenes reminds me a bit of Chester Gould. Bayer's storytelling never  lets the reader forget that this is ink on paper even as the story sucks in the reader.

There's a constant sense of push-and-pull in reading Bayer: his discordant style forces the eye away, but his strikingly readable layouts lure the eye back in; similarly, he alienates the reader with repulsive protagonists like Liddy and the Catman, yet he draws the reader back with the forcefulness of their viewpoints, daring them to try to identify with these characters (a classic Dan Clowes tactic). He challenges the reader to keep up with the story, despite a manic sloppiness in the art-- there are scratch-outs, misspellings and a certain lumpiness in the his figures and structures-- while rewarding the reader with the sheer energy on the page and his careful use of white space that allows his scribbly figures to breathe. The vibratory nature of those scribbles gives his figures a lurching, animated quality. Make no mistake: even with words crossed out and scribbles on the page, Bayer is careful to make his lettering highly legible and his layouts clear.

Bayer's id flows a bit more freely in Suspect Device, an anthology of Nancy-interpolated scenes that he edited, as well as Conon, a jam comic he did with Pat Aulisio. The latter is a minor work at best, a surreal spoof of barbarian comics whose title character pals around with a creature named Nixon, a duck wearing a Spider-Man mask. This one quickly devolves into the same set of sex 'n' shit jokes told repeatedly, as though Bayer and Aulisio kept trying to top each other only to find that they were just telling variations on the same joke.

Suspect Device is incredibly clever: a host of alt-cartoonists who specialize in the grotesque take specific Nancy panels and add their own narratives. Sam Henderson, Dane Martin and especially Tom Hart stand out with their stories, with Hart's tale of a post-apocalyptic Sluggo searching for Nancy being genuinely moving in an absurd manner. Bayer's own work here is a bit on the zany side, lacking the brains and humanity of his other comics but admirable in its total lack of restraint and feverish imagination. On the other hand, his story about '60s and '70s Marvel artist Herb Trimpe in Rub The Blood, the Rob Liefeld "tribute" broadsheet, is sad and touching while retaining the crazy energy and absurd imagery that is his trademark. Trimpe found it hard to get work in the '90s and so changed his style to more of a Lifefeldesque, hyperstylized Image comics look in order to fit in with the times and get third-tier jobs. Bayer imagines Trimpe as a dinosaur man, attacked by the likes of Shaft and other Liefeld characters, barely fending them off to hack out "the saddest comic ever made," as a little kid reading it observes.

Going back to the punk analogy, Bayer's "cover" versions of mainstream comics are analogous to Sid Vicious covering "My Way"; it's a way of emphasizing the rough edges of art smoothed out for public consumption. In his D.P. 7 cover, he heightens the nihilistic aspects of the original comic in telling the story of a teen whose powers make him miserable and suicidal. Bayer embraces the freedom of reinterpreting these comics entirely through his own lens, caring more about the emotional possibilities of the story than retaining all of the details of the original narrative. His art simultaneously captures and subverts the straight-faced grimness of these comics by playing up their emotional content while distorting the original images seen in the story. Despite the sheer, overwhelming intensity of his visuals, his rock-solid fundamentals and acidic sense of humor are the two anchors the reader can always rely on; a Bayer comic will always have something funny on every page, whether it's a drawing, a gag or an over-the-top moment of satirical sincerity. At their core, however, Bayer's cover versions aren't stunts; they reflect genuine feelings about reading the original source material. His ability to tap into those emotions is what gives them their power.

It's obvious that Bayer is still finding his feet as a cartoonist, cycling through influences and occasionally working out his id on the page. Whenever he has an idea, he simply seems to attack it immediately and get it down as quickly as possible. This gives his work a powerful sense of immediacy--the reader can feel the sheer urgency of Bayer's art--but I'm not sure how sustainable that approach is for a cartoonist. I'm confident that the more he refines his work as he continues to tackle longer stories, the more thematically rich and complex it will become. Of the comics discussed here, only Raw Power seems to be a fully-realized work that transcends its influences to create something powerful and new. I hope Bayer will continue to ride that momentum and refine his work without losing that punk-saturated sense of power, urgency and integrity.

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