Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: Anthologies and Collaborations

Bayer is a comics educator at Parsons in addition to being a prolific cartoonist. Apart from being a teacher, he's been a long-time believer in collaborating on comics. His most frequent collaborator is Pat Aulisio, and while their comics often tend to wind up being visceral and scatological, there are occasions where something more interesting emerges.

An example of that is The Greater Good, which is a cousin to Birth Of Horror and Bayer's other comics examining the corporate and cultural history of mainstream comics. This one's all about the iconoclastic Steve Ditko, hard at work in his tiny New York apartment on his own strange comics, refusing to have anything to do with his old work. (This is all of course 100% true.) This story takes the idea of Stan Lee being a demonic creature a step further, making him one of the Lizard People who secretly rule the earth. The mix of outright fiction with truth that is stranger than fiction makes these stories so potent, as Ditko recounts being asked to work with Lee again on the hilarious ill-fated Ravage 2099 project. Aulisio and Bayer once again absolutely nail Lee's carney patter, while capturing Ditko's grim monotone in a figure with its few hairs sticking straight up. Things get worse when Mickey Mouse and Marvel track down Ditko, explaining to him that Marvel owns everything he's ever created, now and after his death, Steve Gerber's Destroyer Duck character (created to help Jack Kirby in his lawsuit against Marvel) comes on and explains how Ditko is now part of the machine again and how he'll continue to do so even after he's dead. Mickey is a steroidal, tattooed bully, carrying around Spider-Man on a chain. This is a nightmarish but hilarious comic that spoofs Ditko's Objectivist tendencies as well as Marvel's utter ruthlessness as a corporate entity.

Along the same lines is Marvel Comics Presents #6, from Drippy Bone Books. Working in a multi-color wash, Bayer contributes yet another story about characters and their creators. The anthology was formatted to mimic a Marvel anthology from the late 1980s and early 1990s, one where minor characters sometimes got spotlights. Bayer begins this story of a team-up of Moondragon, Howard the Duck, Deathlok the Demolisher, Rom, Mastodon, US Agent and the Living Zombie with a modified version of a Marvel classic: the team hanging out and relaxing, trading quips. Of course, Bayer puts that scenario in a strip club and adds a number of scatological jokes centered on Howard. Plastic Man comes from the great beyond to warn each of the characters of their fates, telling them that their creators died unexpectedly and young, were forced out of work, or otherwise driven to madness. Bayer then offers up a hilarious bit of self-critique at the end, as the strippers who were in the story complained about their roles and lack of dialog. Bayer faced some criticism over a strip where two female characters were beaten up because they were cartoonists (the "Stop Cartoonists" thing he did with Pat Aulisio), and I think paused for a moment to acknowledge that his work isn't exactly bristling with female characters.

Keenan Marshall Keller's story about Adam Warlock on acid was almost gilding the lily in terms of how trippy the character would become when it fell into Jim Starlin's hands, but it was still fun. Even funnier was Michael Hawkins story featuring the obscure character D-Man, as he experiences a weird and transcendent day and night with the emotion-manipulating Starfox. I also enjoyed the Bullpen Bulletins parody at the end of the book; these have been done before, but the sheer viciousness of this one made it notable.

Suspect Device is clearly one of Bayer's favorite projects. He sends an invitation to an artist he likes to take clipped-out panels from a classic comic strip, comic book or other art source. He then asks them to draw a strip that theoretically should start with a borrowed panel and end with one as well, with their own work in-between. At 120 pages, SD #2 was a slog to get through. The lack of variation from strip to strip (especially when Nancy and Garfield were the primary inspirations) made the book difficult to get through, though of course there were plenty of gems. There were even a few cartoonists who didn't go after obvious gross-out gags, like Dunja Jankovic. She used her trippy style to have Nancy look at a series of psychedelic patterns on a TV screen. One of the problems with the anthology is that many contributors took the assignment and created something quick and (usually) dirty. The better stories were by artists who took their time to create a coherent (if demented) storyline. like Mykl Sivak's disgusting but beautifully-drawn strip that even includes multiple panels from the original for comedic effect. Noah Van Sciver and Pat Moriarity contributed some of the funnier and clearer entries, while Elizabeth Bethea's gross-out strips were by far the most visceral yet intelligent. Bayer's own strips captured the energy and immediacy of the project in a way that most contributors couldn't match.

SD #3 was trimmed back to a more manageable 70 pages, though that was still about 20 to 30 pages too many. Derf's political background was brought to bear in a 2013 shot at Donald Trump, while James T Stanton's smoothly-drawn strip involving Wimpy and Popeye was puerile but utterly hilarious, thanks to the execution and commitment to the concept of Wimpy fellating a hamburger. Sasha Steinberg brought in his interest in drag in a perfect mimicry of Harold Gray to portray a trans person in combat with Orphan Annie. Steinberg's mastery of Gray's dialog and modern shade-throwing made this a top-notch entry. Sophie Goldstein's ability to use Gray's hatching style made her strip about the ontological underpinnings of the universe ("it's Popeyes all the way down!") was another strong laugh. Adrian Pijoan's "Death shroud" strip made perfect use of the idea of Annie as a sort of "forbidden fruit". Overall, this was a tighter issue that the artists seemed to take more seriously.

Finally, SD #4 opened things up with more Annie, Alley Oop, the Phantom and these amazing Russian tattoo drawings. Mixing a greater variety of characters made the results more varied, with Jason Little's full-color opener blending the three in a sort of bizarre Tijuana Bible. Ben Marra ran with that idea, with the Phantom finding his girlfriend with the demons from the tattoo drawings in a compromising position. Marra's ability to mimic the original look and feel of the strip was once again key to the success. Bethea's strip about the Phantom being a schoolteacher for Annie had the resonance of a Gerald Jablonski strip in its absurdity, while the sheer penciling virtuosity of Mark Burt was another standout. Noah Van Sciver turned in another solid bit of fun, turning the Russian tattoo demons into Communists out to get the Phantom. While the default setting for many cartoonists was to go down a Tijuana Bible-style path mixed in with extreme violence, and there are only so many variations on that idea, the cartoonists who took their time with the strips at least made such ideas funny and well-executed. On occasion, like in Sasha Steinberg's submission in this issue, the borrowed images led to something much more personal. His strips worked off of the tattoo drawings and became statements about identity (sexual and otherwise).

It is the rare cartoonist that is as enthused about collaborating as they are in doing their own solo work. It's also rare to find a cartoonist who can appreciate aspects of mainstream work without fetishizing it as an object of childhood nostalgia, but rather critique its more hackneyed elements while celebrating what made it unusual. Bayer's eye as a teacher is present in all aspects of his work, as his fictional stories are backed up by research and his ability to zero in on precisely what makes a piece of comics art work allow him to incorporate multiple influences while still holding to his own aesthetic at all times. Bayer's style is unmistakable, whether he's covering a Marvel comic, drawing Nancy or drawing one of his own creations. Bayer's critique of commodification more than anything else is central to the punk aspect of his art, but don't mistake that critique for the actual work done by artists. That's one reason he worked with penciler Herb Trimpe before he died in a comic that will be published at a future date, along with inker Al Milgrom and letterer Rick Parker. While there's anger in Bayer's work, there's also a great deal of joy as well. That shows through in the enthusiasm he has for things like Suspect Device, but it also extends down to his students. I've seen some of his student work and have also seen him in action as a teacher, and his combination of enthusiasm, encouragement and extremely sharp tips on how to construct comics is infectious. I still feel like Bayer is only just starting to get warmed up, and while he's published a number of excellent comics, that his best work is ahead of him. You can see more at Bayer's own website.

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