Thursday, May 12, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: The Big Books

Today I'll be looking at what I consider to be the meat of Bayer's career: the comics featuring a quasi-autobiographical stand-in named Seth and the further adventures of G. Gordon Liddy in Raw Power 2. This is Bayer at his densest, most human and most complex as a storyteller.

ROM: Prison Riot is a sequel to that original ROM comic. The first part of the comic is another Bayer "cover version" of a Marvel comic, this time Rom 31-32. Bayer has a real eye for the weirder and more unsettling Marvel comics of the time, and while some think of Bill Mantlo as a plodder who wrote unremarkable comics, the truth is that his real instincts were fairly dark. Rom, a series based on a toy that Mantlo made his own personal playground as an ode to the paranoia of 1950s (and later 1970s) science-fiction, was about a cyborg from space who was hunting his enemies, a race of shape-shifting aliens who had infiltrated the earth. When one of them had a child with a human mother, he became an H.R. Geiger nightmare named Hybrid. In these issues, Hybrid pops up again and gets entangled with the mutants Rogue, Mystique and Destiny, who eventually wind up teaming up with Rom to stop the monster.

Bayer took those elements and reshaped the characters. Hybrid was now Mestasis (although I think he was looking for the word "metastasis", or cancer that has spread away from its primary site). Rogue was now a Wendy O. Williams lookalike, while Mystique became a dead ringer for Fletcher Hanks' Phantoma. This is a classic Bayer move, taking familiar characters and connecting them either with punk or else with a much older comics character. Apart from these stylistic changes, some dialog changes (much less exposition, much more dialog in actual vernacular that sounds like a real person would say), a few story details being condense and of course Bayer's own blocky, dense and grotesquely comic interpretation of the characters, the story unfolds pretty much like the original issues did. Details like Mestasis taking some convicts who happened upon his house and flaying the skin off their bodies or his plans to turn mutant women into "breeding sows" in his rape camps are straight from Mantlo in comics intended for children. (Comics Code approved!) Other details, like Mestasis tempting Rom with pleasures of the flesh, are also straight from Mantlo.

Bayer veers from an open page format with no panels to hand-drawn panels. Once again, he carefully employs a lot of negative space in order to let his drawings breathe a little and to make the otherwise denseness of his figures more legible in terms of their actions on the page. Bayer is interpreting the drawings of Sal Buscema here, a master storyteller in terms of pacing, panel-to-panel transitions and clarity, and he maintains these aspects of the original art while putting his own unique stamp. The backup story features Seth reading this issue of Rom in class as part of a larger drama involving his status as an outcast, his desperate desire to connect with others, and his anger at being rejected. When his teacher has her concert tickets stolen from her purse, Seth is immediately suspected and is cagey til the end and beyond, but that suspicion momentarily makes him popular--a fact that he understands and completely rejects. Seth may be a weirdo in some regards (wearing an outfit that mimics Rom's), but he's a normal kid in others (he wants to get laid), but one thing that's certainly true about him is his sense of integrity.

That carries over into Theth, an absolutely brutal account of Seth in school and in home, and the sheer desperation he feels at all times. The only plot hook here, and it's entirely a red herring, is that the story takes place around the same time that John Lennon was shot. That's simply something to hang the details of the story on, as Seth is alienated from his classmates, from his dad and step-mom (a truly loathsome character), from his little brother and from the culture at large. Unprovoked, he is savagely beaten by a fellow outcast classmate who insisted to his teacher that John Lennon was stabbed. After lying to his step-mom about not hanging out in the local drug story in order to read comics, she and his father burn his comics, wipe their asses with them and/or tear them up right in his face. Unlike the other comics that delved into the comics cover versions and had Seth's story as a framing device, this comic is all about Seth with comics as the framing device. It's funny to see Bayer's comedic touches, like referencing Charlie Brown when Seth sees the spinner rack of comics and says "Wotta beautiful gorey layout!!!"--a direct quote from Peanuts.

The dichotomy between Seth mostly being quiet in school and the agony he puts himself through at school is particularly acute, especially since it's obvious in the way Seth is portrayed in the story that he's dealing with anxiety disorder and ADHD. The obsessive nature of his anxiety, when he thinks the trees might be flames licking the house, is a huge clue. Also a giveaway is Seth's habit of laying with his head on the desk and knocking on it so that the vibration fills his head--this is classic sensory-seeking behavior. While it's never said out loud, this is a kid who needs understanding, redirection and treatment who receives abuse and scorn at home and in school. Only his fantasy life and sheer will power keeps him going, and the Rom "face mask" he wears is symbolic of that fantasy life keeping the world at bay. Here, the denseness of Bayer's hatching actually softens the blow of how brutal a read this is, as Bayer allows the reader the luxury of seeing drawings as drawings in addition to telling this gut-wrenching narrative.

Mr Incompleto begins with Seth reading an issue of the titular comic-book, whose guest star character, Zero Sum (Chance Alphax), would appear in Seth's reverie after he was beaten. Once again, Bayer selects a weird comic (Marvel Two-In-One #69, starring the Thing, written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Ron Wilson) and puts his own spin on it. He renames and slightly alters every character in the book, turning the original Guardians of the Galaxy into the Saturn Seven. Vance Astro (in the book, Chance Alphax) was an astronaut on a thousand-year mission to Alpha Centauri. The problem was that his body was in stasis, his mind accidentally woke up, causing him to go insane over and over again, along with triggering his mutant telekinetic powers. This issue involves him going back in time and desperately trying to convince his younger self not to become an astronaut.

This comic is all about loneliness and despair, along with the tragedy of loving an abusive parent. There's a threat thrown in as a mysterious fog encases the earth, which the Saturn Six think is Chance interfering with time but which later turns out to be young Chance ready to accept his powers early. Bayer actually improves and expands upon the story's original action, including the climax when future Chance confronts his father. Mr Incompleto himself is an affable if bizarre figure, with his chest having a cigar-chomping Jack Kirby face on it, his head covered by a sack, and a huge crucifix swinging around his neck. The character design here is a feast, as Bayer channels Kirby, Fletcher Hanks, Raymond Pettibon, Gary Panter, Mat Brinkman and more in drawing these blocky, chunky, scribbly characters who vibrate, ooze and pulse across the page. This is the comic where Bayer's energy really comes alive in terms of the action on the page itself, where the result isn't so much satire as it is reinterpretation.

Finally, Raw Power 2 lives up to the original both in terms of its satirical qualities and the intense nature of his sometimes disturbing images. It follows Terry (the Cat Man) ten years after he's sent to prison for his brutal crimes, as well as a now-faded G.Gordon Liddy. While Terry at first vows to try to to eschew violence and become a new man, it doesn't take long for the unforgiving world he's entered back into to cause him to snap. Meanwhile, Liddy, whose books Terry studied closely, denies any responsibility as he sees himself retired from trying to do anything for his version of the American dream. After Terry snaps, Liddy hunts him down just as Terry was resigned to his fate. Bayer is clearly fascinated by ideologues so devoted to their principles that they are willing to engage in almost casual violence to defend them. The dogma is so strong and black & white that for minds like Liddy and Terry, empirical evidence is no longer one of their concerns. What Bayer also makes stunningly clear is that for all of the patriotic rhetoric that Liddy spits and all of the righteous paranoid lunacy that Terry espouses, Liddy views Terry as part of the problem and doesn't understand that his own methods are identical to Terry's. And for all the flowery language, that method is entirely Hobbesian in nature: Might Makes Right. The strong should rule the weak.

Bayer also advances the idea that for all Liddy's bravado about the methods he used to overcome his fears like lightning and rats (look it up!), he was still afraid of dogs and couldn't fool them. Liddy's machismo and bluster was just an attempt to wash the stink of fear that he could never relinquish, just as his violent ideology was a sign of a lack of imagination and of total dysfunction. Just as Terry might have reached a point where he was willing to accept that his ideology might be completely misguided, his idol snuffed out his life--and Terry never even knew it. But Liddy was still living in fear and as Bayer surmises, knew that fact all too well.

Visually, this is Bayer's best work to date. The comics and cultural references fly fast and furious. When Terry is walking the yard, one guard refers to him by his inmate number and says, "Good ol' 0506...How I hate him", which is of course a reference to the very first Peanuts strip. When someone whacks Terry with a brick, it's done in the same elongated and exaggerated style as George Herriman's Krazy Kat. Herriman's combo of an extremely loose line and energetic layout has clearly been an influence on Bayer as well. When first Terry and then Liddy scale a tall ride at Coney Island, that's straight out of King Kong. Bayer also throws in a new character, Bile Duct, who is based on a child star who essentially dropped out of society. The final images are from yet another "cover version", as Mr Incompleto battles Reflectivix (Bayer goofs and refers to him once by the actual character's name, the Sphinx), a battle of wills that Mr Incompleto is able to stay in because of his sheer decency (a trait he shares with another important Bayer character in Rom), though ultimately he doesn't emerge entirely victorious. Reflectivix's obsession with power and immortality is not unlike that of Liddy's, and both are portrayed ultimately as pathetic characters with pointless existences. It'll be interesting to see if Liddy winds up getting an epilogue. Raw Power 2 is so effective because for all the over-the-top violence in Bayer's other work, it's the sense that the violence here means something makes it far more harrowing and disturbing. This isn't just an artist blowing off some steam on paper, but a thinking satirist taking ideologies to their logical conclusion and showing just how inhumane they can be.

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