Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: Drawings and Old Stuff

One of the things I like best about Josh Bayer is that despite his talent, he's worked hard at getting better in public. Moreover, he's furiously cycled through influences and then moved on to more challenging works.

In 2010, for example, Bayer unearthed some comics he did in 2010 five years later and decided to publish them. One can see his skill as a cartoonist on display in these comics, with his rock-solid storytelling skills working in concert with total visual anarchy. In the first story, where Little Orphan Annie is talking to Ignatz the Mouse about needing to relieve herself, things quickly get disgusting in an over-the-top manner. Krazy Kat is nailed to a cross as Ignatz finds new ways to torture him, with a shocking orange used as highly effective spot color. Another story literally features a pissing contest between a man and a semi-anthropomorphic dog that winds up leading to a decapitation. It's all very silly airing of the id and possibly some anger, but the visceral quality of the drawing makes it worth a look. Bayer would get better at using negative space later on, though.

Drawings You Want, is a collection of Kickstarter rewards that Bayer drew for those who contributed to an issue of Suspect Device, and it's hilarious. Some of the requests were weird ("Rom In A Nightie"), some of them were gross ("Thor sodomizing Rom") and some were quite sweet ("Jimmy Olsen Dancing With Hopey."). Whatever the specifications, Bayer truly committed to each request, even changing line weights for some of the drawings. Still, the drawings I liked best were the ones with big, blocky figures, like one of Rom and Popeye teaming up. What's also clear is that Bayer either knew a lot about each subject or wasn't afraid to do some research, because the amount of detail in each drawing was simply remarkable, capturing the essence of each subject.

The most interesting older work was simply titled Art. This 2007 comic shows Bayer's drawing skills at their usual high level, though his page layout was quite a bit more cramped in some places. Still, I was amazed at Bayer's ambitiousness in this 20-page broadsheet. Two things about Bayer's work that aren't immediately apparent is that he's a sharp social satirist and does a tremendous amount of research finding facts about things that are stranger than fiction. Art is a satire about Bob Dylan, renaming the character Led Bellows and combining parts of his story with that of legends surrounding the blues guitarist Robert Johnson. Bayer clearly did a lot of research on Dylan, whose early career was based on shifting identities and calculated fabrications. Here, Bayer first focuses on the young "Led" from the 1960s who enjoyed fucking with reporters and giving enigmatic non-answers. That's really just a set-up for what follows, establishing Led as an arrogant figure above it all, one who inspired fervent fans to follow his every utterance while causing others to absolutely loathe him.

From there, Bayer switches to 1977, after Led's divorce, when he faces a dark night of the soul. Combining a telephone interview where Led is forced to face his origins, his fears and inner emptiness, he breaks down in front of a mirror, begging to be saved. That's interrupted by an old musician friend of his telling the real story (a long-time preoccupation for many who knew Dylan in the old days), swearing that Led must have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, ala Johnson. The dialogue between Led and the Devil is funny and pointed, as both take turns twisting around the other's words. From there, we follow the experiences of a young Led fanatic who had to know if that story was true, and essentially gave up his life following him around. Bayer's character design is remarkable here, as the young fan's hair is sparse and spiky, looking like a sort of human cactus. The old singer friend has a huge, bushy mustache and sunken eyes, indicating that he has his own agenda to spin. Finally, the story of Led and his fan coincide to three years later, when Led (much like Dylan) has become a born-again Christian. This phase of Dylan's life lasted just a few years (and spanned three albums) and is seen now as a sort of interregnum, But he (and Led) were certainly all in, even as Bayer depicts him as having doubts even then about his role in spreading the message, with certain religious leaders wanting to use him as a means of converting millions into believers. Contrast that to the young fan, who is his own kind of believer, reimagining the "foot of pride" that the preacher talked about into a vision of a foot literally smashing down. (And of course, "Foot of Pride" was an unreleased Dylan track.) On the back, Bayer prints some venomous Christian-era quotes from Dylan in concert as a way of asserting just how weird the truth of this situation was. The comic is all about false idols, false prophets, and the absurdity of looking for signs to reaffirm one's beliefs. At the same time, it's also incredibly sympathetic to all believers, portraying them as the human beings they really are.

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