Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: Mini Madness

In-between other projects, the tireless Bayer releases mini after mini, as though he's trying to get his ideas on paper as quickly as possible.

Bloggers #1 takes Bayer's own Suspect Device technique and puts familiar cartoon characters into violent, strange and demented scenarios. In each of the stories, blogging is somehow involved as a mock panacea. The result is something both totally absurd and pointedly critical at the narcissism that can be involved in airing one's thoughts on the internet. For example, Magneto encourages the Blob to "encase [your feelings] in the margins of your blog", to show humans the way. It's a ridiculous premise made even sillier with Bayer's blocky figures taking up the page. "Dawn of the Blogger" sees Little Orphan Annie running from the giant head of Fred Flintstone, which is disintegrating fellow cartoon characters with death rays shot from his eyes. Annie pauses and gets Rosie the Robot to turn into a computer so she can blog about the event. Garfield becomes a homicidal killer and teams up with Richard Nixon; Gargamel walks away from a bad date with Ziggy to update his alchemy blog; the Green Arrow gets a job at McDonald's to be a real "man of the people", slits Ronald McDonald's throat and then proclaims "I must blog about this to make it right". In each example, blogging is set up as being "the answer", yet is always portrayed as a masturbatory activity that only allows the author to stroke their own ego--precisely BECAUSE the bloggers in question overinflate their own importance. The use of orange as a spot color livens up the most recent edition of this comic (there was an earlier black & white version), giving each strip a garishly lurid appeal.

Transformer, Don't Look Back and Hand of Blood are short, hand-made minis made on card stock. Written in the same rapid, loose scrawl as Bloggers, Transformer stars Sylvester Stallone facing a crisis: he wants to become a cartoonist. He goes to see Stan Lee (played by Richard Nixon--a hilariously awesome caricature by Bayer), who advises Stallone to become a car. Having "transformed", Lee drives the Stallone/car around, sideswiping pedestrians until he spots John Rambo. He urges Stallone to kill his creation, but the Stallone car swerves and crashes, though "Stan Lee never dies" and he escapes. Bayer often uses one of two catchphrases in his works: "Comics are the enemy" and "Comics are the answer". Both aphorisms are satirical and knowing in their absolutism, which is why he uses them almost interchangeably. The idea that a famous actor like Stallone would go to any lengths to be a cartoonist is ridiculous, and Bayer takes it a few steps further with the visceral quality of the events he depicts.

Hand of Blood and Don't Look Back also use that Suspect Device prompt and immediately twist the initial visual premise of a strip into something violent and weird. Don't Look Back stars Little Orphan Annie pulling out a switchblade and slitting the throat of a man who worshipped former President Lyndon Johnson. Hand of Blood starts with a miner upbraiding Nixon for getting bloody fingerprints on the Declaration of Independence, and Nixon responding by defecating all over them. Neither of these comics is as interesting as Transformer, as the initial inspiration provides little in the way of actual story structure.

Transformer Two finds Stallone at it again, this time getting Rocky to grow out of his body to offer encouragement and aid when attacked by the Joker. This is a good example of a Bayer comic as a sort of fever dream: mashing together characters and ideas in ways that don't actually make any sense outside of that fevered reality. There's a hilarious segue as bizarre versions of the Human Torch and Spider-Man fight and and hang out, including Spider-Man defecating on the Torch. (Shitting and cutting are two acts one is most likely to see in a Bayer satire.) It's revealed that this was a Stallone production, and Stallone fights to his last breath to defend himself against the Joker, who's trying to discourage him from doing a comic. The comic is an over-the-top satire of the artist's struggle to create but also a sympathetic portrayal of someone ill-suited to do something in the arts, yet who tries to do it anyway. Bayer's approach inevitably involves someone getting cut, beaten, pounded, shat upon or being kidnapped. His reads are as harrowing as they are fun, and certainly not to every taste, but the sheer energy and craft in each panel is always compelling, in part because he now has much better control over the vision we had seen his earlier works.

Birth of Horror was published as part of Ryan Standfest's Rotland Dreadfuls series, with an earlier version self-published by Bayer with a vellum cover. If the other minis on this list are goof-offs and ways for Bayer to have fun on the page while dropping a few satirical bombs, Birth of Horror is a fully-formed and multi-layered work of social satire that not only brutally exposes the exploitative nature of Stan Lee's relationship with his artists, but the ways in which the wider culture accepts and then rejects certain kinds of entertainment. In this case, it's horror comics, and Lee in the 50s turns to one of his ace creators, Bill Everett (creator of the Sub-Mariner and depicted here as a wizard) for something new. Lee is eventually revealed to be a blood-seeking demon (the line, "Face it tiger, you've burst the blood clot" had me laughing out loud) but Bayer never has him abandoning his familiar carnival barker patter as he drains Everett of his essence and steals the idea for Ghost Rider from former copy boy Gary Friedrich. The comic shifts from the 1950s, when horror was in vogue, to the 1970s, when Comics Code restrictions relaxed and Marvel responded with a huge horror/monster line in response to growing public demand. As Lee himself notes in the comic, "Horror books are always ready to proliferate during war and postwar years. Trust me, there will be a vampire and zombie by the time the twentieth century reaches its bloody apex!"

Bayer could write an entire book on the history of mainstream comics and culture by way of these stories. He wrote about the circumstances and history around horror comics using horror tropes, and it's significant that he wrote about Marvel (and Lee's) reaction as an observer rather than focus on EC Comics, which was essentially reduced to irrelevance after horror comics were shut down after the anti-comics hearings of the 1950s. That story has been told enough that Bayer was more interested in seeing what happened in the margins, like the horror expansion at Marvel being the polar opposite of the sort of comics that Jack Kirby created as Marvel's identity. The comic ends with Rom coming on the scene, slipping into the conversation as the series began as a 1950s sci-fi/horror homage but drawing on the Kirby tradition of having a hero with absolutely pure motives. He then proceeds to kill every monster there, including Lee. That's a bit of cheeky wish fulfillment by Bayer, especially as Rom's formal speech patterns clashed against Lee becoming a flashy hipster. The story is a visual tour-de-force, as Bayer's ability to depict horror, gore and viscera went hand-in-hand with the carefully constructed and constantly-shifting figure of Lee. The dense hatching of Bayer is here, to be sure, but he tightens up his figures and opens up every panel to let it breathe, even while he's pounding the reader with his visuals.  The figure of Lee here represents the actual man, of course, but it also represents the larger corporate exploitation of horror images for cheap shocks and a cheap buck--so it's no surprise that Stan finds a kindred spirit when he meets the young Glenn Danzig. Lee is every carnival barker, every executive, every corporate entity trying to find product and grinding down wizards and copyboys with big dreams in the process.

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