Monday, October 1, 2018

Some SPX Minis: J. Baylis, A. Stang, R. Ullman

I can never resist reading minis from old favorites right after SPX. Here are some examples...

So Buttons #9, by Jonathan Baylis, et al. Baylis writes with increasing confidence and a Harvey Pekar-like ability to pick the right artists for the right kind of stories. That's not a coincidence, as Pekar is one of his major influences. Baylis and long-time collaborator Noah Van Sciver in "So...Carl" play on the structure of the famous Pekar/R.Crumb story "The Harvey Pekar Name Story", yet the structure actually serves a purpose in discussing his father Carl and his same-named cousin. While Baylis often plays his personal anecdotes for laughs, there's often a deeply personal and even cathartic quality to many of them as well; in this case, it was going to the funeral of his uncle with his sick father and freaking out that "Carl Baylis" was dead.

Two other long-time Baylis collaborators also shine in different ways. The simplicity of T.J. Kirsch is perfect for an anecdote about Baylis' young son talking about how he loved The Flash, his mom...and that's it. Thomas Boatwright returned in a follow-up about Baylis' old ambition of being a horror movie make-up artist, with exaggerated, cartoonish figures and a bright use of color contributing to an upbeat story of meeting one of his heroes and having it go well. Summer Pierre was a perfect choice for a sweet story about Baylis talking to his son about music. A story about getting rare roast beef from the Second Avenue Deli in New York was fittingly done by one of the best in depicting the city in James Romberger. Fred Hembeck continues to illustrate Baylis' time as an intern in comics, which was littered with disastrous stories. This time around, it was at Valiant Comics, where he watched staffer after staffer get fired by despondent publisher Bob Layton. Hembeck's deep knowledge of comics was put to good use in some clever panels, like one where he referenced the famous image of an alcoholic Tony Stark from an issue of Iron Man that Layton co-wrote and inked. I'm not sure if Baylis suggested that connection or if Hembeck came up with it, but it's the sort of thing that happens all the time in Baylis' comics. Baylis has a love of comics and its history that's coupled with an eyes-wide-open understanding of the industry's foibles. Combining that with an intuitive sense of not only what kind of anecdotes from his life make for a good story, but how to tell that story economically, has made him one of my favorite recent memoirists.

The Audra Show #1, by Audra Stang. Everything about this little mini is perfectly designed, from Stang's cheery self-caricature on the cover to the intense use of reds, blues and yellows. It was clear from the beginning that Stang was a talent to watch, and it's interesting to see her stretch out and work so extensively with color. Her biggest strengths remain dialogue and character interaction, as there's a great degree of verisimilitude. This comic begins with a wink to Daniel Clowes' Ghost World in that there are two teenage girls at a diner in 1988 who harass a schlubby, mustachioed waiter named Owen. The story takes place from the point of view of the waiter, who has a crush on a waitress named Bea. When they part after hanging out after work one night, she happens to see him him jump off the dock into the ocean...and when he doesn't come up after several minutes, she gets worried. The ending is a sublime moment of magical realism that nonetheless is a smooth fit with the rest of the story and even resolves the romantic tension between the two characters.

Old-Timey Hockey Tales #3, by Robert Ullman. Ullman's sports comics get more and more confident as he wrings out every bit of story and character to be found in the oft-eccentric National Hockey League. With this third issue, he's close to putting together enough material to assemble a book (around 70 pages so far). Ullman's clear, smooth line is ideally suited for this kind of storytelling, as he varies line weights to emphasize contact and action. The comic picks and chooses between the ridiculous, the beautiful, and the horrifying, as the early NHL had a Wild West feel in terms of its on-ice violence but also featured an intensity that created a deep connection with fans.

This issue featured statistical oddities embodied by players like Ken Doraty, whose career was notable for his overtime heroics and little else. The story of the "Curse of Muldoon", which supposedly prevented the Chicago Black Hawks from finishing in first place, was hilariously revealed to be a newspaper-created hoax. Ullman uses a grey wash to create an old newsreel feel in telling the story of Larry Kwang, the first Chinese-Canadian (and minority of any kind) man to play in the NHL. It's a story that's predictably filled with racist incidents, yet Kwang found different ways to rise above them in his life. In recent years, his story has been more widely told. There's also the story of Ace Bailey, who nearly died in an on-ice fight after taking a blind cheap shot, but later forgave the man who struck him. Ullman crams a lot of stories into 26 pages, and his ability to snappily get at the heart of each story without wasting a line makes this one-man anthology a compelling read.

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