Saturday, October 1, 2022

Minis: Jonathan Baylis And Friends Return For So Buttons #12

Jonathan Baylis continues his series of mostly affable and funny autobiographical stories with an all-star cast of cartoonists as his collaborators in So Buttons. Working in the tradition of Harvey Pekar, Baylis has refined his storytelling and matched his ideas to his illustrators with an intuitive editorial sense that rarely goes astray. Anyone who's met him in person knows that his upbeat and ebullient personality perfectly matches the mensch he writes about on the page. He's less concerned about narrative than he is in precisely nailing an anecdote, often to set up a particular punchline. 

Every new issue features upgraded production values; the cover stock and the paper for it are both top-notch. Baylis has been at this awhile now, and he continues to add new features even as his stories begin to shift from childhood and young adulthood to more stories about his wife and son. In one story, drawn by Lance Ward, Baylis ponders his own place in the comics world. This is a perilous question that can usually only end badly, but this story is less about worry about one's accolades and more about connecting with people in the community. As a side note, this thirst for community was a big theme at SPX this year, as the artists were giddy to be back out with their peers and fans. The story is set at an earlier SPX, where Baylis sat with the late Tom Spurgeon (one of the great writers about comics) and Carol Tyler (one of the greatest cartoonists of all time) and made them laugh. This anecdote led into Baylis learning that Tyler had many pages of unpublished art; he not only printed one in this issue, but he made prints of this to sell in order to help fund her late husband Justin Green's memorial. 

Another fun thing was seeing a comic from his young son, Lucas. While every parent obviously loves seeing their children's art, the deep love that Baylis has for the medium has clearly been communicated and shared with his son--another example of this theme of community that marks this issue. 

Like Pekar, Baylis has turned himself into a cartoon character, with his cap and facial hair being iconic elements he directs his artists to use. He plays on this in a strip about his facial hair, noting that his wife liked it on their first date, so he's kept it that way. That look is a bit like the actor Ethan Hawke, who he happens to work with later in life. Here, Baylis lets slip something that otherwise has nothing to do with the rest of the story (he was bullied in childhood), but the strip ends with a punchline about he and Hawke both wearing the same sneakers. 

Baylis has worked in television and also the Make-A-Wish foundation, and his wife is a stand-up comedian who had a show on NPR for a long time. As a result, he's met a lot of famous people, and they often provide fodder for his stories. One such story involved meeting punk legend Ian MacKaye in a green room, and he told him about being on Saturday Night Live as part of a mosh pit for the band Fear. Drawn by J.T. Yost, it's both naturalistic and slightly on the grotesque side, befitting the subject matter. Baylis pokes fun at himself for dropping names in a story drawn by frequent collaborator Noah Van Sciver, but it's genuinely interesting to see Baylis draw lines between meeting Chris Claremont, Jay Lynch, and the director Mike Dougherty. Creative circles can be pretty tight. 

To be sure, Baylis has written about personal things before, especially with regard to his relatives. This issue feels a little different, though. In one story, he goes into greater detail about being bullied and talks about learning how to spar in a boxing gym. With Josh Pettinger giving the story just enough cartoony distance to soften the subject matter, Baylis talks about how literally learning how to take a punch in a boxing ring. In a series of increasingly-visceral panels where Baylis' face swells up with each blow received, he unleashes a torrent of grief: disease, death, job loss, and family crises over a relatively short span of time. A more naturalsitic approach would have been unbearable, but Pettinger nails this litany of blows landed, just as Baylis lays it out plainly. There's not a happy ending per se, but he ties it back into boxing by learning how to take a shot and keep moving. 

On a lighter night, strips about his son reading his comics and being absolutely delighted to see the word "shit," much to Baylis' consternation, is fun at his own expense, but he also clearly enjoys this dynamic. A strip where he helps a pregnant woman get to a hospital is given some soulful emotion when he realizes it's the place where his wife gave birth. The montage of images from the husband-wife duo of Kevin Colden and Miss Lasko-Gross is especially effective in portraying the profound gratitude he has for this place and that time. As with many of Baylis' comics, the whole tends to be greater than the sum of its parts, which is a testament to his editing and sequencing of his pieces. 

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