Monday, November 6, 2023

Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons #13

There's a real throwback feel to the latest edition of writer Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons. (Poor Baylis chose a silly, throwaway title for this series, and now he's stuck with it as his brand. Cf. Julia Wertz's The Fart Party.) The amiable Baylis is a born networker with an extensive and deep curiosity about the history of comics and cartoonists. Meeting former Harvey Pekar collaborator Joe Zabel at a show led Baylis to hire him for a piece in this issue, which, in turn, led to him working with Gary Dumm and Brian Bram (last seen in American Splendor #2!) Can Alison Bechdel and Alan Moore be far behind? Other 80s indy stalwarts in this issue include Bernie Mireault and Michael T. Gilbert. 

Like Pekar, Baylis has a real sense of what stories to pair with which artists. It's fascinating to see him work with so many of Pekar's former collaborators, because as writers, Baylis and Pekar couldn't be any more different. Pekar's work, while deeply humanistic, was often cynical and even miserablist. However, he was also a keen observer of others and excelled in telling their stories. He was also the classic working-class intellectual, as his reviews of jazz records and literature in his comics revealed. Baylis doesn't truck with irony or spend much time wallowing in sadness (though there are hints of it); instead, he prefers to look at beauty, joy, and deep moments of connection with others and with art. As his story with Zabel revealed, what he does share with Pekar is a deep need to be a writer, and to have his thoughts expressed visually. Baylis' stories are almost always centered around himself, either in terms of the action or his reaction to same. I think this stems from his deep need to be a storyteller first and foremost, unlike Pekar, who was more interested in being an observer. What sets Baylis apart from other writers who collaborated with cartoonists like Pekar, Dennis Eichorn, or David Greenberger is a total sense of sincerity. Every one of these stories is important to him, and it's clear he spends a lot of time thinking about how each one will look. 

Tony Wolf was a good choice for "So...Swampy," given his affection for mainstream comics. This one-pager is more a style exercise than a story; it doesn't amount to more than "my grandma sent me some comics at camp when I was miserable and one of them was an Alan Moore Swamp Thing." On the other hand, "So...Premiered" (with art by Zabel and Dumm) is a meaty story that Baylis refers to as an "origin story." Baylis' background is interesting because while he loves comics, he went to film school at NYU. As such, he's had a number of gigs in the entertainment world, including with the Sundance Channel. That allowed him to meet Harvey Pekar at the premiere of American Splendor, where the writer gave Baylis encouragement. The story is full of funny visual flourishes that I'm guessing Baylis put in his script, like drawing Pekar as Dr. Octopus as part of an extended shtick. 

Baylis is frequently clever in his transitions from story to story. He follows this Sundance story with another one (drawn with flair by Mireault) about seeing the movie 28 Days Later at midnight and enjoying it because of the way he and the audience reacted together. It's a sharp observation of why seeing movies in a theater can be so rewarding. He follows that zombie story with one about his wife and kid drawn by Whit Taylor. Taylor is great at drawing stories about parenting, and this gag about a "zombified" Baylis walking in is set up nicely, complete with a plop-take at the end. Stories about being friends with Eli Roth as a film student and being delighted by his performance in Inglourious Basterds and a brief documentary bit with a memorable New York character fall more into the "anecdote" category as opposed to an actual story, and they feel a bit thinner as a result than some of the other stories. 

However, "So...It's A Viscous Cycle," featuring Maria & Peter Hoey, is the unquestioned highlight of the issue. Those two are extremely clever cartoonists and storytellers, and Baylis sets them up with a great premise regarding not just his vision, but the process of getting Lazik surgery because a film looked blurry. Keeping with the film theme, a piece on composer Enrique Morricone was interesting because Baylis notes that hearing his music just didn't sound right without accompanying film. Artist Rick Parker is a capable comedic cartoonist, but I thought a lot of the gags (did an image of John Cage need to be put next to an actual birdcage?) distracted from the overall content of the story. 

The other major highlight of the issue was his easy and natural collaboration with Karl Christian Krumpholz. It's a story within a story, told at a bar between Baylis and Krumpholz at SPX, about a particular, rare sort of bourbon that Baylis managed to acquire. It works as a captivating yarn and also provides some insight into their friendship, as well. Krumpholz' highly stylized character design and moody palette make this feel like a true collaboration. Speaking of which, it wouldn't be an issue of So Buttons without a team-up between Baylis and longtime collaborator TJ Kirsch. The latter's design for another Baylis strip about someone who shares his birthday (in this case, former baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan) was clever, riffing on Ryan using pickle brine to help strengthen the skin on his hands. 

Baylis has a pretty deep well of stories to turn to. This one hit a little bit more on his love of movies and life in the entertainment industry than usual. I'd be interested in seeing more stories hitting on fatherhood, relationships, and friendships. More bar stories with Krumpholz would also be fun. There are some artists he just seems to vibe with more than others, and the Hoeys and Krumpholz are definitely on that widening list. The other thing it would be interesting to see from Baylis is a longer narrative. I'm not quite sure what that story would be, but one senses that he's got a few of those laying around. Baylis' commitment to craft, design, and editorial coherency are on clear display, as his writing and editing chops have matured to the point where he's willing to take risks. Not everything worked in this issue, but even some of the misfires were at least interesting to look at. Baylis wasn't interested in playing it safe, and one hopes that this trend continues for future issues. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Alaina Ewins' Night Things

Night Moves, by Alaina Ewins, is a delightful romance comic in a fantasy/magic setting. The plot, surrounding classmates Spica and Muna, sees them secretly preparing glamour spells for the big Valentine's Day dance. The complicating factor is that Muna develops a crush on the charismatic Spica. Ewins then deftly drops in the big plot device: if you don't cast glamour with pure intent, the "consequences can be dire!" Inevitably, the glam duo has a fun time at the dance but things go horribly awry as everyone at the dance is drawn and attracted to them--very aggressively! The cute confession that seems to fix everything dissolves into a surprise ending. 

The plot structure is cleverly constructed, but the real star of this mini is Ewins' character design. The attention to detail regarding garments, hair, and a variety of different faces and body types is essential to conveying the emotion and attraction between the characters. Despite this being in a fantasy setting, Ewins' attention to dialogue and high school social dynamics adds to the verisimilitude necessary to pull this off without feeling forced or cloying. Instead, the stress that Muna feels combined with her ambition in trying to impress Spica with glamour imbues the plot with real comedic tension. Ewins' drawing style is dense, with lots of hatching, spotting blacks, and a minimal use of negative space. Despite that density, Ewins' is an adept storyteller whose composition never confuses the eye, even if it does deliberately distract it with a lot of decorative touches. This immersive style works at quickly placing the reader right in the middle of this world that her characters are in without having to do much in terms of excessive narrative explanation. Ewins seems poised for longer and more complex stories of this nature.