“So Buttons” #11 : — And Just Like That, All Is Right With The World

In art, as in life, timing is everything, and in that respect the release of issue #11 of Jonathan Baylis’ long-running autiobio anthology series, So Buttons (the first to be published in conjunction with Tinto Press), couldn’t be more — errr — timely, given that reminders that there really is a “normal” to return to (even if we’re not sure what that is yet) are very welcome indeed as so many of slowly emerge from our COVID-engendered bunkers. Granted, most of the contents of this ish were written and drawn smack-dab during some of the most dangerous and harrowing days of the pandemic, but it’s not strictly a “pandemic comic” per se. It’s referenced here and there — how could it not be? — but by and large this latest collection of stories is what we’ve come to expect from Baylis and his artistic cohorts, namely : fun, charming, occasionally informative, and sometimes even thought-provoking vignettes culled from the author’s life, tangentially related to it, or both. And talking of artistic cohorts —

As has become his custom, Baylis enlists a “murder’s row” of talented cartoonists to illustrate his ‘zine, beginning with Jim Rugg’s sublime Basil Wolverton homage cover and continuing through the interiors where we’re treated to the visual stylings of November Garcia, A.T. Pratt, B. Mure, Garrett Gilchrist, Andy Rash, Phil Elliott, T.J. Kirsch, Fred Hembeck, Jeff Zapata, Rick Parker (who provides letters on one story, art on another), Maria and Peter Hoey, Miss Lasko Gross, colorist Adam Walmsely and, last but certainly not least, one Lucas Eisenberg-Baylis, whose particular relation to our “host” will be readily apparent to even the newest readers of this series. Everyone brings their own look and style to the party, obviously, and while some of the artists are a more natural fit for Baylis’ relaxed, conversational approach to storytelling than others, it’s fair to say that there are no fish out of water here, and everyone turns in really nice-looking work.

So, yeah, we’re most definitely in “what’s not to love?” territory here, and that feels damn good. Sure, the dour might be able to advance an argument that stories about Scotch, Topps trading cards, John Cleese, Carol Channing, and early-’90s British comics might feel a bit “slight” under present circumstances, but art’s capacity to endure under even the most trying of conditions is one of the most remarkable things about it, and if you can’t get at least a little bit giddy at the thought of Fred Hembeck doing a pin-up featuring characters from the short-lived Topps “Kirbyverse,” then I’ve got no time for your cynical ass, anyway.

Which, in a very real sense, offers us a convenient segue into one of the best things not just about this issue, but about Baylis’ series in general : it’s utterly devoid of cynicism. It’s a comic about a guy who likes reading comics (among other hobbies and interests) that’s written by a guy who likes making comics with his friends, and whaddya know? They’re both the same guy. There’s a kind of, if you’ll forgive the term, purity to that approach that would stand out in today’s careerist-dominated comics landscape even if the stories on offer weren’t as uniformly enjoyable as they are — so the fact that they are is, as the saying goes, an awfully nice plus.

In more “big picture” terms, it’s probably inevitable that comparisons to earlier autobio trailblazers like Dennis Eichhorn and, of course, Harvey Pekar will persist for as long as Baylis adheres to making his comics in the way that he makes them, but I’ve noticed a marked decline in their frequency and volume over the years, and for good reason : Baylis has a singular authorial “voice” unique unto himself, and has lived and continues to live a life that’s plenty interesting on its own terms. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having your comic mentioned alongside the likes of American Splendor, and as the years go by Baylis has managed, by dint of his consistency and creativity (no, the two are not mutually exclusive), to transform this series from curious, maybe even derivative, upstart to a welcome annual guest in the homes and lives of its readers. You can only pull that off if you’re doing something that’s got plenty of brains and heart at its core.

As is likely to be painfully obvious by now, one of those readers who views this comic as a welcome annual guest in their home and life is yours truly, and after this past year and change, a new issue felt more welcome than ever. Barring any further calamity, our next meeting with Baylis and co. will likely be under more pleasant — or at least predictable — circumstances, but you know what? I feel safe in assuming in advance that it’ll be a “feel-good” occasion then, as well.

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So Buttons #11 is available for $5.00 from the Tinto Press website at https://tintopress.com/product/so-buttons-11/

Review wrist check – Yema “Navygraf Maxi Dial” on bracelet. Because classic never goes out of style.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 10/14/2018 – 10/20/2018

As per the norm, we’ve got four new books to take a look at in this week’s Round-Up column, with something of a common theme in that they all come our way courtesy  of those unafraid to put their money where their mouths are, the noble ranks of self-publishing cartoonists —

Or, in the case of So Buttons #9, a self-publishing writer, specifically Jonathan Baylis, who makes a welcome return after a couple of years spent raising his infant son, who features prominently in a heartwarming little “who do ya love?” anecdote illustrated with stripped-down poignancy by T.J. Kirsch and an equally “awwwww — fer cute”-inducing yarn about introducing the lovable tyke to music drawn with gorgeously wistful aplomb by Summer Pierre. For the anti-natalists out there, though, fear not : we have a quartet of stories that re-visit tried and true Baylis themes, with the great James Romberger providing the strikingly authentic urban visuals which have long been one of the staples of his career on a story about picking up real rare roast beef from New York’s famous Second Avenue Deli, Fred Hembeck continuing his whimsical depictions of Baylis’ time interning in the shitshow that is the mainstream comic book industry, Thomas Boatwright going full-on “cartoony” exaggeration in a second strip about Baylis’ abandoned ambitions to be a horror movie make-up and effects artist, and Noah Van Sciver channeling his inner Crumb for another Harvey Pekar homage, which sees Baylis asking his own version of “what’s in a name?” —  only the name he’s pondering the ins and outs of isn’t Jonathan, as you’d probably expect, but Carl, which was shared by both his father and cousin.

These are all eminently smart and readable short-form vignettes that demonstrate that Baylis hasn’t lost a step at all over his hiatus, and if this issue happens to be your first exposure to his work, rest assured — you couldn’t have chosen a better time to hop on board. Presented in approximate half-standard-size format with a stunningly simple and emotive watercolor cover by Alissa Salah, this comic is more than worth the $5 price of admission and is available for purchase at http://sobuttons.com/order/

Continuing with the memoir theme, Rachel Scheer and her mother, Karen, collaborate once again for By Mom, By Me Volume Two : Tales From Our Twenties, which juxtaposes the “coming of age” years of Karen in the 1970s and Rachel in the early 2000s. This is remarkably relatable stuff, whether we’re talking about hitching a ride in a hearse through Yosemite Valley or an amusingly paranoid (you only think that’s a contradiction) boardwalk stroll, and ably demonstrates that this family has talent to spare. Rachel’s engaging, light-hearted cartooning style is as pitch-perfect for her material as ever here, the simple black-and-white ‘zine presentation is really nice, and I defy anybody to finish this one without a smile slowly creeping across their face.

Granted, this is no reinvention of the wheel or anything, but it’s a novel and winning approach to something that many consider, and not without reason, to have already been, as the saying goes, “done to death.” A bargain at $4.00 from https://www.etsy.com/listing/631943490/by-mom-by-me-volume-two-tales-from-our?ref=shop_home_active_1

Breaking from the memoir/autobio theme we had going, but only slightly, we come to Josh Pettinger’s Goiter #3, a book-length tale about one Sally Talman, who shares many of the same trepidations about turning 30 that, just a coincidence I’m sure, her author/creator did, as well. I’m thinking that the similarities between fact and fiction end, though, once the disembodied head of Sally’s future boyfriend, who’s fighting an interdimensional war, shows up on the scene, although who knows? I could be wrong about that.

Whatever the case may be, Pettinger’s rapid evolution as a cartoonist continues apace here, as he abandons the clinical Chris Ware-like distance he sometimes fell back on in earlier issues in favor of a genuinely involving story with a thoroughly humane viewpoint at its softly-beating heart. His illustration style still betrays hints of a Dan Clowes influence, it’s true, but with a decidedly “vintage” sensibility (be on the lookout for lots of “color dots,” for instance) that gives the proceedings a timeless and ethereal vibe. A richly rewarding return on your $7 investment (not bad at all for a full-color book in a slightly taller and thinner version of the standard comic format, with heavy cardstock covers) is sure to be had if you do the right thing and point your browser to https://www.etsy.com/listing/650388073/goiter-iii?ref=shop_home_active_1

Saving the best for last, though, we have Sara L. Jackson’s stunning painted ‘zine, The Female Minotaur, an emotionally searing look at the slow-burn heartbreak of a father’s gradual distancing of himself from his own daughter — a blow that’s doubly felt given the alienation that she already feels from her mother, and that mom in turn feels from dad. Oh yeah — this is as heavy as comics get.

Tell you what, though — it’s just about as good as they get, too, a veritable and visceral feast for the eyes that challenges the reader on all levels from the intellectual to the aesthetic, the end result being a book that literally exists in a category all its own, created for the specific purpose of telling this one story. I tend to shy away from employing overused and, by extension, necessarily cheapened superlatives such as “tour de force” very often, but that’s exactly what Jackson delivers here, a thematic and conceptual powerhouse of raw feeling more-than-strikingly communicated by means of her intuitively-channeled sequential series of  lush and arresting paintings. This is art that comes from someplace really deep, folks, and speaks to equally deep pits and valleys in the reader’s soul. A strong contender for the most unforgettable comics experience you’ll have all year, and not to be missed under any circumstances, exclusively (as far as I know, at any rate) offered for sale — and at the criminally low price of $8 ! — from our friends at Domino Books : http://dominobooks.org/womanminotaur.html

And with that, we  come to the end of yet another of our weekly “mini-review” rundowns. I don’t know what next week holds, but if it’s even half as good as this one, that would still be something well beyond great.