Josh Bayer's work had been in the fuzzy realm of my peripheral vision for some time, but between Tom Neely and Austin English early this year both singing the praises of his Raw Power book on Box Brown's Retrofit imprint, which was oddly prefaced by riding on a train with one of his former students (her noticing my rapidograph led to a discussion of art/comics), my ordering online this "King Size Retrofit Annual" finally brought his fuzzy world-view into focus in front of me. There was no regret along with this purchase.
The comic arrived into my world like some artifact from an era difficult to discern, as if someone put into the teleportation device from David Cronenberg's version of The Fly a 60s underground comic and a black and white boom comic from the 80s (along with a random Marvel comic that nobody noticed) and out came the other end some new creature altogether. Bayer puts us in a world that could be now, could be the recent past, or could be the near future, but it's definitely an alternate reality. But a reality that also utterly seems plausible in its own way, not unlike the realities that Philip K. Dick's best fiction presents. Carter is President. G. Gordon Liddy is an agent provocateur boasting on a talk show about taking down Timothy Leary and being called in by Carter to go to task on the subversive punk scene of Jello Biafra and Black Flag. And along with all of this, we have the exploits of a sociopathic vigilante, Cat Man, obsessed with exacting revenge on the punks, two of whom killed his parents. And don't forget the Harlem Globe Trotters; they loom large in this world, too.
With all this curious cultural flotsam and jetsam, which is based in reality, but breaking apart and mashing up back together in Bayer's comics fiction, it makes me wonder how old Bayer is. I don't want to cheat and look it up, but if I was venturing a guess, he's a child of the 80s (God knows I am). This book reads like what would happen if someone raised on The Dark Knight Returns and hardcore punk and Raymond Pettibon was set free to make a comic book which speaks to the sum total of all these things. I suspect that's what it is, but since Bayer is the only one who has done this, it makes for a relatively profound achievement...as if this book, his work, needed to exist, and, as readers, we needed Bayer to exist to make it. What seems so obvious had yet to exist until now, and the result is a one man genre show, Bayer unto himself.
His actual mark-making is deceptively simple. In a very free, gestural manner Bayer nimbly summarizes a lot of comics history. As an artist myself, he makes me wish I was as loose and flexible, as perceptive as he. If a big chunk of what comics is all about fundamentally is putting marks on paper, Bayer is a master craftsman. The nervous energy and virtuoso display reminds me of everything from Gary Panter to the inks of Klaus Janson on the aforementioned "Dark Knight" collaboration with Frank Miller to a combination of the crowded, kinetic pages of both Harvey Kurtzman's EC Mad collaborations with Wood and Elder and of the proto punk rock of Zap artists like S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Rick Griffin sliding right into the aforementioned Pettibon. Bayer is one of those rare artists who seems to have scanned the entire history of comics and then walked away and forgot about all of it at once as he hit the page, ready to tango. That takes a considerable amount of skill--making THAT look easy--and I admire Bayer as if he were a comics Harlem Globe Trotter. I think he can take us in almost any direction he chooses, and Raw Power has made me ready & willing to get on the bus.