SPX Spotlight 2014: Whit Taylor Interviews Josh Bayer

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

To be honest, I initially had a weird apprehension towards reading Josh Bayer's comics. I thought that they might not be the right match for me based on the "type" of comics I already knew I liked. In reality though, I think I was intimidated by them and worried that they might be "over my head." That's why sometimes the best thing to do is just make yourself momentarily uncomfortable and dive into something you wouldn't normally seek out. I'm glad I did, because I can honestly say that Josh's work is refreshing, nuanced, and brimming with a unique energy that sets his work apart from countless others.

I just finished up his latest book Theth (Retrofit) and was fortunate enough to briefly chat with him about it.

Whit: Theth (Seth) is a recurrent character in Rom, Rom Prison Riot, and Theth. What was the inspiration for this character?

Josh: Yeah, I'm a big fan of framing devices. I really like when there's an intricate border around something you can read just as intently as the actual narrative. I used to always think about coexisting narratives before I was doing comics in earnest. Watchmen has the back up features that slowly start to weave together the book. Joe Coleman paintings used to have tiny cartoons decoratively placed around his portrait subjects, and these things appeal to me. Another one I like is The Big Lebowski. There's a real stylishness behind having the Cowboy character narrate that film, the guy that Sam Elliot plays. Stuff like that inspires me; it's funny and serious at the same time. It's a deconstructionist joke about storytelling but is also just a pure act of fun, rebellious art making … I mean who doesn't want a cowboy walking into their story about an Angeleno bowling hippie and his Vietnam Vet partner in 1991?  

In old comics, there would usually be a second feature that ran concurrently on the Sunday page.  like I think Krazy Kat emerged as a small strip running underneath George Herriman's  " The  Family Upstairs." Krazy Kat literally appeared as a strip running under the People Upstairs, which was some stupid strip that Herriman was working on until he figured out what he ought to be doing. I mean it wasn't stupid, but you know what I mean. The whole earth is stupid.  

In a round about way, that's how Theth emerged in ROM 1. I thought Rom needed another layer of context. And as I dwelled over the comic making process, memories and weird details of that time period in the early 80's started to rise up, just like it does when I see almost any media from the time I grew up. 


Whit: The act of reading comics is treated as a rebellious act in all of these pieces. Was that true for you on a personal level when you were younger? What purpose did comics serve for you in the 70s/80s?

Josh: They were just what was around, and I liked them. They were part of a kids' world, they were "affordable" as far as anything was, or at least accessible. Books were great too, but comics had that visual element and so they were a more immediate world I could relate to. 

But then something happened and they became something I had to sneak around and read because my parents pretty much didn't let me read them. Maybe they were disturbed how obsessive I was about them. The comics kept on growing in stature in my head. The fact that they were prohibited, ostensibly until I "got my grades up," probably helped make me even more crazy about them. And not coincidentally this kind of household obviously has a lot of parallels with the restrictive setting Theth's world occupies.

I remember having a dream when I was 12 that I found a crate of comics, and each one had a story that had a fully written narrative… I  mean in the dream… I could pick up each comic and read them and they were complete and detailed in every way, and I knew that all the other comics in the box were all equally complete in every way. That's how comics were to me, the idea that I could read them all was totally this phenomenal magic thing to me. 

Whit: What was it about the event of John Lennon's death that made you choose it as a focal issue in Theth?

Josh: It's an act of deflection on the author's part, like me saying "Hey look over there, because I'm not gonna just write about how hard it is being a little kid living in Ohio feeling bad." Sure, that's what it's about, but I'd rather use misdirection to properly tell that story without being all autobio-y. I'm trying to run in the other way from that cause there's a million stories about little lonely kids in Ohio…and there's a million interesting things to juggle in for the characters to feel numbed about, and everyone in that story is pretty numbed out.  

John Lennon is so famous and Theth is so anonymous. It created a yard stick I use to measure the depth of the chasm Theth is in. But it didn't need to be John Lennon. It could have been anything that made a major cultural dent at that time. In 1986 it could have been about the Challenger exploding. It could have been Reagan getting attacked by John Hinkley. I think when something horrible and senselessly tragic happens, like someone being knifed to death…. no wait, I mean getting shot... the first response is to be shocked and then for life to go back to normal, especially when you don't grown up with any way to measure the magnitude of the tragedy.  It'll be years before you can comprehend what an assault like that might mean. The lack of real response to that death also is helpful in describing the world they are in.  

Whit: What was your artistic/writing process like when working on Rom and Rom Prison Riot, given that there was some adaptation involved? 

Josh: I just kept it loose, and tried to pretend I was a 1920s artist like Frank King doing Rom, though eventually your own personality emerges now from where you try to suppress it behind stylistic preferences. 

Right now I'm adapting another 1980s Marvel comic, and I'm starting to place more pseudonyms over the characters. So where before I was changing pacing and "camera" shots and things like that, I'm also changing designs and all the dialogue…. starting to follow the kind of satire guidelines that a Mad Magazine parody might use, though I'm not doing a funny satire. I guess that would be a good genre categorization for me "non-humorous satire." Though such a thing might invite a "What's the point in that?" kind of response, and that's all right too.


Whit: Any new projects in the works? Will we see Theth again?

Josh: I have a bunch more Theth stories; a lot of writers have thinly veiled autobiographical stand-ins. I wanna do a story where he's 20 and friendless and getting into Punk, and a story where he's 17 and starts to get into sex. It's all a matter of how much time I make to do these stories, because I have a ton of other projects too. My 
email's crazy full of stuff I have to follow up on and attend to if I wanna keep slogging along, but that's what I want. I've cultivated this publishing career, this level of micro fame and it's already stretching me to the max, and I work all the time. I think I'm happiest with the level I'm at. Not sure I could handle much more attention than what I'm getting now.

Want to check out Josh's work? Stop by his table at SPX (E6B-E7)!