Interview: Josh Bayer's Rough, Weird, and Raw Comics
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Josh Bayer’s work looks like it’s shaped from clay. Stare hard enough at any given panel and what looks like smudged scribbles give way to figures with real dimension and thickness. You get a real sense of process from Bayer's work, like you're looking at both the blueprints and the finished project all once. His often brilliant Raw Power feels like the pinnacle of his style, a comic beamed from the past, a rough-edged 1970s underground experiment in modern storytelling and craft.
Though Bayer has a background in both fine art and comics, his most telling influence is his friend and former teacher, Raymond Pettibon, the noted artist responsible for Black Flag's logo and much of their now-iconic album artwork. Pettibon's punk spirit is visible in Bayer's work as well.
Bayer is preparing to release Suspect Device #4 (Pettibon did the cover), the latest issue of the anthology he contributes to and edits. It features notable cartoonists taking the first and last panels of important comic strips and filling the middle bits with their own rowdy stories. It’s a fascinating experiment, and it continues to yield great results.
We visited him in his Harlem studio to talk about his life in art and teaching.
How did you and Raymond Pettibon start working together?
It was 1998. I was living in LA and I wasn’t driving. I heard he was teaching a workshop at Cal Arts. I didn’t have my degree then. I didn’t go to school until four years later. I wasn’t enrolled but I decided I had to go anyway. I’d been following Pettibon for 10 years at that point and all I’d ever heard from people that had hung out with him was that he was super non-verbal. I met one of his old art dealers and the guy said, "I worked with him for ten years and the guy said like 200 words to me in that time."
I had a friend drive me and drop me off at Cal Arts, and I strolled in like I belonged there. They picked up on it and security came and asked what I was doing there. Pettibon said it was cool and that I was with him. He overheard me making arrangements to get a ride the next day—I lived in Venice and he lived in Long Beach. He goes, "we can pick you up." So the next day I was on Washington Boulevard. We made arrangements to hang out at this street corner at 7:15, this was before cell phones, and I’m just completely anxious, wondering if he’s actually going to show up. I’m out there drinking coffee waiting for him and he’s late, but after like a half hour he pulls up with his dad driving.
I had this huge inventory of punk rock questions to ask him, and any time I brought something up he’d just go off on a topic for awhile. I was like, I can’t fucking believe this. He’s this singular personality and he’s answering all my nerdy questions about punk and about art. I wonder if it would be different now, but then, kids were really indifferent. I don’t think a lot of them understood who he was. He’s teaching a workshop, which is what they do during spring break, he brought two massive shopping bags full of unfinished art. He brought it out and was showing his process and said, “You guys can take these and draw on top of them. We’re going to cut them up, it’s not precious, that’s the whole point.” He showed a little bit of inking techniques. He showed me how he paints hair. He drove me every day for a week. It was insane. When he was putting together the anthology book that he had the students do, he invited me to come down and help.
Every time I’d see him—we did some zines back in the day too—he’d say we could pick up where we left off and do another book together. I asked if he’d do some stuff for Suspect Device and he said, "yeah absolutely."
I was hanging out at his studio a lot in 2012. I showed up one day and I had a couple unfinished pieces, and I said, “I was thinking that the cover”—which is Annie slicing off Daddy Warbucks’ head—“I was thinking you could draw him over here—I could do the body and you could do the head.” The placement of the head was really different from where I planned it…he just went for it. I came over with like 10 unfinished pieces. To be honest, I think I might have pushed things too far, but in my mind it was like forming a band.
Does your relationship with him overshadow your own work?
No. Because when I first got involved with him it was before the internet era—for me at least it was—I did books with him and then I kind of expected to have a parade trailing me immediately and there was absolutely no reaction. The reaction to doing the zines was so underwhelming. I didn’t sell them. I’d sell them for two bucks, I’d bring them to record stores and people didn’t know what it was. Ten years later to have people—to actually be able to capitalize on the relationship…I’m still happy to yield any kind of benefit from it. It’s far from the point of being negative.
Did you know you wanted to make comics all along or did you think you would be more of a fine artist?
I did comics and then I stopped. I was like between 17 and 22 I was really influenced by alternative cartoonists—Mark Beyer and people like that. Similar to what happened with Pettibon, I didn’t get enough of an immediate reaction and I felt like I was a drop in the ocean or whatever. I did some good comics. I was in Columbus, Ohio and getting even less of a reaction than you would if it was in a major city. I was going to art school too. I started worrying about how I was going to forget how do to do comics, which I did naturally, and that I was going to unlearn the process and get inhibited. It was almost like I thought about it so much that it started to happen. I stopped doing comics and I started doing more fine art stuff. I did that all during the ’90s, and I tried to do comics every now and then. There were a lot of mistakes that I made. I’d stopped penciling. I’d just jump in. I just jumped in with a lot of my comics and they worked out but when I tried to go back to the comics, working smaller and less spontaneously was really hard. I did these comics about [Glenn] Danzig called Danzig Jungle Adventures that were in a zine that my friend did. I’d do them over and over again. I tried to do a few other comics at the end of the 2000s. I started thinking about going back to get trained. I ended up going back to SVA, and when I got some more training under my belt, I learned more about how to use nibs and how to plan out the page. I was able to hit the ground running. That was 2007. I did my junior thesis at SVA and I haven’t really stopped publishing since then. I had a little bit of a break for a couple years. Again, it’s the lack of immediate response. Waiting on sustained gratification is really hard for me. You keep on doing projects and at the beginning it’s uphill and people are ignoring them or are indifferent and you don’t get reviewed. Hopefully you reach a tipping point and all of that is a memory. That point when you’re getting zero recognition…it’s hard to go forward. It wasn’t always the case that I just did comics, but since 2007 I feel good about how consistent I’ve been. Especially with the teaching. It’s let me establish a place in the comics community and in New York and in the world in general which I never dreamed would be possible.
You have a really interesting line—it’s not sloppy, but it’s very kinetic. Do you work rough and quick, or do you sketch and plan a lot beforehand?
i’m doing that and I’m simultaneously—it’s a back and forth. You do one project fast and dirty and you do another one—I’ll pull out pages from Little Orphan Annie to get their etching. I’m doing a comic within the comic like in Raw Power. I’m using a thicker line, a different sketchbook. I’ll go and do a really tight project to see if I can do it and then I’ll go back to to the other way of doing it.
Suspect Device is fascinating. You’re taking these iconic characters and going in weird, sometimes shocking, directions with them, but it seems like it comes from a place of of love, or appreciation.
That idea of people doing it with appreciation and love—you know Gabby Schulz’s work? He’s so great—I invited him to do it and he started looking at Harold Gray’s [creator of Little Orphan Annie] stuff. He didn’t want to shit on the guy that much. He couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I wanted to ask him since then if he knew about Harold Gray’s politics because Gabby’s this huge—he seems to be an ultra-extremist. I found an anti-union comic that Harold Gray did. He was having his workers work around the clock—“they’re going to work 24 hours a day and sleep here…” and then this union buster came—Harold gray basically says, “I’ve got some hard-hitting guys with clubs and they’re going to take care of him.” Harold Gray wasn’t being satirical. I’ve wanted to ask Gabby since then if he’s aware of that. Aware of a neoconservative before neoconservatives—I wanted to throw that out there. When you think about the affection these artists have for the characters, they’re not always aware of…some of them gain affection, taking the stuff at face value.
The concept of Suspect Device is that each artist takes the first and last panel from a pre-existing strip and fills in the middle with whatever they want. How did you arrive at this?
I stumbled into it by accident. I came upon this exercise, Scott McCloud’s Five Card Nancy. I thought, Five Card Nancy is exactly what you see with Suspect Device, you take a frame at the beginning, one at the end, and you fill in everything else with your drawings. It’s [actually] something slightly different, but I had this idea in my head and I misinterpreted it. I needed an assignment for my students, and I gave them the Suspect Device assignment. It was cool as a teacher too, because I had a tendency to almost micromanage when I first started teaching, and all of a sudden I had this assignment when they had to do it all themselves with me backing off. Everybody came up with a cool comic. It worked out so well and seemed so original and unique. A lot of anthologies fall apart. There’s not a specific similarity between all the work. I think the idea of doing something based on a more general theme, people don’t seem super interested in it when you say here’s an anthology and there’s one word. everyone is going to do it around guns or something, I don’t think people are that interested in it. Maybe it’s the way people are now with the internet generation, people are so postmodern. I saw how well it worked with the students, and I started approaching cartoonists. This is a community where people are really community oriented and very responsive. You can go to a major cartoonist like Johnny Ryan, who barely knew me, and he did a drawing for me on the spot that I was able to put in issue one. Brian Ralph and me hadn’t met at the time and he did art for me. It’s incredible. I had been seeing their stuff as if they’re celebrities for 10 years, and then you meet them and they are completely willing to work with you on a one-on-one level. it’s really amazing.
Do you have a roster of artists and flow in mind going into the creation of an issue of Suspect Device?
It’s hard. There’s some people, the more unpublished they are, the more willing they are to meet the deadline. It’s always been about a third of the people that don’t follow through, as I’ve gotten busier, I haven’t been as good about keeping on top of people, but I also have more work than I can use, so that’s okay. I cast a wide net, but at the same time it’s specific. I have an instinctual idea of what i want it to be like. There’s some people who are great cartoonists, but I don’t want them in the book for this issue specifically. Sometimes, I’m like, I already have four people who do shock cartoons in this manner, four people who are doing a crust punk style, or three people that are doing a very thick line style. If I get a sense that there’s going to be a sameness too much, I tend to back off. I don’t plan it out or write it down. I invite people, cast my net, collect the work.
Do you still find time to draw every day?
I saw R. Crumb talk and he said as he got more successful he was having trouble making time to do art. I’ll get up sometimes and answer emails from 9:00 AM until like 12:30 and then I gotta go to work. Sometimes I can only cram in a half hour to draw. I just have to make that work.
You work as a teacher.
I teach all the time. I don’t take it for granted. I try to take on as much teaching work as I can. You never know when it’s going to end. I teach fine arts, comics—I started getting the opportunity to teach basic drawing classes too and I discovered I was as good at that as teaching comics, not to sound egotistical, but it’s the only job i’ve ever been good at that pays. I’ve bombed out of a lot of careers before I got to this. I tried to be an electrician, grip… I tried to be a gallery artist. None of those things ever felt like I could do more than keep my head above water, but teaching has been a good fit. I teach adults, I teach special needs kids a couple times a month, I taught at drug rehab centers. Most of it’s comics, but like I said, it’s also fine arts, inking, and I want to start teaching anatomy at the 92nd Street Y.
When you teach at, say, a rehab center. Do people come specifically for your comics class or just general drawing help?
I have a comics course that I teach. Comics had a stigma in this country for so long, so I almost apologize when I bring too much cartoony…I don’t want them to be like, Oh fuck, he’s a cartoony guy who is trying to teach me fine art. I don’t want that stigma so I bring it in through the back door later. When I teach inking, it’s all George Grosz and Thomas Nast, who I guess is cartoony, but more fine art cartoony, and then later on I show them Milton Caniff when I teach them brushwork. I was trained to do comics—how to do a whole comic and how to see out a comic project and how to do narrative comics. I do have it happen sometimes where people sign up for my comics class and they just want to know how to design characters so they can do video games, or they want to know how to or do a children’s book or a New Yorker-style cartoon. I’m ready to teach them how to do the panels and make people understand a narrative, where people enter the frame. [Sometimes the students] don’t care about that. The other thing you discover is that [making comics] is so time consuming that some people get disillusioned really quickly—again, it’s the immediate gratification thing. They just want it to be easier. The fine art classes can be easier for the student and easier for me. All you have to do is show up and if you work hard in three hours you feel like you’ve done something successfully. It can be hard to deal with all the failure that comes along with doing a comic. You have to do a script, you have to edit it, do the character design and wardrobe and environment… figure out a way around your weakness with doing those things. It can be a lot for people.
Once you’ve read enough comics, it becomes a vocabulary. Often they don’t take a long time to read, especially compared to the time they take to actually make.
Yeah. The plus side is that it reaches such a mass audience. Maybe it takes somebody 45 seconds to read it, but you can have 450 people taking that 45 seconds and that is really rewarding.