Josh Bayer talks All Time Comics, Fantagraphics’ superhero universe.
Josh Bayer tells Stephen Jewell about creating Fantagraphics’ first superhero universe with All Time Comics
As the home of Peter Bagge’s Hate and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Fantagraphics Books is not a name you would normally associate with superheroes. But while the likes of Daniel Clowes and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez have played around with the genre’s lurid spandex-clad trappings in Eightball and Love And Rockets respectively, the Seattle-based publisher is now plunging headlong into the fantastical world of caped crusaders and masked avengers with All Time Comics, a new line of titles headed up by brothers Josh and Sam Bayer.
“It’s not so much a question of why would we come together as [the fact that] I’m very comfortable with how Fantagraphics does business and what they showcase,” says Josh Bayer. “As for them, I think they would recognise that the comics are good, no matter what they’re about. That’s the bottom line. They wouldn’t publish them if they weren’t interesting and didn’t have something to say about the direction in which comics are evolving. And the fact is that a lot of younger alternative cartoonists are now embracing their roots as fans of sci-fi, superheroes and other genre adventure comics.”
Previously known for his self-published underground anthologies Suspect Device and The Black Hood, Josh is taking charge of the comics. His brother Sam – a filmmaker who helmed 2010’s A Nightmare On Elm Street remake along with numerous music videos including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – is exploring options in other mediums.
“Sam came to me with the characters, and some were more developed than others,” says Josh. “He has some stuff he wants to do with them in this medium, and I’m as interested as anyone in what shape the characters will take. They might be at a different stage or take place in a different era, such as with the short film Sam recently did, which starred LeMonica Garrett as Crime Destroyer, Monica Schaefer as Bullwhip and Steve Jones from the Sex
Pistols as the guitar-wielding villain. There’s also a lot of crossover, as Sam worked on the comic book logos with his designer Robert Hales, and it was Sam’s idea to do vintage ads in the comics. We discussed different directions for the ads and put our heads together and asked ‘How do we get the feeling of the best of the old time vintage ads?’ It was an important point to give the books more texture.”
When it came to creating All Time Comics’ lurid, four-colour-style world, both Josh and Sam drew on their childhood love of classic Marvel and DC fare. “I’ve always enjoyed all sorts of comics, but I especially love superheroes and crime comics because I grew up with them,” Josh explains. “I will take any opportunity where I have the freedom to do comics, especially if I get to work with a talent pool that I’m excited about. Alan Moore started out doing six page sci-fi stories for 2000 AD, so you learn these things and then you graduate up the ranks.”
The nostalgic tone of All Time Comics is in fact reminiscent of the America’s Best Comics imprint that the Northampton mage started at Wildstorm in 1999 before its move to DC, and the 1963 limited series that he, Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch released through Image Comics in 1993. “Those Alan Moore comics are definitely a guiding inspiration for All Time Comics, as well as some of Marvel’s New Universe line,” Josh says. “Alan Moore is someone who can breathe new life into seemingly moribund concepts, and that’s like a magic trick. Of course, Alan Moore literally identifies himself as a magician. I’m less formal about magic, but I see the magic of comics and the connection between myth and a greater appreciation of life. So, yeah, those books are deeply embedded in my thoughts as examples of successful superhero comics.”
Having launched with Crime Destroyer in March, with Bullwhip set for release in April and Atlas and Blind Justice to follow in May and June, All Time Comics’ main protagonists appear to have been modelled on iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. “All of those things are in there, and there’s also some elements of old Golden Age comics, such as where an orphaned city kid discovers a vast cavern in the subway,” Josh explains. “It could also be like a Silver Age story where a Norse prince comes across a missing weapon in the middle of nowhere, or a pilot discovers an injured alien. All of those traditional elements are in there, as well as the trope of an invulnerable character having a secret weakness.”
With his tragic origin story more closely resembling that of Frank Castle than Bruce Wayne, Crime Destroyer brings to mind the Punisher as much as Batman. “Crime Destroyer could have a bit of Punisher and Batman in him, and he’s a bit of a Grindhouse archetype, as Sam’s really into that movie,” explains Josh, who also cites 1970s exploitation movies like Rolling Thunder and Johnny Firecloud as significant influences. “All of those things were inspirational in writing Crime Destroyer, who is a war vet who comes home to find that his family has been murdered, so he declares war on crime. So, sure, there are those elements floating around, although in those old movies the heroes never blew up things with death rays or fought mutated crime lords while driving a Trans Am with machine guns on the hood.”
Meanwhile, Bullwhip has some sly fun with Wonder Woman’s notorious BDSM overtones. “She has things about her that might remind people of Huntress, Hellcat, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel or Catwoman in that she wears a black leather outfit and rides a motorcycle,” says Josh. “But those things are just stepping stones, as she’s really her own thing.” What with Bullwhip facing the chauvinistic menace of the Misogynist and Crime Destroyer emphasising his African-American roots, both series reflect the turbulent, changing social climate of the 1970s. “We wanted to mirror the kinds of characters that were in comics during the period that we’re looking back on,” Josh reflects. “At the time, black characters were just starting to get their own books from the Big Two, and there was also an uptick in new female heroines, so both of those things were breakthroughs in the early ’70s. As for the Misogynist, that was a no-brainer, and so were the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan villains that the characters fight.”
While Crime Destroyer, Bullwhip and Atlas are based around DC’s famous trinity, Blind Justice harks back to more obscure outsiders like Ragman, the Creeper and D-Man,
alias Demolition Man, a supporting character in The Thing and Captain America in the 1980s. “Apart from D-Man, those characters haven’t always been written the way I’d like to see them,” says Josh. “They’re all damaged, mentally divergent heroes. The Creeper was employed, but the other characters live in the grey zone between poverty and homelessness. So the fantasy that you can remain resilient and strong while opting out of the American capitalist system is the biggest power fantasy in any of those comics.”
With Blind Justice based at the Optic City Center for Cranial Trauma Victims, Josh also drew on the sad plight of Bill Mantlo. Best known for writing Rom and Micronauts in addition to co-creating Rocket Raccoon, Mantlo was left seriously brain damaged after being the victim of a hit-and-run accident in 1992 and now requires institutional care, which definitely doesn’t come cheap in the US.
“It’s certainly important to me,” says Josh. “That these guys like Bill Mantlo worked on characters for years and received no security is ridiculous. Imagine working in a comics store for six months and having nothing left at the
We’re mirroring the kinds of characters in comics during the period we’re looking back on
end of the day, no financial recompense for something that you breathed life into and fleshed out. Now imagine that you worked for eight years, like Mantlo did on Rom, providing plots and details and building the character and their backstory, but you’re at the mercy of an industry that considered him disposable, which is insane. The tradition of cartoonists and writers not getting stronger worker’s-rights laws to protect them goes back decades to the way the medium was written off as disposable and even destructive. What happened to Mantlo has an extra layer of shocking tragedy to it because it was so meaningless. It’s like the end of David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp, where the character gets hit by the meteor on the last page. It’s like a sad joke that life writes into its script sometimes.”
Alongside younger artists like Ben Marra, Noah Van Sciver and Rick Buckler, Josh was determined to involve some industry veterans in All Time Comics. In what would turn out to be his last ever work, the late Herb Trimpe was brought on board to pencil Crime Destroyer #1, while Al Milgrom is inking several titles. “I’d already crossed paths and done comics events with Noah Van Sciver and Ben Marra, while I found Rick Buckler – who is the son of [ Deathlok co-creator] Rich Buckler – on Facebook,” says Josh. “For the older artists, I reached out to exhibitors and collectors, and just looked on websites for their contact info. I really wanted to make a good impression on Herb Trimpe and Al Milgrom, so I just wrote really elaborately professional, detailed scripts with no messy filler.”
All Time Comics is being promoted as a shared universe, so expect plenty of synergy between the titles, with Atlas guest-starring in Crime Destroyer #1 for starters. However, Josh insists that there won’t be any convoluted continuity or any Secret Wars
style crossovers for at least a few years. “We’re pretty far off from that,” he laughs. “But that’s an issue that you get with companies that have been around for 70 years. We have a stripped-down line of books, so the amount of confusion we could create by having the characters band together would be pretty minimal. But people should know – and my team keeps asking me to remind audiences – that these are definitely not books with interdependent narratives. All of the comics in this series are independent, stand-alone stories, so you can buy all of them, just a few or even just one without coming across any narrative holes.”
Crime Destroyer #1 boasts script by Josh Bayer and art by Herb Trimpe and Ben Marra.
Crime Destroyer – or should we say “criminal killer” – in action. Variant cover by Johnny Ryan.
Bullwhip #1 pencils by Ben Marra, inks by industry veteran Al Milgrom.
This ain’t really your daddy’s 1970s, kid...
Vampires from the future at a rock concert, yeah!
Crime Destroyer #1 cover by Jim Rugg.
Cover art by Das Pastoras, verifying how Bullwhip picks up that BDSM vibe...