To step into the world of writer Jonathan Baylis’ So Buttons is to step into the best of pure comics storytelling. The acclaimed anthology series—now out in a new edition from Alternative Comics—present slices from the life of Baylis. Sometimes surreal, sometimes poignant, the vignettes that constitute the book are always absorbing and wonderfully rendered.
Not too long ago, I chatted with Jonathan about his influences (including those beyond the world of comics), how he writes his stories, Basquiat, the allure of auto-bio comix, and what story he’s ready to tell next.
AJ FROST: Firstly, mazel tov on the newly published edition of So Buttons! What did creating your own comics series mean to you?
JONATHAN BAYLIS: Thank you very much!
So… I never really thought too much about creating my own comics growing up. I thought that at best, maybe I’d work for Marvel and become an editor or something. But then I discovered creators like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Seth, and of course, Harvey Pekar. Their auto-bio work was like nothing I’d read before. I didn’t even really know it was a genre explored in comics. So… when the opportunity arose to create a strip or two for a publication called The Comical, which was a free magazine in comedy clubs about comedians (I was dating one), I didn’t even imagine it would become a series. I thought it would be a one-off or two. And when I decided to collect the strips into one mini-comic, I thought that might be it. But I had more ideas. So… I kept it going, which I guess made it a “series”. And I’ve been doing about one a year for ten years. And what does it all mean to me? It means so much that I’ve been able to collaborate with so many incredible artists. Honored that they’d work with me, both new and upcoming artists like T.J. Kirsch, Rachel Dukes, and Noah Van Sciver to folks that I’ve admired for years like Fred Hembeck and Rick Parker.
FROST: Who are your inspirations beyond the comics world? I noticed that at a lot of points in So Buttons, you reference Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most influential artists of the last generation. How did he influence you in your artistic vision?
BAYLIS: I absolutely love Basquiat, but I consider him more of an emotional touchpoint than an inspiration. Looking at his work affects me, but I don’t know if it influences me to create comics per se. And I feel like most of my comix inspirations come from comix creators. But outside of comix? I’m a big film buff, so many of my comics feature images of genre movie characters like Darth Vader, King Kong, and Godzilla. But I also write tributes to guys like Sam Fuller, Jim Jarmsuch, and Dino DeLaurentiis. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I was a bullied kid. So my escape was movies and comics. Hence, so many stories that feature film characters and moments and comics homages to folks like Kirby and Krigstein.
FROST: What is your storytelling process like? Do you keep a notebook handy to jot down interesting things you see during the day? Or do you employ a more spur of the moment, steam-of-consciousness method to your writing?
BAYLIS: My storytelling process is varied. Mostly, I have a folder on my laptop that is simply called “STORIES.” And when I have an idea, I’ll jot down what’s nagging at my brain and then I’ll either be forced to write the entire story down immediately, or just keep that initial note for 10 years until I return to it and flesh it out. Sometimes I’ll sketch something out on a napkin because the beer inspired a moment. But I don’t really keep a notebook in an attempt to capture the day, every day. I only produce one book a year, so it’s not exactly high pressure to do that, ha!
FROST: Looking to the comix world, I know it’s been remarked that So Buttons is Pekar-esque. Would you agree with that assessment? Or is that too reductive? Who writers, comics and beyond, did you look to for inspiration?
BAYLIS: Harvey wasn’t the first auto-bio guy I came across, even though he’s probably who I most emulate, given that I hire artists to interpret the scripts I write. The creators that kind of blew my mind first in the auto-bio space were the afore-mentioned Canadians: Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, and Seth. But if I really think hard, I bet the first semi-auto-bio guy I read was actually Fred Hembeck, who talked about himself and his love for comics. And I was SO lucky and honored to have Fred draw a couple of my stories. But back to Harvey. Even though he wasn’t the first, he was someone I could perhaps relate to the most, like he was one of my Jewish family members. Not every story had to have a happy ending, or even an ending for that matter. His anecdotes were like conversations I’d overhear my family discussing at gatherings. Once I found Harvey, I devoured just about everything he ever wrote. When I was working for Sundance, I met him at the Festival through documentarian (and former roommate of Joe Sacco’s) Thom Powers, and sat behind him while the American Splendor movie was projected. Not long after that, I was inspired to write my own comics.
These days I’m inspired by so many people. It’s like a Golden Age of small press and indie creators. But I love the auto-bio of Lucy Knisley, Gabrielle Bell, and So Buttons collaborator Noah Van Sciver when he escapes from his fictional work. Blammo #9 was amazing!
FROST: What do you feel is the allure in autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) comics, for writers and readers? What can be done in this sub-genre (if that’s the right term for it) that can’t be done anywhere else?
BAYLIS: The allure? I think the genre of auto-bio is more about being relatable and not feeling alone than it is the escapism of most other comix genres. So… I hope to either make someone chuckle or feel something rather than thrill them with escapades. I don’t think I could really do super-hero or other like-genre work. (Though I did a couple of EC-style horror stories in So Buttons #3: So Horror-ble.)
For comics, what’s unique in general is what happens between the panels and what it does to the mind. Film edits are different in that way, unless you’re Kubrick perhaps. But in auto-bio, for me, at least with my work, I feel like the page-turn is a big plus. There are a number of repeated images and moments in So Buttons that create a through-line between the many artists and interpretations that I don’t think would be as effective in film. I like the So Buttons mini-comics as individual snacks, but the way that I’ve arranged the collection is in a way that the different stories over the years speak to each other.
FROST: What I found most affecting about So Buttons was not only the content of your stories but that the book had the perfect matchmaking between your words and the art. How did you know which story to pair up with each artist? Were there deliberate choices for certain pieces or was it more whimsical process?
BAYLIS: Thank you very much! That’s quite the compliment. I’ve heard writers over the years talk about how they like to tailor their stories and scripts towards the strengths of the particular artists they are working with and that always sounded like a really smart and challenging idea. But it’s natural really.
Like you mentioned Basquiat earlier and the story I was writing about him needed an artist with a raw, loose and beautiful ability and an artist like Victor Kerlow was a perfect fit. Or the stories about my Marvel internship were drawn by Fred Hembeck, a guy who wrote and drew about his affection for Marvel comics for many years. Or T.J. Kirsch, who’s my most consistent collaborator over the years and how he IS So Buttons in many ways. I have a few stories I’m working on now and they all have intended script recipients. Whether they accept them or not is another story. I’ve been turned down a few times, ha!
FROST: I’m sure that you’re not quite finished with So Buttons, but what is your next project? What are you looking forward to most?
BAYLIS: I’m working on So Buttons #8 right now, and I have this vision of there not only being a mini-comic version, but an over-sized b&w magazine version in the style of the original Pekar American Splendors. Noah Van Sciver already banked the Pekar tribute cover, I just need to finish these stories! But my child was born a year ago and that put a slow-down on the process (Haha!). But now that he’s a year old, I’m revving up the engine again and already wrote a quickie for a cartoonist that does all his work on bar napkins.
In the future, I’d love to do a long-form graphic novel/memoir in the next five years about the dying borscht belt, where my grandmother owned a bungalow colony, but we’ll see…
Jonathan Baylis & Various Artists
(Joseph Remnant, Noah Van Sciver, Fred Hembeck, T. J. Kirsch, Rick Parker, Dean Haspiel et al.)
184 page full color 6″ x 9″ paperback