by Josh Bayer
Retrofit Comics
48 pgs, b+w

Every Scar on My Body a Line in a Book Written with Will Alone

review by BK Munn

Josh Bayer’s Raw Power is one of the more viscerally enjoyable comics I’ve experienced in a long time. His pages are great examples of comics-as-handwriting, using every expressive, crammed panel totally in the service of demonstrating his titular theme. Add to that it combines several of my favourite things, including punk rock, politics, conspiracy theories, and comic books, and you have the makings of a nearly perfect cultural artifact.
Subtitled “King Size Retrofit Comics Annual,” Raw Power is the latest offering from the Kickstarter-funded line of comic books published by cartoonist Box Brown, part of a quixotic 17-books-in-17-months project to resuscitate the traditional stapled pamphlet-style, “floppy” comic book format with an injection of cutting edge alternative cartooning. The previous three books of the series, 90s indie darling James Kochalka’s cute comedic riff on his newly-minted video game characters Fungus, newcomer Colleen Frakes’ & Betsy Swardlick’s cute crossdressing romp Drag Bandits, and Pat Alisio’s cute swirly psychedelic Bowman, did little to prepare us for the paranoid gutteral onslaught of Bayer’s Raw Power. To date, the Retrofit line has been decidedly slight, formally and narratively, with little in the way of work that is really exciting or even promises to carry the burden of saving or perpetuating the idea of the floppy comic as a viable comics delivery platform and space for art to flourish, an alternative to digital delivery, graphic novels, or even the world of zines and minicomics.
The most promising of the previous books, Alisio’s Bowman is a high-concept tribute to Jack Kirby’s 2001 comics series of the 1970s, itself an extended re-imagining of the film adaptation of the Arthur C. Clarke novel. Alisio’s tiny comic, rendered in a line-heavy, meticulously sketchy style, follows 2001‘s astronaut Dave Bowman as he remembers his past life and experiences a slacker alien civilization as if it was a drug-addled hallucination. The narrative of Bowman follows the sort of video-game, dungeon-master logic familiar to readers of much of the post-Fort Thunder generation of comics makers, but ultimately is little more than a winking homage in a beautiful package.
By contrast, Raw Power represents the next stage in Retrofit evolution. It’s built on the same sort of genre foundations as Bowman, but everything in it is bigger, louder, and messier (fittingly, Alisio provides the colour to the front cover of Bayer’s book, a sort of passing of the Retrofit relay baton from one creator to another). More than Alisio, Bayer manages to incorporate his influences and build on them. There is a ton of Kirby in Raw Power, but I could just as easily say the book is a tribute to E.C. Segar, Frank Stack, Spain Rodriguez, Chester Gould, Harold Gray, or Raymond Pettibon, a heady mix of laboured linework and ideology in a prole art package.
The two-pronged story follows the mental degeneration of social mistfit/psychopath Terry Kaminczyk, whose name is ominously reminiscent of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, using a macro/micro approach. Following the micro thread, we learn that Terry’s Bruce Wayne-style early childhood trauma gives him a lifelong hatred of punk rockers and muggers, leading him to adopt the identity of The Cat, a feline mask-wearing thug who wanders modern day New York City, beating up innocent bystanders and purse-snatchers with savage randomness and seeming impunity. In a flashback (macro-time), we see that Terry’s thoughts and actions are inspired by the Cointelpro-style efforts of President Jimmy Carter and his secret henchman, Watergate fall-guy G. Gordon Liddy. Carter recruits Liddy, the infamous Korean War vet, FBI sharpshooter, and commando lawyer, to neutralize the punk rock threat posed by people like Jello Biafara (Dead Kennedys) and D. Boon (Minutemen), who comic book Carter obsesses about in the same way Nixon obsessed about youth culture in the 60s. Bayer’s Liddy is a fascinatingly dark character, prone to monologuing, Hitler-like, on themes of willpower and The Fatherland, while Carter crawls around the Oval Office like Iggy Pop or GG Allin, barking out scripture verses. The whole story is a pulpy stew of a mess painted in broad, goofily histrionic strokes, equal parts horrific and hilarious, with echoes of post-1970s fascistic superhero narratives like The Dark Knight and Dan Clowes’ Death Ray, grafted onto a metanarrative of the secret history of punk.
New York-based cartoonist, illustrator and art teacher Bayer draws Liddy and his spiritual “son” Terry as visually imposing man-mountains, often pictured facing the reader in the manner of Crumb’s Harvey Pekar, spewing Travis Bickle-style, non-sequitor-laden confessions along the lines of “This world is a grimy river regularly overflowing that someone could punch back with their fists if they were willing to stand…” These same monolithic characters often explode into rubbery-limbed violence, all big feet, hands, flying sweat beads, and action lines. Bayer delineates each scene with just as much or as little linework as he needs to get across his plot point, sometimes with figures and backgrounds only sketchily represented, other times intensely (!) cross-hatched. His characters are expressive, ranging from willowy to rock hard as the occasion demands. Mostly they seem to be manifestations of the thoughts they express, pure stream-of-conscious caricature; inky ids. For instance, despite his mountainous El Borbah build, Terry’s facial features, when not masked entirely, are sort of babyish and tiny, indicative of his simple-minded obsession and malleable philosophy. By contrast, Liddy, perhaps because based on a real-world figure, is presented with more sputtering, mustachioed detail.
Bayer’s crazy narrative eventually derails itself, perhaps out of exhaustion, and takes a step sideways into even more meta territory in the book’s denouement, in a sort of b-side or backup (in keeping with the giant-size annual tradition), as Bayer follows one of the Cat’s victims
home, listening in as she tells her story to a roommate (and possible author stand-in) who tries to console her with a comic book! Bayer proceeds to round out his tour de force with a “cover version” of said comic, an issue of the execrable 1980s Marvel title DP7, a seeming panel-for-panel “reshoot” done in his depthless punk style, which demonstrates, more than the preceding 35 pages, that Raw Power‘s style has more to say than most comic book substance.