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FOG! Chats With Josh Bayer, Co-Creator of Fantagraphics’ ‘All-Time Comics’

From cartoonist Josh Bayer and his brother, director Samuel Bayer, comes the All Time Comics line from Fantagraphics Books.  The series is a love letter to the comics medium and combines the talents of new alternative artists such as Ben Marra, Noah Van Sciver and cover artists Jim Rugg, Johnny Ryan and Tony Millionaire with classic talents including Al Milgrom, Rick Parker and the late Herb Trimpe.Josh took some time to discuss writing the line of books, the genesis of the project and his affinity for the Silver Age of comics.

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FOG!: What was the genesis of All Time Comics?

Josh Bayer:  In a certain sense, it was like when Bill Mantlo was offered ROM.  ROM was based on a pre-existing toy and Bill Mantlo was invited by Parker Bros. and Marvel to invent the mythology and the mission of the character. My brother had an idea for a screenplay involving these Super characters, and he asked me to come up with a back story of the characters at their prime, at some period in the past. He had the names and the villains and the powers of the characters but I, and later my collaborators, came up with everything else. The design, the secret identities, the names of the cities they operate in, what their days are like… It was really fun and really a great education in a type of comics I’ve studied but never done before.

You developed the project with your brother, Samuel, a director. Did you share the same tastes in comics growing up?

Yes, I think so, His interests funneled down to me. He and my other brothers drew their own comics and they were pretty ambitious, full color, they had to be full length. They didn’t stop at ten pages because it was a kids comic. They had completed comics by the time they were 12 that  were fully realized and plotted and stapled. I still have a few pages — they influenced me a lot as you’re always straining to be like your role models. I made my own comics too, to be like them. It was my first university.

Sam loved Neal Adams but even though I liked his work, I found Neal Adams’ excellence almost cold and off putting like some kind of merciless threshing  machine that weeded out all  flaws. I think I liked Kirby more because it was both amazing and full of flaws. Kirby is very punk in that way. But Sam and my brother Jon were there first. I know Kirby and Herb Trimpe because they loved them in these old Silver Age comics they had.

Fantagraphics generally doesn’t publish superhero comics. How did you sell them on All Time Comics?

It sort of evolved and I think it’s a bit of a recognition or an acknowledgement  of the movement among alternative artists towards embracing comics of the past. Without necessarily vying to get work from Marvel and DC, people like Marra, Pat Aulisio, Noah Lyons and others are all owning their early influences in a way that 90s alternative artists like Peter Bagge or Charles Burns rejected.

Really though, it evolved naturally. Jason T Miles formed a partnership with me when he was on hiatus from Fantagraphics, and when he went back to work he shepherded All Time Comics along.

Your collaborators are both contemporary indie creators including Benjamin Marra, Noah Van Sciver and yourself and comic icons like the late Herb Trimpe, Rick Parker and Al Milgrom. How important was it to you to get these comic vets involved and what was the experience like collaborating with them?

We would have made this work without them, but it would have been very different. All the people we got were at the top of my list and are my favorite artists in the world, but are also very right for the project. The concept of uniting generations is an added benefit to the project.

Your four characters Atlas, Blind Justice, Bullwhip, and Crime Destroyer are all part of a shared universe. Who are these characters?

Atlas is a superhuman, flying, super strong guy who gets his powers from these Kirby-like machines he found embedded in rock under the city, left behind by an unknown civilization. He has a fatal weakness: Fear. He becomes powerless if he becomes afraid.

Justice, whose nickname is Blind Justice, is a character who believes himself to be bulletproof. We leave it unclear whether that’s true, but he gets shot a lot. His mask is a homemade web of bandages, he’s sort of like this scary bandaged face, club wielding street maniac as much as he’s a hero.

Bullwhip is a one woman war on crime. She doesn’t have powers, just a whip and a motorcycle and she is really happy about being a superhero. We’ve written her as a character who has committed totally to the life of Bullwhip. It’s her whole existence. Where she is from isn’t really important, it’s who she is today, she’s committed to the Bullwhip identity.

Crime Destroyer is a vengeance machine. He returns from a war to find his family slaughtered and goes on a campaign against crime. He drives a car with machine guns and it has a fist-rappelling rope and lots of guns and truncheons. He is very persistent and ruthless. All these heroes are.

The comics tread a fine line between homage and parody. Was that intentional?  Are you mocking the source material or do you feel that it’s a genuine love letter to the genre.

Even if there’s a camp tone that comes in, I don’t think that means there’s a lack of reverence. There’s a very campy episode of the Justice League animated cartoon which is a tribute to Gardner Fox’s Silver Age comics, and it’s very emotionally powerful especially when it comes to depicting the heroic ideals the characters lived by, and it even manages to be critical of the implicit racism of the comics of that era. It’s possible we can be both critical, campy and reverent.

Any plans for a crossover since it’s a shared universe?

The characters bleed into each other’s stories. We have the same villains, the same cities and supporting characters, and guest appearances in various comics by the heroes. There are bigger plans in the future to do more guest appearances, but not so much in these early issues.

What are you currently geeking out over?

I was very into Neil Gaiman’s audio book on Norse Mythology, and I’ve been nerding out on old art and comics. I’ve been looking the correlation between early George Braque abstraction and Gary Panter’s sketchbook drawing. I showed this to my students and I’m usually teaching myself and them at the same time. I’ve been nerding out on a lot of the art tips I’ve vicariously picked up from Al Milgrom, and I’ve been nerding out on this new pen my student Adam gave me: he attached a Hunts Nib to a fountain pen and it’s like I magically have a refillable nib I never have to clean. I really love drawing with it.

All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer #1 is in stores now and All Time Comics: Bullwhip #1 is scheduled for an April release.


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