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Now, why on earth would I be reviewing a decade-old mini-series that has never been collected? Find out below!
I may have mentioned this, but John Layman of Chew fame lives about 15 minutes from me. Plus, he’s a swell guy, so we’ve gone out for beer. He gives me his comics! And so it was that he passed onto me his three-issue Wildstorm mini-series from the summer of 2001, Bay City Jive. No, there is no trade. So you might have to find it in the back issue boxes. But should you?
First, let’s look at the particulars: Bay City Jive is written by Mr. Layman, drawn by Jason Johnson, inked by Sean Parsons, colored by David Baron, and lettered by a John Layman. He digs lettering – he does it on Chew, too. The story is called “The Demon-Gate Freak Out!” Come on, that has to be awesome, right?
Well, Bay City Jive isn’t great, but it is a fairly fun comic. It’s basically Layman having some fun with a parody of blaxploitation movies – the story is set in San Francisco early in 1976, and Sugah Rollins, the star, is described on page 1 as a “playboy, raconteur, daredevil, adventurer … and lover.” (No one will ever describe me as a raconteur, which kind of makes me sad. I like to think I can approach raconteurism occasionally, but it’s just not a word people use very much.) Sugah is strolling home with two honeys, one (of course) wearing roller skates, while the other (of course) wearing high platforms. He rescues a fine honey from a mugging, but she rebuffs his invitations to join him and his two other ladies for a night of freakiness because she’s meeting someone at “the terraces on Lamont.” This means that later when Sugah, in the middle of some good lovin’, sees something strange over at the terraces, he must investigate. That fine lady might be in some trouble!
As it turns out, she is. She and some of her hippie friends summoned what they thought was a benign spirit that quickly turned un-benign … um, malignant? The spirit kills everyone in the room, and when Sugah arrives, the cops let him wander around the crime scene, where he finds a small jade statue. Before he reaches the room, he encounters that young Asian lady on the cover, who is being held in the back of a police car. Apparently she broke into a Chinatown antique store to steal … a jade statue. Oh dear. Sugah takes the statue he found to his downstairs neighbor, Kenny, who knows all about it. In an ancient Chinese legend, if the four jade statues (yes, there are four of them) come together, they’ll bring about the end of the world. A businessman, Victor Fang, apparently bought one of the statues recently, and another had been dug up the previous autumn. Something strange is going on. Sugah isn’t paying attention to Kenny, who switches the statue with a large bolt and gives the bolt to Sugah (it’s wrapped in a cloth, so Sugah doesn’t notice it). Sugah doesn’t ask how Kenny knows all of this stuff. Perhaps he should have …
Sugah heads to Chinatown to see Victor Fang, but two things happen: the Asian chick from the cop car shows up, as do several ninjas. That really can’t be good. Of course, Victor Fang is a bad dude. And of course, he’s connected to cops and politicians who don’t want anyone messing with him. And of course Sugah has to team up with Zhoa Mei Xia (the Asian chick) more than once, even though she continues to resist his smooth talking. It’s not terribly convoluted, because it’s only three issues long, but there are demons and ninjas and betrayals, and Layman keeps everything flying on. He turns a few clichés on their ears, which is nice – the cop who kicks Sugah out of the crime scene turns out to be a decent guy, and even though he gets threatened with suspension (which of course has to happen), usually in stories like this, the cop would be a complete tool. Holloran is a hard-ass, but he still wants to help Sugah, and he does. Zhoa Mei Xia, meanwhile, is a great character too. When she’s captured and Victor Fang speaks of her as a virgin sacrifice, she takes great offense at that. She completely resists Sugah’s moves, not to the point where we think she’s going to succumb eventually, but to the point of utter contempt for her ally. Layman’s plot is fairly standard, but if you’ve been reading Chew, you know he has a wicked sense of humor, and he has that in Bay City Jive as well. Sugah is a fun character, and Layman nicely undercuts any stereotyping he (probably deliberately) uses. Yes, Sugah embodies all the stereotypes of a 1970s blaxploitation movie, but Layman writes him very convincingly, and if you accept the fact that he’s a stereotype, he’s fun to read. Layman isn’t quite as good as creating characters as he is now (perhaps that’s the restraints of a three-issue series), but he goes balls-to-the-walls with the stereotypical characters, so it’s not as egregious as you might think.
Layman’s partner in crime, Jason Johnson, has apparently moved on to designing games, which is a shame. His art is wild and crazy, with a Humberto Ramos vibe that doesn’t ruin it for me (as I’m not a fan of Ramos). His characters are wonderfully out of proportion (how Zhoa Mei Xia’s breasts stay in that outfit is a great mystery of the series) and cartoony, but each page hums with energy, and for someone who is clearly influenced by many Image artists, his storytelling skills are quite good. We can easily follow the story even though Layman throws a lot of nutty stuff into the book. Johnson does a good job setting the book in the 1970s – it doesn’t completely look like the Seventies, but at least it doesn’t look like it’s in the present with people wearing vintage clothes. There’s an interesting vibe of tension between the hippies and the authorities and even Sugah’s hip lifestyle. And if we get back to my new favorite character, Johnson does a nice job with Zhoa – yes, the body design is crazy, which works within the confines of the story, but her facial expressions are fantastic. She gets angry, she gets offended, and she actually looks concerned when she thinks Sugah is dead. Johnson does this well throughout the book, and not only with Zhoa. It’s a groovy comic to look at, because Johnson makes it so much fun.
This is a minor comic that, through machinations I’m not about to get into, has never been collected in a trade. I wouldn’t really tell you to seek it out, because it’s somewhat lightweight, but if you stumble across it, there’s nothing wrong with giving it a whirl. If you can get it for a few bucks, you won’t be disappointed.
Tomorrow: Is it Shark-Man? Sadly, no. Is it the next best thing? We shall see!
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