So Buttons (the title comes from the fact that all of its stories begin with writer Jonathan Baylis saying "So…") is a strange and persistent little beast. Baylis and his contributing artists, mostly comics industry folks on the indie side of the spectrum, as well as a handful of relatives and friends, have been putting out an issue a year for over a decade now. Falling somewhere in between a zine and a minicomic in format and structure, the stories are largely autobiographical, telling stories of Baylis’ encounters, adventures, memories and enthusiasms. Baylis almost always takes center stage in the stories, most of which are only a few pages long, whether he intends to or not.
If you’ve spent much time in the comics world, one thing will immediately leap to mind when you hear that description: Harvey Pekar and his legendary American Splendor. But Baylis is no latter-day imitation of Pekar; in fact, he’s something of a mirror image, similar in some ways but flipped in time, class and attitude. Both are passionate about comics, both are Jewish men who infuse their work with Jewish humor, and both have a near-obsession with documenting the everyday minutiae of their lives. But Pekar stumbled through a rough working-class existence with a cynical, pessimistic outlook while telling the stories of other such hapless cases he encountered, while Baylis leads a distinctively connected existence (his wife is comedian Ophira Eisenberg, and he travels in some rarefied circles), spinning tales as a self-described “starfucker” of celebrity encounters and maintaining a relentlessly positive approach towards a life he clearly loves.
The tone of the stories in So Buttons range from cute to mawkish, and from elaborate to simple. Completely goofy stories live side-by-side with ones suffused with raw emotion. If you’re looking for narrative consistency–or, really, narrative at all–this isn’t where to find it. These stories are unapologetically personal and utterly random, built out of Baylis’ whims and what he feels like he can get a good story out of. Sometimes they’re sweetly funny; sometimes they’re nostalgic; sometimes they’re just showing off. The only throughline that can be found is the back covers, each a variant on the writer's standard newsie-cap-and-mustachio self-image, looking like a straighter, younger John Waters.
But if there’s one common thread that unites all Baylis' stories, it’s his absolutely radiant love of the comics medium. Even in pieces where he talks about his charitable work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation or indulges memories of a year abroad, comics are always there, as a frame through which he sees the world. In issue #12, Baylis’ latest, he even manages to take a rare moment of crankiness–over his seeming inability to win a comics-industry award–and turn it into a moment of adoration for the late and irreplaceable Tom Spurgeon. Two stories feature him at his two poles: a determined, optimistic take on his experience being bullied in childhood; and an irresistible piece about helping a woman deliver her baby at the very hospital where his own son was born.
It's rare to think of a comic as charming anymore, but So Buttons fits the word perfectly. Even if you’re not on its wavelength, its mere existence in this fallen world, let alone its insistent and indefatigable determination to make you as enthusiastic about it as it is about everything else, is impossible to deny. It personifies that quality of old friends: even when you forget about it for a while, when you find it again, it’s like you’d never parted.