One of the comic book industry’s surprise hits this year has been the mini-series Chew from Image Comics. The series, written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory is set in a near-future world ravaged by the avian flu to such an extent that chicken is now outlawed. Chew is the story of a federal agent named Tony Chu who is blessed (cursed?) with the ability to divine psychic impressions from anything he eats. Yes, ANYTHING he eats. Chew has been featured on National Public Radio (NPR), and the first issue has gone to press at least four times, and has sold out on each occasion.
John Layman enoyed a previous career as an editor for DC Comics’ Wildstorm imprint, but he established his name as a comic book writer with offbeat, humorous, high concept creator-owned work, like Puffed (a man’s nightmarish odyssey after finding himself stuck in the costume of a corporate mascot) and offbeat, humorous licensed material, like Tek Jansen (Steven Colbert…in SPAAAAACE!) and Army of Darkness/Xena:Why Not? (Um, no further explanation needed). Chew is just the latest of Layman’s inventive creator-owned books, but one of his earliest efforts was a Blaxploitation-themed series called Bay City Jive.
Bay City Jive was a three-issue mini-series published by Wildstorm in 2001. The series is set in San Francisco in 1976. The protagonist, Sugah Rollins, is a “playboy, raconteur, daredevil adventurer…and lover,” which could easily describe Fred Williamson’s character Jefferson Bolt, from the 1973 film, That Man Bolt. With his looks, outsized personality, and trouble-shooting background, Sugah Rollins is your standard Blaxploitation hero, albeit one with access to Batman’s “sci-fi closet.” Early on, Sugah’s dialogue gives tantalizing glimpses into his previous, undocumented adventures. “Why, just last week I single-handedly fought off an invasion of outer space aliens,” Sugah offers on page one of the series. Hoping to seal the deal for a threesome with two buxom ladies, Sugah brags, “Got a big pay-day last year when I rescued the President. Terrorists with a time machine kidnappd him and sent him back to the era of the dinosaurs.”
Layman teases the reader with offhand comments of Sugah’s prior genre-busting exploits, but the plot of the mini-series, entitled “The Demon-Gate Freak Out!” is equally wild. The story revolves around a cult of hippies tampering with demonic forces beyond their comprehension; a collection of four ancient Chinese jade statues, known, among other names as “The Ugly Ladies of Huang-Ti;” a busty martial artist in a leather bustier; and the quest of “Chinatown corporate fatcat” named Victor Fang to control, or destroy, them all.
Despite Sugah’s obvious Blaxploitation influence, Bay City Jive’s locale and focus on Chinese mysticism, owes more to John Carpenter’s 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China than it does to Gordon Parks’ Shaft. Rollins is an egotistical braggart, who’s handy in a fight, so he could easily be a spiritual successor of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton. Like its cinematic cousin, Bay City Jive even ends with a scene of a demon sneaking out of the city on the highway, leaving the open possibility of a sequel.
Downplaying some of the traditional Blaxploitation themes in favor of Sugah’s mystical quest is a double-edged sword and is one of the few drawbacks to Bay City Jive. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see a Black action hero tackling something besides inner city crime and drugs. On the other hand, there is little about the story to justify its setting in the 1970s, as there’s nothing particularly unique about the occultists that would require them to be hippies, especially since the hippie movement was definitely on the decline by the late 1970s. However, these are minor points that don’t detract from an otherwise fun, rolicking story.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art for Bay City Jive. The first issue of the series featured a variant cover by J. Scott Campbell (Shown above. If you know who has the original art for this, tell them to e-mail me). I’ve always been a fan of Campbell’s dynamic, exaggerated naturalism, so at first, I was a little disappointed to find that he did not contribute any interiors to Bay City Jive. However, the work of the series’ interior artist, Jason Johnson, has a quirky, expressive, cartoony charm reminiscent of Joe Staton (E-Man, Guy Gardner). Johnson’s Sugah Rollins is a huge mountain of a man with hams for fists, while his women are willowy, pillowy, and curvy in all the right places. He also does a solid job of creating unique body types and character designs.
If you enjoy Chew, Big Trouble In Little China, or even the 1974 Blaxploitation flick Bamboo Gods and Iron Men, which also features a two-fisted Black brawler (James Inglehart) scrapping with Chinese hoods over a statuette, I would recommend Bay City Jive. It’s a strong early effort from one of comics’ funniest, and most unique, voices. You can still snag copies for a pretty good price on eBay.
P.S. Be sure to complete your entry for WORLDOFHURTONLINE’s HARD-ASS TRIVIA CONTEST. The deadline is Monday, September 28, 2009 for a chance to win a free “FIGHT SMACK IN THE ORPHANAGE” t-shirt from the new Blaxploitation film, Black Dynamite, which opens in theaters nationwide on October 16th! How “hard-ass” is it? It managed to stump the director AND one of the producers! I’m not namin’ any names, though…yet.
Appropriately, here’s your Blaxploitation theme of the day: The Four Tops’ “Are You Man Enough” from Shaft In Africa.