By Blake Baxter
It’s not a secret that this website harbors a preternatural fondness for Max Bemis; his band is literally in our name.
For those unfamiliar with the man, he is the electrifying lead singer of an American pop-punk/rock/emo band called Say Anything. Say Anything has gone through a number of different lineups over the years, but it has been around in one incarnation or another since the year 2000, when the band self-released its first EP, Junior Varsity. It released its first full album, Baseball, in 2001 and another EP, Menorah/Mejora, in 2002, but neither gained much commercial success. In later years, once Say Anything became a preeminent pop-punk band, Bemis largely ignored that this material ever existed, refusing to play any of their songs at live shows. Thankfully, this changed last year when Say Anything embarked on the Rarities and More Tour, and released All My Friends are Enemies: Early Rarities, a three-disc album featuring a remastered version of Baseball, as well as a collection of b-sides and rarities. (These discs don’t leave my car.)
The sound is raw ,and you can’t blame them. This was before they honed their craft; they were kids singing about high school lows and drying tears with torn up college applications. The emotion that Bemis sings – and sometimes, all-out wails – with is just as raw (that’s actually what drew me in the first place). Nonetheless, it’s an addicting, powerful and riotously fun listen. In 2004, the band released their first full-length album under a record label. With …Is a Real Boy, Say Anything started hitting their stride. It garnered critical acclaim in punk circles – and even from music critics, a reoccurring target of Bemis’ bottomless disdain. The album is infinitely more polished than Baseball and the like, and it has a biting sense of humor. It’s also the album that Bemis proved himself to be even more than a talented musician/witty lyricist with a unique voice, but also a gifted storyteller as the album has a compelling overarching narrative that satisfyingly ties everything together.
But as the band’s professional lives were coming together, Bemis’ personal life was falling off the tracks. His early songs were that of an (admittedly cliché) tortured genius, plagued by painful (and relatable) life experiences, like dealing with unrequited love, and unsettling circumstances, like being in college when he felt like he wasn’t honestly pursuing his passions. To compensate, Bemis started self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. His feelings were unpredictable, so he simply smoked large quantities of pot to remedy them. But they didn’t go away; in fact, they grew worse. Eventually, he lost his mind and had a very public mental breakdown. It turned out that Bemis had been suffering from bipolar disorder.It took time and a lot of will power, but after a few years, Bemis overcame his struggle. He dramatically turned his life around, and the band has since released three stellar albums (all of which I could write many, many words about, but I’ll refrain from doing so for your benefit). He’s sober now; married and has a ridiculously adorable daughter (see below). By all accounts, he’s as happy as he’s ever been – and rightfully so. The content of his work has changed as his life has, as is often the case when artists evolve, but he remains as dedicated as ever. Say Anything will be releasing its sixth full-length album later this year.
Now, if you’re Say Anything fan, there’s a decent chance that you knew some or all these things already. It’s all a pretty well known part of the band’s lore. However, what you may not know is that Max Bemis is obsessed with comic books. When he’s not doing things that involve either music or his delightful family, he’s devouring every comic book he possibly can. Last year, Bemis took his hobby a step farther by writing his first comic book series, a four-issue, stand-alone story published by Boom! Studios.
As a youngster, I grew up worshipping superheroes, collecting action figures, and spending countless afternoons after school watching Batman: The Animated Series and Spider-Man: The Animated Series, but to be honest, even then, I liked the idea of comic books more than I actually liked comic books. In the mid-90s, comic books were in kind of a weird place. Superheroes were on the verge of achieving mainstream relevance, but comic book shops weren’t exactly ubiquitous, and the dot-com boom hadn’t given way to digital purchases just yet, so comic book-idealizing kids like me were pretty much out of luck. Growing up, I only actually remember ever owning two comic books, despite being all about the superhero TV shows and the mediocre-to-awful Batman movies of the day. I got over it, though. Within a few years, by the time I was, say, ten, I was obsessed with sports and girls; owning comic books was the farthest thing from my mind. Not long after that, superhero movies struck success at the box office, and we, as a movie-going public, have been inundated with them ever since. Consequently, I suffered superhero fatigue, and have since had only a fleeting desire to read them at all. (That’s a story involving too much alcohol, a random comic book convention and impulse buys that we won’t get into today.)
With all of that being said, I couldn’t resist the idea of pictures, words and a story poured onto pages directly from the mind of Max Bemis, So, nearly a year after its publication, I took the plunge. And what a gleeful plunge it turned out to be! Polarity, written by Max Bemis and illustrated by Jorge Coelho, is the story of Tim Woods, an artist in his early to mid-twenties, living haplessly in Brooklyn. He spends his days moping around, trying to make a living off art that even he doesn’t think is that special; his nights, attending hollow art displays with his kind of, sort of girlfriend who even he doesn’t like that much. He’s very clearly a fictionalized version of Bemis, complete with a debilitating bipolar disorder and a profound hatred for fakeness, hypocrisy, and of course, hipsters. These things are staples of Max Bemis’ material, so it feels comforting and familiar. Three pages in, when Tim drops his first hipster joke, it seems right.
However, Tim isn’t just a disenfranchised mental case with a lack of self-esteem (that’s an unfortunate side-effect of the pills he’s constantly ingesting). He doesn’t know it at first, but Tim has a special case of bipolar disorder. After a deflating skirmish with the aforementioned girl he can’t stand and an embarrassing failed attempt to flirt with the girl he actually likes, Tim goes off his pills and goes on a weeks long, booze and drug-filled bender. Over that course of time Tim appears to be losing his mind, albeit hilariously as he makes quips about Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd playing John and Paul in a Judd Apatow directed version of The Bible; however, in reality, he’s powering up. When he’s under the influence, his bipolar disorder gives him super strength, super speed and the ability to read minds. Of course, it takes him a while to decide to use his powers for any form of a greater good. First, he needs to take down all of the phony hipsters in his social circle and take out his frustrations on the kinds of people that have been picking on him all his life.
Polarity is an absolute onslaught of fakeness. In the first two chapters, Tim (/Bemis) eviscerates more hipsters with his scathing words than he does bad guys with his superhuman abilities. And Bemis does so with an irresistibly lyrical flow, with an angry poeticism. “It seems that after my bout with dementia and paranoia, I have an annoying ability to see through my peers. Past the vintage dresses and ironic ‘90s-era attire and into the epicenters of their DESPERATE SOULS, as they cry out with a grating, banshee-like plea for validation,” Tim narrates. At one point, Tim directly rails against the kinds of people that Bemis has been deriding for years, mercilessly exposing all of them for the fakes that they really are: “You write for Pitchfork, but hide from the fact that you listen to turn of the century pop-punk every day when you embark on your FRUITLESS, SWEATY, HALF-ASSED DAILY JOG,” he rants. “YOU use the n-word to ironically show off your witty candor when you’re around your douchier white friends. They like it, not because it’s clever, but because A PART OF THEM IS ACTUALLY RACIST”. They’re lines that could have been taken right out of Say Anything’s hilarious twin rants, “Admit it!!!” (from …Is a Real Boy) and “Admit it Again” (from 2012’s Anarchy, My Dear). You can practically hear Bemis’ maniacal laugh after every punch line. Hipsters and pretentious indie bands aren’t the only things Bemis pokes fun at, though; he also takes a few jabs at a handful of dopey, generic mainstream rock bands in a variety of situations, one of which he’s previously namedropped in a song before. (From Say Anything’s “Mara and Me”: “There are babies with guns beheading their friends/ in shopping malls around the world/ yet somehow the Kings of Leon still find time to write songs about girls.”) Early on in the story, Tim’s best friend humorously provides a little context of their background. “You once owned a Creed record, buddy. Not even just the popular one, the one that came after it. WE’RE NOT LIKE THESE PEOPLE,” he chides emphatically.
In addition to the melodic narration and the musical allusions, Polarity actually comes with its own soundtrack of dark little acoustic jams. Each issue features lyrics and a digital download code to an original song (written and performed by Bemis, of course) that reflects the current stage of the story. The trade paperback edition (the version that I read) features the song lyrics between each chapter and contains a free digital download for a five-song EP (the four songs from each issues plus a bonus; talk about bang for your buck!).
The second half of the story veers closer to the traditional superhero story. Tim learns his own version of “with great power comes great responsibility,” that using your abilities for self-serving purposes is a waste compared to, you know, saving lives and fighting bad guys. Phony people, as detestable and infuriating as they can be, aren’t the greatest evil in the world. Nonetheless, Bemis’ social commentary throughout serves as a pointed critique of a self-absorbed generation. He also lashes out against the idea that an artist’ work is more interesting and meaningful when that artist is under duress and in turmoil. It’s easy to say that when you’re not the one on the end of a mental breakdown, but it’s pretty insulting to the ears of those with experience in that department, it seems.
But in Polarity, Bemis cleverly uses fiction to own those experiences in a way that both Say Anything fans will find endearingly familiar, and that people bored with standard superhero blockbusters will actually find refreshing.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.