In the Bagge

 One of the Great Post-Crumb Cartoonists

I have to admit it; I have just one lousy comic book by Peter Bagge (pronounced "bag," hence my snappy headline up there. Clever, huh?). Even though I have this huge and extensive comic book collection (which, I have to admit, is almost entirely naked and unbagged), all the Bagge I have is contained in the pages of my Hate #9. Considering that Peter Bagge is the darling of the comic book intellgensia, and has snappy t-shirts printed up that read "I like HATE and I hate everything else," and is really pretty funny, I have to ask myself why.

Maybe because Peter Bagge's humor themes basically deals with those little slice-of-life adventures like when one's love-goddess of choice ditches you for some lame-brained fat-headed Neanderthal chauvinist. Or when the guy who laughed at you all through high school goes on to become an Emmy-winning multi-millionaire (sad but true in my case). Or when one's boss --but no, I don't even want to think about adventures in Dilbert-land right now. In other words, Peter Bagge gets uncomfortably close to what I now recognize as Real Life.

Frankly, when I want to unwind, I pick up something like Vertigo's Hellblazer because odds are pretty low that I'll ever have to deal with demonic forces far beyond my mortal comprehension (in this life, anyway).

Still, I've seen enough of Bagge's work to realize that he's pretty funny. Because of that, he's managed to survive and thrive in these uncertain times of a shrinking alternative-comic market, an amazing feat. His most well known title, Hate, made it to 30 issues before folding in 1998 and reached a sales level of 25,000 copies. Hate also sells in major-league book-chains like Barnes and Noble (where Bagge once worked as a clerk) and Tower Books. Bagge has even recently been in talks with HBO about turning Hate into an animated TV series; considering the mindless dreck that's out there masquerading as humor, I'd say his chances are mighty good (that is, if there's any justice in this world!).

Bagge, who was born in suburban New York on December 11, 1957, drew comics on and off when he was a kid but really didn't get in to it to a serious degree until he discovered R. Crumb comics while attending my old alma mater, the School of Visual Arts. Evidently seeing Crumb's work was a revelation and Bagge decided that, ideally, that was what he wanted to do. Of course, the underground comix scene was pretty dead by 1977 so Bagge had to rely on magazines like Screw and High Times to get his work published, as well as semi-fanzines like cartoonist John Holmstrom's Punk magazine.

He also self-published three issues of the comic tabloid Comical Funnies along with Holmstrom and another cartoonist friend, JD King. Obviously Bagge wasn'tgetting rich, especially at his speed of one page per week. Fortunately Bagge began working on longer stories and submitting them to R. Crumb's alternative humor anthology,Weirdo (published by Last Gasp), which led to Crumb offering Bagge a job as managing editor, turning the magazine over to him with #10.

The Weirdo job was something of a struggle (Bagge called it a booby-prize) inasmuch as the pay rate was so low that the magazine collected more than its fair share of crackpot contributors who were only in it for pathetic ego-gratification ("They'recompelled to do this; they have this thing in them."). Which made it difficult for a newcomer filling R. Crumb's shoes to deal out editorial criticism and rejection ("they would just scream and go nuts").

After settling in with Weirdo, Bagge started work on a book of his own, Neat Stuff. He had shown some of his work to Gary Groth and Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics Books (Cutting Edge Comix, The Comics Journal) and they had offered to publish a book of his. Neat Stuff was the comic where Bagge would launch, along with Girly Girl and Studs Kirby, his infamous bunch The Bradleys, the ultimate in dysfunctional families ("The family that stays together, hates each other's guts!!").

Bagge was amazed that Groth and Thompson were expecting low sales on the book, unaccustomed to "businessmen" who would publish a comic simply because they liked it ("and then I thought, 'I'm involved with a couple of lunatics!'"). As it turned out though, the first issue, which came out in 1984, sold around 7,000 copies, which was quite good for an alternative humor title (after a slight dip in the next three issues, the magazine would climb to 9,000 with its last issue).

Gradually The Bradleys, like Bagge's drawing style, evolved until the focus began to settle on Buddy Bradley, an aging proto-slacker languishing resentfully in dead-end jobs. After 15 issues and a five-year run, Neat Stuff (which Matt Groening has cited as an influence on The Simpsons) would come to an end in 1989, the year that Bagge launched Hate.

Alienated introverts and other readers enjoyed stories about Buddy and his friends, a post-boomer generation living resentfully in hip squalor. The material, somewhat autobiographical, deals with characters who are mostly children of middle-class suburbanites, dumping on each other and spinning their wheels, trying to get it together in that shaky time of life between adolescence and middle-age.

Beginning with the sixteenth issue, Bagge started using color in his comic. A more radical change was having Buddy and the Bradleys move from urban Seattle to suburban New Jersey. Some fans thought this was a move to tone down the series, but Buddy, who ranged in mood from teeth-gritting angst to bug-eyed flailing hysteria, could never be mistaken for a Norman Rockwell character-- I shudder to think of him carving a turkey....

Bagge never wanted to stick with one character for the rest of his career and decided to end Hate in 1998, after a 30 issue run. He's been busy on other projects since then, having done a number of CD covers, some for his own band The Action Suits (founded on Halloween 1996). He's also done an animated trailer for Hype, a movie documentary of Seattle's music scene, and is currently writing a monthly book about an all-girl pop band called Yeah! for DC Comics (which will be illustrated by Love and Rockets' Gilbert Hernandez).

For those of you, like me, who missed out on most of the tales of those pathetic losers the Bradleys, and all the rest of Bagge's miserable, rampaging suburbanites, there are seven Peter Bagge graphic novels, like Hey, Buddy! and Junior and Other Losers, still available from Fantagraphics Books.

Anybody who has experienced the drag of long working hours with weird bosses and low pay, roommates from hell, and messy love implosions can find a place in their hearts for Hate. I certainly can.
 

--Steve Stiles