Pictures: Seth Kushner
“The thing is, once you've chosen comics, you're really locked into it, whether you like it or not. I experience a moment, almost every single day, where I wish I wasn't a cartoonist, that I wish I was doing something else – anything else, depending on the mood I’m in! Any profession gets boring after a while, no matter how much you might love it. It’s ironic how the more you strive towards something, the more locked into it you feel once you’ve achieved it.”
Peter Bagge is a transitional figure: inspired by the Underground comix of the ‘60s, he paved the way for the Alternative movement of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Bagge’s wonky Big Daddy Roth inspired art style, with characters flailing about with rubbery bodies, remains something different and incredibly weird coming out of a comics page. It wasn’t until an encounter with Crumb while a New Jersey high school student that Bagge was galvanized into his lifelong profession.
“I graduated high school in ’75,” Pete recalls. “Even though I wasn’t far from New York City, there wasn’t anywhere in our suburban neighborhood where you could buy underground comic books. But I saw Robert Crumb on the Janis Joplin album cover, and on t-shirts of ‘Keep On Truckin." I remember seeing ads in the New York Times for Fritz the Cat, which was the first X-rated animated movie. I loved his art and thought it was beautiful, but I never saw his comics.
“Every now and then there would be an older hippie kid around with an underground comic, and my brother and I loved Crumb’s artwork. I also saw a few comics of Gilbert Shelton’s called “Set You Chickens Free” that I went nuts over. I thought ‘This is a perfect comic,’ but there was nowhere to buy it, not until I moved to New York City. I went to SVA and there was a record store down the street from the school. They had an old fashioned ‘Hey, Kids! Comics!’ spinner rack, but it was all Underground comix. I spent every bit of spare change I had at the time on them.
“I loved Crumb the best, and the first one of his I bought was his Hytone Comix. He took the traditional comic book format but broke through everything from cover to cover. There was no crap in it. I always loved the look and feel of comics, but more often than not, I was disappointed in the content,” Pete laughs. “But here, here was someone who did whatever he wanted with it. He was doing stuff that me and my older brother were striving for as kids, and he nailed and perfected what we were trying to do.”
Crumb’s world of 1930s cartoon visuals crossbred with no-holds-barred absurdist porn, a subversive and daring package straight from the cartoonist’s pop culture-saturated mind, that let Bagge decide what to be when he grew up.
“Once I saw that format, I decided that I definitely wanted to be a cartoonist (because every teacher and my parents tried to discourage me), and then no one considered comics an art form,” Pete notes. “It was shit, the dregs, and people would always be horrified if you said you wanted to be a cartoonist, so I had cold feet about it. MAD looked at a close shop, and I’d read MAD but it had changed. I wasn’t sure if it was just me outgrowing the funny pages, or them getting worse, but I didn’t like what I was seeing in the newspapers anymore, and didn’t like any of the new comics. But with the Crumb comic, it wasn’t just that I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I wanted to be this type of cartoonist.”
Even though the Undergrounds were very much alive to Bagge, as he discovered them on that old spinner rack, the movement had basically died by the mid to late ‘70s.
“This is how little I knew: I thought Crumb, Shelton, and Bill Griffith must have all been millionaires, and those comics must have sold in the millions. It took me a while to realize that these comics I was reading in ’77 were copyrighted in 1969,” Bagge laughs. “Those three artists I named were the most popular at the time, and were among the only ones any publisher would bother to publish in the late ‘70s. They were pretty much the only ones making any kind of living off of underground comics at the time. There were a few titles that vaguely qualified as ‘Underground’ – porny stuff like Cherry Poptart that I had little use for.”
As the faced social and political turmoil in the mid to late1960s, the underground comix emerged via a distribution system that included everything from baby carraiges on the street to head and drug paraphanelia shops. The pioneers of the undergrounds, including Crumb and Art Spiegelman, advanced the comics form on the fringes of society, shunning the censorship that had taken the once virulent art form and set it back from the pinnacle of the EC days of Tales from the Crypt and Kurtzman’s MAD. Where the mainstream comics were sold on a returnable basis to newsstands, the undergrounds were distributed on a non-returnable basis and treated more like actual books, with no month-long shelf life and a royalty system for the artists.
1973 saw the Supreme Court’s ruling for “community standards,” where individual communities could define obscenity. Many already overstocked headshops, cautious of the underground comix being the one exploitable commodity, stopped stocking the undergrounds.
While the underground cartoonists hadn’t entirely gone away, their cultural movement had grown up, giving rise to the punk movement—a hard-hitting anti-establishment lifestyle that scoffed at the “Make love, not war” sentiment of the generation that first bred the undergrounds.
“Back then, there was a bit of a rebellion against hippie attitudes and aesthetics,” Pete notes. “The hippies really were the counter-culture in the ‘60s and they really were repressed mainstream America, which gave the music and art they created a sense of danger and urgency. But by the late ‘70s, they were the mainstream. They weren’t the counter-culture anymore; hippie culture was mainstream culture: everybody had macramé pot hangers in their house, and everybody had long hair, and everybody was listening to their music. ‘Hippie music’ and pop music were synonymous by the mid-‘70s. It starting to get boring, and that was one of the things that was great about punk music. A lot of the whole attitude was a reaction to how boring the alleged counter-culture was. The hippies really hated punk because they were threatened by it, just like ‘the squares’ were threatened by them 10 years earlier.”
The gray area that emerged became defined as the alternative comics movement, one which Bagge became a prime mover and shaker in.
“I’d have described myself as an underground cartoonist back then, because it’s what I wanted to be, but terms like ‘alternative’ just took over,” Pete notes. “For a while, everybody around my age was self-publishing in the early ‘80s. They were people who were inspired by the underground comix but couldn’t get published by them. Everybody was publishing in wildly different formats, too. For a while the whole scene was called ‘Nu Wave’ comics, but that term came and went really fast, thankfully.”
Despite the punk aesthetic and “Nu Wave” generation, the underground artists continued, including Art Spiegelman’s and Francoise Mouly’s magazine RAW in 1980, and Crumb’s comix anthology Weirdo the year after. Bagge saw Weirdo as a chance to do work beyond drawing for porno magazines or writing Bazooka Joe strips for Spiegelman at Topp’s.
“I saw that as a place to get work published, but it also gave me a chance to write to Robert Crumb,” Bagge says of Weirdo. “He printed his mailing address (a P.O. Box), which was amazing, since he always seemed like mysterious, almost mythical character to me.
“He didn’t publish my work at first, but he liked it. I self-published with my friends, and he liked what we were doing – he liked the spirit the spirit of it. Of course, he hates loud rock ‘n’ roll and loud music, so he had little tolerance for punk rock music itself, but loved the aesthetics and attitude of the whole scene. He also thought the whole hippie thing got complacent and boring. He and Bill Griffith both felt that way and they embraced the punk attitude. Bill Griffith is the biggest Devo fan I’ve ever met.”
Pete and Crumb maintained a correspondence that led to Bagge’s inclusion in Weirdo, and an offer to edit the magazine in 1983.
“He told me years later when I asked him why (we had never met, but only knew each other through the mail) and he said ‘Because you seemed like the least crazy person I was dealing with at the time,” Pete says. “Then working with him, I learned an awful lot. I got an earful of his philosophy: it’s a mistake to try to pander, and don’t try to bend and shape your work to fill a certain niche. Don’t go ‘I could potentially get some work from MAD, so I’ll write and draw what I’m guessing MAD is looking for.’ He said ‘Chances are that your heart isn’t completely in it, and then you produce stuff that isn’t really you. You can’t get it published by the people that you’re pandering to, and it’s not really about you, so you don’t really like it either, so you’re left with a steaming pile of garbage.’
“With the style of work that I do, I like it to look on the surface like it’s shallow and stupid, but when you read it, the context is really sweet; he saw that right away. I remember telling him ‘I have some story ideas, using fictional characters that are stand-ins for me, and I’m remembering things that are embarrassing and hard to write about. Even though I’m hiding behind a fictional character, I’m nervous talking about embarrassing events from my past. I’m a little bit afraid. He said ‘Those are exactly the stories you need to tell, especially if it won’t go away, and are always in the back of your head.’”
“The way he described it was ‘Stop sticking your toe in the water. Just dive right in.’ He said ‘That’s the type of work that’s going to get the most and best response. People might make fun of you at first, but it’ll have an impact.’ He was 100% correct, of course.”
Weirdo was the flipside of Spiegelman and Mouly’s RAW, embracing the dictums of a traditional underground (if such a thing is possible) while RAW took a more high-brow approach towards comics art.
“Both magazines appealed more or less to the same crowd,” Pete admits. “Almost from the beginning, they published a lot of the same artists, and by the end of the run, they became very similar content-wise. But when Spiegelman and Francois Mouly started RAW, they wanted it to be like an art gallery on paper. They lived in Soho, which was the heart of the contemporary art scene, and Spiegelman was on a mission to have comics taken more seriously as a serious form art.
“Both I and some of my contemporaries were very leery of that. I wasn’t against it but I liked how flying under the radar also gave us more freedom that does along with no expectations. I also had big problems with the mentality and value system of the so-called ‘real’ art world. I didn’t understand it, to be honest. I still don’t. It’s its own genre, appealing to a specific taste, which is fine, only its so full of itself that it refuses to see itself as a genre. It relies on massive hype and air of self-importance to justify its hyper-inflated prices. I also lived in New York City at the time, and I when to an art school where this type of mentality tended to dominate and lord itself over people like me. As a result I deeply resented this mentality and the people who bought into it and/or enforced it, so the thought of pandering to them or co-opting this mentality in any way, shape or form made me want to vomit.
“So RAW made me want to vomit at first,” he laughs. “I actually submitted work to RAW after it first came out, simply because my wife and all my friends kept urging me to. Art and Francois rejected me just as I knew they would, but I was glad to meet Art since he proved to be a useful source of information for me then and since. Once I moved to Seattle, and as I got older, I didn’t think about any of this as much anymore since I wasn’t in the middle of it. But I used to feel oppressed by it.”
In 1985, Bagge hooked up with alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics in Seattle, and that relationship became too much of a workload to maintain on top of editing Weirdo.
“Fantagraphics made me an offer to publish a solo comic by me, and wanted it to be quarterly,” Pete says. “I got them to agree to three times a year, but still, once I started doing that it was taking all of my time, and I couldn’t devote the time to Weirdo that it needed. I felt that the last two issues of Weirdo that I edited lacked the intensity and obsessive ness that the earlier ones did, so I felt wasn’t doing anyone any favors by staying on. Crumb wasn’t happy when I told him I wanted to leave, but he understood. Fortunately, his wife Aline suddenly had more free time after their kid started kindergarten, so she volunteered to edit it, which was great. She did a fantastic job.”
“I still alter and tweak with my style a bit, depending on what it is that I’m working on” Pete points out. “I’ll make slight changes or add crosshatching, depending on whether there’s going to be color added or not, things like that. But that signature curvy elbow thing is still there simply because, for me, it always works better that way. I could make more of an attempt to draw more realistically at times, but in the end it’s not going to be worth the struggle. I used to attempt it somewhat in the early Neat Stuffs, and even before then, where I was always experimenting with my drawing style. There was still a generic, go-to style that I used for the most part, but there are times when I tried to be more stylized, or tried to be a bit more realistic than usual. But if I tried to alter my style too much, it wound up taking up so much of my concentration, and it still might not have worked. It’s just so much more comfortable for me to draw the way I do, regardless of the subject matter, and then let the storyline carry things.”
Part of what makes Pete Bagge such an effective writer is his ability to tap into personal experiences that are universal…being jilted by a lover, getting angry at traffic, or trying to hide something from your parents. Much of it comes from Pete’s personal experiences and his unintentional, almost “method acting” approach to cartooning and writing. Buddy Bradley, star of Hate, successfully channeled the essence and experiences of Pete Bagge into comic book form.
“Around 1980 or '81, and I doodled this one page strip called ‘Meet the Bradleys,’ which presented The Bradleys very much like a sitcom family, except that it started, ‘Hey, here's Dad! He’s drunk again and on a tirade again!’ It was like, ‘what a wacky lovable family!’ only all these typically horrible, dysfunctional things were going on, not unlike my own family. They were the Bagges – but being presented and sold like the Brady Bunch. I found this set up so amusing that I immediately started writing more stories about them. And whatever I had the teenage boy Buddy doing was something that I would have done as a teen. The very first time I drew him, he was ‘me.’ The Bradleys weren’t exactly like my family, in that I had two brothers, two sisters, which I converted into one each just for simplicity’s sake. Also, my mother’s personality was pretty different than Mrs. Bradley’s. Ma Bradley is more like many of my friend’s moms than like my own. And I also didn’t intend to make Buddy a stand-in for myself as much as he became later on, but as time went by, Buddy was clearly the one I related to the most. I kept coming up with story ideas for him. All the Bradley family stories that were in Neat Stuff started focusing more and more on him.”
Bagge always noted that he put ten years between himself and Buddy Bradley: the discrepancy allows him to laugh at the past.
“There’s a distance so that you can laugh at it. It’s true to this day: if I’m in the middle of some kind of crisis, I can’t laugh about it. It’s a frickin’ crisis, for God’s sakes! But ten years later it’s hilarious. There’s not anything new to the idea. Mel Brooks, when asked ‘What’s the difference between comedy and tragedy?’ replied ‘Tragedy is when I slip and fall on my ass. Comedy is when you slip and fall on your ass,’” he laughs.
Hate was a spin-off of Bagge’s semi-autobiographical strip “The Bradleys,” the title characters being the epitome of the dysfunctional family featured in Neat Stuff. At first, the situations seemed just a little over-the-top, and it all seemed a tad bland. By the third story, however, the trademark Roth-inspired aspect of Bagge’s art took over and the characters’ reactions matched the absurdity of their situations. When Pete decided to launch a new title, the teenage slacker Buddy Bradley was a natural subject…making Hate a spin-off more in a ‘Mork and Mindy from Happy Days’ way than in a ‘Joanie Loves Chachi from Happy Days’ way.
A camp counselor by the name of Stinky first appeared in a “Girly Girl” strip in Neat Stuff #13; with his John Lennon shades and squiggle of blond hair topping off his cone-shaped head, he reminds you of a socially inept version of Bert from Sesame Street. When the final issue of Neat Stuff, #15, hit in 1989, Buddy Bradley took over the entire issue in the classic “Buddy the Weasel” story. Starting with the bang of Buddy and Stinky playing with a gun on a polluted beach, it ends with a pathetic whimper as a now out-on-his-ass Buddy finds himself camping out on the same beach, oblivious to the vat of open toxic waste down the embankment from him.
“It was based on that success of that issue – and on the readers’ seeming preference for full-issue stories,” Pete said. “And I had countless story ideas for Buddy Bradley, so I thought I’d just age him a few years and do a comic book entirely about him.”
Since the adult Bagge now lived in Seattle, Buddy became a Seattle resident by 1990’s Hate #1, where we see him hanging out in the apartment he shares with the still-shady Stinky and the paranoid George Cecil Hamilton IIIrd. Buddy’s a slacker who drinks too much, smokes, and works part-time at a used book store (where he sneaks out more than an occasional free book). Through the Seattle years, Buddy dates Valerie, a feminist who happens to be the roomie of Buddy’s crazy ex, Lisa, and finds himself constantly stuck in yet another of Stinky’s get-rich-quick schemes; the most infamous of which was when Buddy managed Stinky’s band, Leonard and the Lovegods. He was the classic Gen Xer modeled off of the life of a man then in his 30s, a way for Peter Bagge to look back with a more objective and detached eye.
“Around the time I started Hate, I had been married for a while. We had owned a house for a couple of years, and I was finally making a livable wage off of my comics. Also by then, my wife was pregnant, so I was about to become a dad. So here I am: a middle-class, home-owning, married father, and all of this came together like within the last couple of years. Being in that situation, I suddenly was able to look at my previous existence more objectively, from the moment I left my parents’ house and the ten years or so following. That part of my life was all over. I was no longer living on fried rice, no longer renting, no longer putting up with roommates, no longer working crappy day jobs, no longer being coerced into going to crappy rock clubs…That was all behind me, and I wasn't in my twenties anymore. So things that used to not be so funny because I was still stuck in the middle of it were now hilarious, like always being broke and having to lug laundry to the Laundromat and stuff like that. Now that I was personally distanced from it, it suddenly all seemed hilarious, so it was very easy for me to take all of it and turn it into stories. It all became grist for my mill.”
Hate, visually speaking, was a grimy book: The art was heavily cross-hatched, one of Bagge’s ways of creating depth of field and atmosphere. According to Bagge, though, it was also a wink and nod to the classic underground comics of the ‘60s that were so influential to him as a cartoonist.
“By then, nobody seemed to be doing comics that looked like an old underground comic, other than the few old undergrounders themselves who were still active,” Bagge said. “And by that, I meant the really cheap newsprint – and all the cross-hatchy stuff that Crumb and Gilbert Shelton always did. I wanted it to have the look and feel of an old Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic.”
A year later, Nirvana’s landmark song Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the airwaves, bringing college alternative rock out to the forefront, letting loose a slew of other Seattle-based bands, and creating the ‘90s grunge movement.
Buddy Bradley and his life in Seattle just happened to come at the right time, commercially speaking.
“One would think that the whole grunge thing must have contributed to Hate’s popularity,” Bagge, who ironically isn’t a fan of grunge, said of the timing with the movement, “but it also suffered from the association to some degree. There were a lot of folks who wouldn't touch it or take Hate seriously because of it. Once all these terms came into being: ‘Gen X’ and ‘grunge’ and ‘slacker’…a lot of people, especially those who fit those descriptions, became resentful of it, of being categorized. It was as if they became allergic to everything they thought they were supposed to like, or resemble, including my comics.
“While the term ‘grunge’ already existed, none of those bands were household names at the time I started Hate. And yet the first two years I was doing Hate, it was selling great, before all of these catch phrases caught on and Time Magazine was writing about flannel shirts. What changed everything was when Nirvana’s album Nevermind came out and became such a monster hit, its first release, Smells Like Teen Spirit became a mainstream radio anthem. A lot of these grunge bands became overnight sensations, and Seattle was suddenly flooded with journalists writing stories not just about the music but about our rain and beer and coffee. All our liquids! It also was a phenomenon in part because it came along during a slow news cycle, so even your mom knew about it. And then just as quickly it became a joke because it was so overblown.
“But the thing was, prior to all that Hate was selling a certain amount. When the grunge phenomenon happened, the sales didn't really go up at all. It pretty much stayed the same. You'd have thought – and I certainly was hoping – that because of all this attention, that more people would make a point of searching out and buying my comic, but that really didn’t happen. It goes to show you how there’s only a finite amount of people who are willing to read a comic book at all. But like I said before, there seemed to be a set number of 20-somethings who made a loud point of not reading Hate! It’s a shame, too, since those poor, painfully self-conscious darlings probably would have enjoyed it. Another thing that was a bit of a problem was folks’ assuming I was jumping on some bandwagon and exploiting the whole grunge thing, which wasn’t the case at all. It just was all very coincidental – and as it turns out, very much a double-edged sword.”
While Hate is satirical on the surface, Bagge’s deceptively simplistic and over-the-top, expressive style masks a much more powerful undercurrent of raw human emotion that carries each issue. When characters have sex, it’s never pretty or even ugly…it’s just morbidly absurd, characters contorting into impossible positions as they’re trapped in the throes of ecstasy. The characters seem to have no joints in their bodies as they strut from one panel to the next, their arms and legs moving like snaked tentacles and the men noticeably slouching. Reactions are always overstated, one panel’s sedate characters being instantly transformed into Big Daddy Roth monsters for the next: tongues become lightning bolts, heads grow larger than the bodies they’re attached to, eyes twirl in opposing directions, and brows furrow so low that the bridge of the nose almost meets the upper lip –
Halfway through the series’ run, with Hate #16, Buddy and Lisa wound up living in Buddy’s family’s basement in New Jersey, stuck back in his hometown. Buddy’s Seattle crew (including Stinky) was replaced with his re-introduced high school acquaintances from Neat Stuff.
“Perhaps if I were smarter,” he confessed. “I would have kept it going the way it was and not age [Buddy] at all. I used to joke Hate was like a dirtier Archie comic, since it had a very similar dynamic set up, with Buddy in the ‘Archie’ role and with two main male friends: the wise guy friend, Stinky, who's Reggie; and the weird nerdy friend, George, who's Jughead. And then there's the love triangle between Buddy and his ‘Betty’ (Lisa) and ‘Veronica’ (Valerie).”
“I also wanted to start doing deeper stories that were more personal and dealt with crises that were more profound than wondering who Buddy was going to date next, and the best source for that would be Buddy for the immediate family. That was another thing about the early Hates that I was starting to find limiting, is that they were solely about the trials and tribulations of a bunch of 23-year olds. I wanted to get older people and children back into the mix because that would make for story ideas that were deeper and more complex and even more painful…But the only way I could do those is to have Buddy move back to where his parents lived, since I couldn’t imagine how I would get his parents and siblings to all move out to Seattle. Plus his sister already had little kids, and I wanted to see Buddy dealing with kids, as well as his old messed up acquaintances.”
But more than the setting of Hate had changed: the title was given a huge visual revamp. Bagge’s heavy-handed cross-hatching changed into a cleaner, crisper style that would better hold color, inked by Bagge’s new inker Jim Blanchard. The stories took a more dramatic tone that retained the cynicism and dark humor of the first half of the series.
“I figured that since the stories would be more painful, it would make them more palpable if they were in color. Likewise, I thought that it would be interesting to tell these more painful, darker stories by simplifying the artwork more. I would make it look like an old-fashioned humor comic book where the color was very candy-colored, so there'd be that very weird, contrasting mix that I've always liked.
“I always liked to touch on some personal, uncomfortable subjects in my comics, but I also liked to draw them in this exaggerated, somewhat moronic-looking Big Daddy Roth style – so that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. It’s like a clash between shallow and deep, smart and stupid, and I figured this contrast would be even more intense by combining stark stories with bright, garish ‘comic book’ colors.
“The possibility of going full color in the first place came about thanks to computer technology with Photoshop. That, combined with Hate’s sales figures, made going full color economically possible. The economical reasons why underground and alternative comics were always black-and-white were pretty obvious: you simply couldn't afford it with all the labor involved to publish something in full color. They also rarely had any ads in them, so color simply wasn’t an option. Not that I have anything against black-and-white. I like both! I understand perfectly why an artist would prefer to work in black-and-white, or feel like their work is best represented that way, and I still do work in [black-and-white] myself, usually by choice. Even the color issues of Hate had black-and-white back-up stories! But I never thought that indy comics had to be in black-and-white. It was just the economics that made it so. But once color became an option I couldn’t wait to take advantage of it. I thought color would greatly increase the visual possibilities of what an indy comic could be. And it has!”
The reaction to Hate’s going color elicited some cries of “sell out” aimed towards Bagge.
“I'm still flabbergasted that there was such a backlash,” Pete said, “how just the fact that it was in full color translated into ‘selling out.’ To me, selling out has everything to do with content. And as it turned out, being in color didn't really help sales at all, much to my disappointment. So the only plus for me going full color was that it appealed to my own personal aesthetics.”
“Ironically, what I thought people would justifiably regard as a sellout about was when we started selling ads in Hate a few issues after the introduction of color, only no one said anything!” Pete pointed out. “We – meaning me and Fantagraphics – started selling ads so we could expand the page count and run color comics by other artists without raising the cover price. Rick Altergott was the first, with his soon-to-be-regular regular ‘Doofus’ strip. Rick knew how to use Photoshop, which was still a fairly rare skill back in 1995, and I was really impressed with the full color comic strips he had done on it. He also was understandably eager to see his color work in print, but the only way we could afford to include him or anyone else in Hate was by selling ads.
“Well, it was that or raise the price, which I was loathe to do. I was determined to keep Hate’s cover price as low as possible back then, since I associated that with accessibility. A lower price meant someone was more likely to buy it on an impulse, thus making Hate double as a recruiting tool or introductory title to indy comics in general. Which it was to some degree, though I’ve come to realize that it was pretty futile of me to try to make anything published by a company like Fantagraphics cheap and ‘accessible.’ Trying to create ephemera just doesn’t fit into their business model, since it ignores the fact that alternative comics – and at this point, all comic books – are and always will be a specialty item that only appeals to a small subset of the general public. I deeply regret and resent that that’s the case, but I’ve finally realized that there’s no point in fighting it, either.”
Pete has always said that he separated himself and Buddy Bradley by a decade: it was only natural, then, that Buddy slowly accrue the responsibilities of Peter Bagge a decade back. Part of that was in having Buddy mature, going beyond the 100% certified slacker of the Seattle years, and take on responsibilities like the ones he’d spent his first fifteen issues avoiding.
Buddy and his pal Jay the Junkie (last seen in “Buddy the Weasel”) start a used junk business, and Bagge repeatedly leads us to expect Pops Bradley’s death from his deteriorating health…only to depict Pops’ getting hit and killed by a car while out walking. It seems like Pops’ death was the one event in Hate that started the wheels of change turning for Buddy: the catalyst for the remaining threads of Buddy’s days as a complete slacker to hit the fan.
“A problem with Hate, if you can call it a ‘problem,’ is that it’s not like Peanuts or Beetle Bailey or even The Simpsons, where Bart is 10 years old forever and everything is stuck in time. Instead I took the Gasoline Alley route and had everybody age and change and either evolve or devolve.
After thirty issues, Bagge retired Hate, continuing the series in not-quite annual annuals.
“I suppose I could have kept Hate going forever,” Bagge, leaned back reflectively. “But the sales started to dip, and I didn’t like that trend. Plus, at that same time I was getting a lot of other opportunities. For the first time ever, people were calling me up, offering me fairly lucrative freelance jobs. That was when Hate was at its hottest, and I had several opportunities to develop it for TV – all of which failed, though I made good money off of development fees alone.
“All of a sudden I was making the best money I’ve had ever made – before or since, sadly – so why would I want to keep slaving away on this single labor intensive comic book title? I was making much better money not doing Hate! But the idea behind Hate Annual was to just simply keep the Buddy character alive. It’s kind of like he’s dog paddling (or that I’m dog paddling) just to see if suddenly he can take off again, creatively or otherwise. It doesn’t sell nearly what it used to, but it sells well enough that Fantagraphics is always ready and willing to put it out. I also pad the thing out with various freelance jobs that otherwise would remain uncollected and forgotten, so it isn’t nearly the time commitment that the regular Hate title used to be.”
Buddy, while still ten years younger than Pete, has grown more in the eccentricity department: Now a parent, he still runs the junk store and has bought a house on a former Jersey dump. Lisa is still as crazy, but doing her damnedest to grow out of the dysfunction that’s haunted her since childhood.
“I still kind of relate to him, and I certainly relate to his impulses,” Pete admitted. “But the direction he's going in compared to me is far more idiosyncratic and eccentric. In appearance alone he’s become a total kook.”
Buddy Bradley’s appearance pushed him further away from that of a younger Bagge, and more into that of a traditional oddball comic character. Gone are the flannel and long unkempt bangs: Buddy’s now rocking out on a pipe, eye patch, and shaved head.
“He's literally become the Crazy Old Guy That Works at the Dump, right down to the eye patch, even though there’s nothing wrong with his eye. I recently saw Gilbert Shelton, the Freak Brothers guy, at a Spanish comic convention, and he asked me if Buddy still needed the eye patch or if it was just an affectation. When I told Gilbert it was the latter I expected him to roll his eyes in dismay, but instead he laughed and said, ‘That's great!’”
“Buddy's become a thoroughly domesticated creature of habit at this point,” Pete added later. “But he's still trying to figure out exactly what ‘settled’ means and how he wants to live the rest of his life. The readers would much prefer I went back to, like, full length stories, but with Hate Annual I much prefer doing these eight, ten, 12-page stories, these little snapshots documenting how Buddy is slowly turning into a total nut. Not a ‘nut’ in a bad way, but as someone that few people would relate to. How he still is paralleling my own life at this point is hard to say. Maybe he isn’t anymore! Or else I’m in denial of my own idiosyncratic behavior.”
When Hate first hit in 1990, the alternative audience was most likely in their late teens to mid-20s; by the time the series’ wrapped in 1998, most of the readers had grown to their late 20s to early 30s. They, in a fashion, grew up with Buddy Bradley and Lisa Leavenworth. While, from a literary perspective, it made Hate a book that paralleled its readers’ lives as it came out, it doesn’t necessarily help its commercial shelf-life.
“Also, with Buddy now being a family man, this core demographic who read alternative comics simply don't relate. Hate's all about old people now. A big reason – the main reason – for the success of those early Hates was that the characters so accurately reflected the people who buy and read alternative comics. The whole title was like a mirror image of themselves and their lives, so of course they loved it. But once Buddy started a business and started to settle down, that’s when I started to lose a lot of readers. They simply didn’t relate to Buddy anymore.”
But for those readers who can still relate to Buddy Bradley and his dysfunctional adventures, Pete continues his occasional annuals. As all things pop culture go, a new appreciation emerges roughly twenty years later, with a crowd too young to remember when those same movies, music, and comics originally came out. When college kids in 2017 latch on to the music and clothing of the ‘90s, Buddy and his pals may find themselves pop culture gods to a new group of readers.
Here in America, we’ve always been scared of our shit blowing up. Despite the short lull between the Cold War and the supposed “War on Terror,” the concept of post-apocalyptic America has been ingrained in our collective mind for decades, whether in The Road Warrior or Planet of the Apes. Fact of apocalyptic, cinematic life: if society is on the brink of extinction because the proverbial red button was pushed on the other side (read: by communists or terrorists), it’ll take a dashing hero with Mel Gibson’s good looks or Charlton Heston’s damn dirty elocution to save us all.
“Everybody’s fascinated by this whole idea of the post-apocalyptic world,” Bagge observed. “But whenever such a world is dramatized, you always follow a guy, like the one guy out of a hundred million who could not only survive anything but thrive in that environment. They never have a panic attack or get shot in the cock because, if that would happen, they would immediately stop being the ‘hero.’ Nobody wants to follow or identify with the guy whose dick just got shot off. You’ll go, ‘All right, I don’t want to pretend to be him anymore. Can we follow somebody else around instead?’
“In other words, the protagonist is never like this Perry guy in Apocalypse Nerd,” Bagge elaborated. “He ain’t no take-charge guy, no Mel Gibson or Kurt Russell, ready and able to kick anybody’s ass, you know? It’s always the guy that just goes around kicking ass. And they never show where he goes to the bathroom. Or where he gets food and water from. Like, what is he living on? Rats? They don’t cover that at all. It just shows them getting into fights and hooking up with a hot babe.”
Not the case with Apocalypse Nerd, Bagge’s six-issue miniseries that started at Dark Horse Comics in 2005 and is drawing out over a period of two years. When computer programmer Perry and his drug-dealing pal Gordon head back from a weekend of camping in the mountains, they find out that Seattle has been nuked by the North Koreans. Sure, they can go back to the cabin and live “off of the land,” like books, the Boy Scouts, and movies tell us we can…or can they?
Like all post-apocalyptic stories, the inspiration was a combination of the political climate at the time and the author’s own worst fears:
“At the same time the Bush Administration was building a case for going to war with Iraq, I was listening to a news reporter on NPR quoting a spokesman for the president of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, saying they had the technology to nuke Seattle. I presume they mentioned Seattle because it’s the closest city, geographically, to North Korea. Yet here I was, sitting in Seattle as I’m hearing this, wondering if maybe we’re going to war with the wrong country,” Bagge laughed. “As crazy as Saddam was, he never came close to ever saying anything like that. Yet everyone, including the media, was so focused on ‘getting Saddam’ that this overt threat got no play at all. Nuts!
“But it also made me think about what if the North Koreans did nuke my hometown. Well, of course, I’d be annihilated, since I live in Seattle’s city limits. But what if I was way out in the boonies, way beyond where you would suffer from any of the immediate negative effects of the blast? In fact, I once saw a map showing where the ‘safest’ parts of the country are in case of a nuclear attack, and the northern reaches of the Cascade Mountains, just a couple hundred miles from here, was one of those ‘safe zones.’ So once I conceived of the Apocalypse Nerd story, I decided that would be the perfect place for the protagonists to be at the time of an attack, since they wouldn’t have to contend with radiation sickness, at least not right away. And instead I could just focus on the hilarity of them having absolutely no f*cking idea how to live in the woods.”
Pretty is something Apocalypse Nerd isn’t: The Bagge-drawn “cartoony” characters create an initial false sense of comfort, disarming the reader into thinking it’ll be mere dark comedy – until Perry blows the head off a wounded deer at point-blank range or Gordo kills a man in front of the man’s own family. Apocalypse Nerd earns its merit as a human drama.
“It’s that mix that I keep talking about, that sweet and sour combination,” Bagge observed. “The cartooning, to me, makes it palatable and makes it easier to get through some of the more grotesque things that are happening in the comic.”
“When you read the whole thing – once it’s all done, that is – the story keeps taking darker turns, where the protagonist keeps doing what he has to do to stay alive, but it’s extremely unpleasant. You know how when you watch the news, watch what’s going on in Baghdad, and they talk about how some young guy just drove a truck full of explosives into a marketplace, and you think, 'How the hell can anyone do such a thing? What brought him to such a low point?’ Or, ‘What’s wrong with those people?!?' as if they were made up of some completely different genetic makeup than our own and that we would never perform something so despicable, regardless of the circumstances. But then, I guarantee you that when that guy was a kid his ultimate dream wasn’t to blow up a bunch of innocent people while they’re busy buying vegetables! Even as an adult, if he had any real options he wouldn’t be blowing people up. ‘Hey pal, how’d you like to be a life guard on a nude beach on the Riviera?’ ‘No, thanks, I’d rather to be a suicide bomber instead.’
“My point is, I think almost all of us are capable of doing truly awful, despicable things, depending on the circumstances, and if we feel like we had no choice. The desire to remain alive can override pretty much anything, and that’s what I wanted to show in this story.”
Think about how the Internet has provided hypochondriacs with yet another way to misdiagnose their hangnails and how people tend to believe everything they read. Perry falls into a similar trap with a copy of How to Survive Alone in the Woods. Bagge is commenting not only on our tendency to mindlessly believe anything we see in print, but also on the rather pampered state of modern society, where amenities have become categorized as necessities.
“I thought it’d be funny for him to come across this book, which actually does have good, practical information. But the advice is essentially what kind of bark you can or can’t eat, what kind of plants, fungus, mushrooms…all this gunk that’ll keep you from starving to death. It would keep you alive, but, then, if that’s all you did eat, you’d probably want to die!” Bagge laughed. “I mean, who wants to live on bark?
“Also, a guy I know told me about how he and three other friends all went on a long hunting trip. They wanted to be like real frontiersmen, so they agreed to just eat whatever they hunted or gathered while they were out there. Of course, they were all either too lazy or ‘manly’ to do much fruit gathering, so they just shot tons of deer and basically lived off the deer meat and little else. Only two weeks of this all game meat diet wreaked havoc on their digestive system, and they all couldn’t stop cutting the most vile-smelling farts imaginable, making the cabin they were staying in uninhabitable. I love stories like that, since they remind me of what a foolhardy endeavor it is to be a ‘survivalist,’ no matter how romantic the notion might be at times.
“But Perry and especially his friend Gordo indulge themselves of that notion at first, only to have the reality of the situation come crashing in on them like a ton of bricks, forcing them to conclude that anything, even living in a radioactive police state, might be better than a life of farts and tree bark.”
That “anything” takes Perry and Gordo to a commune, where a raiding group of bandits brutally end their fun…and their friendship. Perry is forced out on his own in this unforgiving environment by the end of the fourth issue.
“Apocalypse Nerd got pretty dark towards the end,” Pete confesses. “As it was coming out, I would send copies to my Hollywood agent, and he said ‘This has got lots of potential and looks great!’ He had know idea where it was going to go, so he’d say things like ‘This could be a great comedy for Will Ferrell.’
“At one point, he said ‘I don’t want to jinx it, but we have a name actor interested in Apocalypse Nerd.’
“I went ‘Who?’
“‘I don’t want to get too giddy and talk about it, so I don’t want to tell you.’
“‘Is he an A-lister?’
“It turns out it was, but at a certain point in the series the protagonists wind up killing a baby, shooting it in its crib. Not for no reason, of course: it was because they couldn’t take the baby, but it was all alone, so they decide to kill it so it wouldn’t starve to death. So after that issue came out and I asked ‘Does the A-lister still want to do it?’” Pete laughs. “He didn’t, of course.”
Bagge’s most recent graphic novel, Other Lives, explores the duality and schism between real life and the virtual life of the internet culture. Starting with editor Bob Schreck at DC’s Vertigo imprint, Pete was shuffled off to editor Shelley Bond when Schreck left DC.
“When you’re dealing with Marvel or DC in general, you’ve got to let go a bit,” he notes. “You can’t get too attached and precious. It’s exactly like dealing with Hollywood, where everybody has to get their two cents in. No matter how much “creative freedom “ they agree to give you ahead of time, they just can’t help themselves from forcing your work through a creative gauntlet. I guess it’s their job.”
In Other Lives, reinvented freelance journalist Vader Ryderbeck starts researching the online personas people build for themselves, unwittingly forced to deal with his own falsehoods in the process. Bagge’s research involved signing on to online role-playing game Second Life.
“There were a lot of news stories when Second Life was taking off,” Pete says before going into a story. “The funniest story I heard was when I was in a car going from the airport to a comic book convention. It was all people I didn’t know, but everyone was talking about Second Life, because one of the people in the car actually made money off of Second Life. She designed clothes on the computer, all virtual clothes and jewelry, and had a store in Second Life where people could buy it. It was Second Life money, which are called lindens, but can be converted into real money. There was an exchange rate of ten lindens as one dollar. If I made 5,000 lindens, and I’d make $500.
“Another girl in the car said ‘I went on it, and did what lots of people do and find the weird stuff. I went to a sex club where people are walking around naked and having cybersex with each other. It was a virtual pick-up bar. She walked in, and you type in what you want to say, so she walks in and typed in ‘Won’t somebody fuck me! You’re a whole bunch of faggots!’ She said all of a sudden some creepy virtual guy runs up, and his virtual avatar shoves hers up in a corner and starts humpin her. She couldn’t get away. She said ‘Basically, I was on Second Life for five minutes and got raped,” he laughs.
Like Other Lives, Bagge’s next project deals with alternate lives—in this case, that of a washed-up comedian.
“I just started another graphic novel with Dark Horse, called Reset,” Pete reveals. “On the surface, it’s somewhat similar to Other Lives. It’s about a washed-up comedian whose career fell apart, and he’s a desperate mess as a result. He agrees to take part in the research of this new technology that allows you to relive your own life. They’re using him as a test because his being famous makes it easy to get background info on him to feed into the program. They piece together his life, and as he sits in a chair and they go ‘Remember when this happened? And there was that girl that you struck out with because you should’ve said something else. What if you did say the right thing? What if you married her? Now you can try again and find out!” He agrees because he has no money and nothing else to do, but things gets much crazier and more complicated than he ever anticipated.
After Reset, Bagge visits historical biography, but this time with a Bagge-ian twist:
“Once I’m done with this, I have a project waiting in the wings for Drawn and Quarterly, but I’m going to do a book length bio comic about Margaret Sanger. She was quite wild in her younger days. She was a tramp! No wonder she was so big on birth control,” he laughs.
Learn more about Peter Bagge and how he fits into the history of comics in the book Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner and available now from powerHouse Books.