Possibly the best book on an individual comics creator to date
Peter Bagge : Conversations
Edited by Kent Worcester
The University Press of Mississippi, Feb 2015. Hardback, 208 pages (approx.), 6 x 9 inches, 9781628462043
Amazon US has this book as a $40.00 hardback and cheaper Kindle editions, and buying looks straightforward.
Amazon UK has it at £25.00 but says it will take 1 -2 months to get hold of. Hmm… other sellers are listed, or maybe the Kindle edition at £18.61 (!) is a better bet.
Kent Worcester: Do you think of yourself as an “equal opportunity” satirist, taking shots at protestors, yuppies, hipsters, and suburbanites alike?
Peter Bagge: Well, sure. I don’t think any particular subset of our society is more deserving of ridicule than another.
Or, as he might have added, any less deserving. Though after some 35 years on the job, Peter Bagge may be found analysing subsets of society more often than he ridicules them these days.
The University Press of Mississippi is to be congratulated for adding this excellent book to their already substantial series Conversations with Comic Artists. There seem to be at least seventeen other books in the series, including Conversations with Carl Barks, Charles Schulz, Alan Moore, etc.—the full list can seen here:
I mention this in particular because the Press does not list or promote those other books in the Bagge volume, though they helpfully list 22 books by Bagge himself on the indicia page.
And while I’m digressing, before discussing this book about a lapsed Catholic cartoonist, I need to get some personal confessions out of the way. Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned…
Firstly, I have to confess that I pretty much lost track of Bagge’s work after his Buddy Bradley comic Hate ceased regular publication, somewhere around the turn of the century. I bought a couple of Hate Annuals in the early noughties, but that was about it. Over the years I have rather randomly seen the occasional issue of Reset and Apocalypse Nerd but not followed them — as I can’t remember much about those comics, I must assume they didn’t grab me the way Buddy & co did. I did enjoy one of Bagge’s DC comics, Sweatshop but initially missed out on his childrens’ comic Yeah! (drawn by Gilbert Hernandez).
I was barely aware of his Spider-man and Hulk contributions, and here in the UK Bagge’s contributions to libertarian magazine Reason and other US publications have been easy to miss.
I am guilty of locating Peter Bagge’s work in the past, when as this book makes clear, he continues to write and draw interesting material. Thanks to Conversations, I now know a lot more about this later work, and I’m grateful for it.
Secondly, I have to confess that I am a contributor to this book. The second of its fifteen conversations is with me “and others”. As an avid reader of his at the time, I interviewed Peter Bagge on stage with an audience at the Glasgow Comic Art Convention, GlasCAC, in 1992, and wrote it up for a zine I edited, Comics Forum. Audience questions were included and I also spoke to Bagge with his wife Joanne, and two friends of mine, Jenni Scott and Andy Roberts, after the public event. Conversations reprints the piece as it appeared in Forum, with those others’ contributions intact.
Jenni is seen in the photo above talking to Bagge at the convention (photo by Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker — thanks to Jenni for the photo and to both for permission to post it.) Andy Roberts, very sadly, was knocked down by a motorcyclist in 2005 and died from his injuries. I am reminded of him often by one thing or another, and intensely so by reading these words in print.
Which brings me to my third confession: when I agreed to the interview being used in Conversations, I didn’t think twice, and didn’t look at the original magazine version. I didn’t remember that Andy and Jenni had been involved. I couldn’t ask his permission, but I should have contacted Jenni. Apologies are due and hereby given.
So, to the book itself. Editor Kent Worcester has chosen very well indeed from the available material (previously published interviews with Bagge) and also provides an excellent introduction and Peter Bagge timeline. Worcester also brings this up to date as of 2014 with a new, unpublished interview.
Conversations runs its interviews in chronological order. Many of them go back over Bagge’s earlier days, but often from different angles, so there is more new information than straight repetition. The cumulative effect is of moving onward through his career as the book goes on. There is no doubt that Bagge’s work has evolved over time, in both words and pictures. This book is excellent in mapping the changing territory of his stories and ideas.
For a sense of his artwork’s parallel evolution, the reader will have to supplement Conversations with other input — like my Bagge gallery below — because like all the volumes in this series (AFAIK) the book is black and white, and text-heavy. In discussing a medium with such a visual element as comics, this is something of a weakness. There are a few pictures — panels and full page strips — but a magnifying glass will be helpful in trying to read them. However, as the publisher’s name suggests, it is a quasi-academic text, aimed partly at students who wish to read up on Bagge in libraries. Budgetary considerations doubtless preclude any full-colour printing. A few larger pages of B&W art could perhaps have been included, but possibly only by sacrificing text pages.
Having said that, Conversations is not in any sense a “difficult” read. The interviews are often almost as entertaining as Bagge’s comics. They are taken from diverse general — i.e non-academic — sources. There is no thesis-speak or surfeit of polysyallables. Indeed these texts present such a complete “picture” of Peter Bagge that I barely missed the illustrational side of his work while reading. Afterwards I did Google up some pictures, mainly to look at some of what I’d missed over the last ten or so years. Using the wonders of modern blognology I can of course give you more pictures than University Press of Mississippi can — and I will, at the end of my review.
I won’t dwell on Bagge’s childhood and personal life, though you will find them discussed here, including how they influenced his work. Nor on his progression from punky New York City self-publication, via collaboration with underground comix legend Robert Crumb, indie hit-dom with Seattle publisher Fantagraphics (with Neat Stuff and Hate) and points between, to in-demand political commentator and biographer. All this is covered very well in Conversations, and the accompanying changes in drawing style are discussed, if not shown.
Two things stand out from the rich and varied subject matter of this book.
Firstly, Bagge is a unique talent who draws like no-one else. He discusses various possible roots of this style (Charles M. Schulz, Harvey Kurtzman) but it is clear that there is also some individual, indefinable something at work in the eye, mind and hand of an artist like Bagge which makes his work solely his own. Unlike other stand-out artists in the comics field, Bagge has not spawned a legion of imitators.
Perhaps this is because his artwork has never been bland or eager to please. Bagge’s first decade or more was spent being actively confrontational, and that includes both his subject matter and his actual style itself. The self-portrait on the cover of this book is a choice example. At first glance simply hideous, I have to say that this drawing would not have been my first choice as cover art. It repays further scrutiny, however.
Bagge portrays himself as one of those Margaret Keane-type Big-Eyed Kids which are hideous enough in themselves — the more so as this one has scars, a Catholic bleeding heart on his shirt, and a tarnished halo. He is the artist as martyr to the various forces working to finish him off — stabbed by the knife of Public Preconceptions and Apathy, drinking from the bottle of Bitterness and Resentment. He is even being given a hot-foot by Demanding Fanzine Publishers. (Oops. Mea Culpa.)
This single picture tells us far more about Bagge than many a more “attractive” picture would. Not only in its overt content, but also in its multi-levelled parody of the confessional underground comic, the Big-Eyed Kid painting and the political cartoon. It seems to raise the question: does Peter Bagge — at least, the Bagge of 1988 when it was drawn — take anything seriously?
Well, that is the Second Thing that leaps out from the pages of Conversations: Bagge’s progress as political and social commentator. In his earlier days Bagge was keen to distance himself from any political implications of this work, though by 1992 he was almost ready to concede that there might just be some:
Interviewer: Do you see the strips you’ve done until now as having a political dimension?
Peter Bagge: This is kind of a cop-out answer, but… I’ve now learned, thanks to my British friends — and this is something that I think applies to a lot of Europeans in general — that everything is political [laughs]. But I do see that now, I’m not totally disagreeing with that at all.
Later in the same piece he appears to retreat into a more strongly apolitical stance:
Interviewer: You’ve said that you want to do stuff about blue-collar life in America […]. There’s a political dimension right there isn’t there? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of dissent in American fiction or cartooning?
PB: It’s not a clearly defined tradition. […] I don’t think anything in my work has ever been overtly political. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be.
Interviewer: But it definitely challenges the phony American myth of “the family” and the whole self-image of American society […] Undermining that is in itself a political statement.
PB: But I’m not consciously doing that. I’m just trying to tell you stories, as they come to me […] about the way things are in day-to-day existence […] And Americans will say, “Oh, that’s funny” and “I can relate to that.” But it’s always Europeans who’ll say what you said. “Exposing the myth of American culture, this is the ugly underbelly” and all that kind of thing.
In recent years Bagge has done strips for a libertarian magazine, Reason, and has said that his own politics can be considered libertarian (with caveats, for example, about the kind of libertarians who run for office, or have the name Ayn Rand). Here is Kent Worcester from the previously unpublished 2014 interview which closes the book:
KW: Have your politics fundamentally changed since the 1970s-1980s or were you always a libertarian, even before you had the vocabulary to articulate it?
PB: The latter. I always believed in freedom and autonomy for all […] In my younger days I described myself as a liberal, and I still think that word applies to me […]
KW: Do you look back fondly on the days when your work was 100% laugh-oriented, or do you feel that it’s important to make readers think?
PB: Everything has political content to some degree if you look for it, including my own work. […] I started writing overtly political work when I was specifically asked to do so, in my case by Reason magazine.
In between these poles, other interviews touch on Bagge’s journey towards maturity and/or explicitly political work (which includes convention reportage). I’m also intrigued by the revelation that, in more recent strips, Buddy Bradley has gone from marginally hip seller of collectibles (Star Wars toys etc.) to the more mundane (and blue-collar) role of scrap metal dealer.
And so to Bagge’s recent contribution to the growing field of Graphic Biography. Others have tackled Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Sally Heathcote, to name but five. Bagge has taken on the life of Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966), feminist, educator and birth control pioneer.
His route to this book is in itself intriguing, as he tells Derek Parker Royal in the interview here from 2013:
PB: I was primarily interested in female literary figures from the mid-twentieth century, specifically Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Inglis Wilder), Zora Neale Hurston, and Isabel Paterson […] Besides being talented writers, these women also helped define a political philosophy—one that celebrates freedom and autonomy—that I very much share, and they also lived their lives accordingly. […] These women weren’t encumbered by unwanted pregnancies either. So that got me interested in what kind of birth control was available at the time, and how available it was. This research led me to Sanger.
More about Sanger and Bagge’s book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAA2eK1K3pw
In both Parker Royal’s piece and editor Kent Worcester’s 2014 interview, Bagge discusses how his idiosyncratic style can be seen as unsuitable for a serious biographical book. The pages reproduced in Conversations show that Bagge can carry it off, no problem. Words and pictures work seamlessly together. There is no lack of storytelling clarity, and the shifting emotional states of his characters come across effectively.
No abrupt compromise of Bagge’s individualist style has been needed to achieve this. He retains his truly unique way of seeing the world, in particular us awkward humans who populate it — rarely so awkward, perhaps, as when drawn by Peter Bagge.
Finally, a word about what a splendid achievement this book is. Kent Worcester has assembled an excellent collection here. He brings to the subject a perspective which is arguably as unique as Bagge’s own — Worcester is not only a professor of political science with a deep and abiding interest in the comics medium but, like Bagge, also a guitar player. This musical bent informs Worcester’s questions too. His own conversation with Bagge is perhaps the best interview I can remember reading with a comics creator, and the outstanding contribution to an outstanding book about an outstanding artist.
A PETER BAGGE GALLERY
The scratchy thin pen lines of the early strips which introduced Studs Kirby and Junior (in Comical Funnies 1, 1980) were those of an artist waiting to discover the right tool for his job — the brush pen.
This new tool gave Bagge a thicker and more varied line. Along with thinner pen lines for shading and detail, this came to define the Bagge style, as in Neat Stuff in the 1980s, and Buddy Bradley’s 1990s star vehicle, Hate. At times on Hate Bagge had an inking assistant. Latterly he seems to have simplified his overall look, losing many of those thin line details. Particularly for colour strips this has been a fruitful approach.
Bagge’s early confrontational years… I can’t show you the top tier of the last Martini Baton strip from the last Weirdo (no. 28, 1993) as it is rude. I even censored this part of the strip. My changes are very subtle; you probably won’t be able to spot them. By this time Bagge’s editorship of Weirdo had ended, and Aline Crumb was in the chair for this final issue. Bagge did Martini Baton from drawings by New York artist David Carrino.
Bagge takes his humour mainstream, and indeed to kid level, with mixed results. Sweatshop, 2003, may have toned down the confront-o-meter, but it was a very funny take on the world of newspaper cartooning (and the youngsters who slave for the crotchety “Man”). Yeah! (1999) has had a book collection, though I bought the comics out of a bargain bin in 2014.
He did both Spider-man and Hulk comics for Marvel, given pretty free rein — though the Hulk strip took years to see print.
Strips from Reason. More here: http://reason.com/archives/2015/03/29/life-out-on-the-political-fringe
Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.