Bagge Opens His SweatshopBefore the Simpsons, before the Bundys, America's most dysfunctional family was the Bradleys. Bickering and seething through the pages of NEAT STUFF, the Bradleys established their creator, Peter Bagge, as one of the premiere social satirists in comics. Manic, frantic and biting, Bagge's work was dark humor at its bleakest yet most hilarious. Along with the Hernandez Brothers and Dan Clowes, Bagge helped establish Fantagraphics as one of the most important independent publishers. When NEAT STUFF ended in 1990, Bagge launched HATE, starring Buddy Bradley, the youngest of the clan, who moved to Seattle and became the symbol of the plaid-wearing, latte-slurping Grunge generation.
Peter Bagge's work is dark humor at its bleakest yet most hilarious.
Now he takes on the comics industry with Sweatshop.
by Heidi MacDonald
(from comicon.com, 4/21/03)
Since ending HATE as a regular book a few years ago, Bagge has brought his savage pen to the mainstream. This week, his new monthly book SWEATSHOP debuts from DC. A satirical look at the comics industry starring a new dysfunctional work family of wanna-be comics stars, it's certainly one of the biggest departures for DC for some time.
Recently, I caught up with Bagge to get the scoop on SWEATSHOP and talk about his other projects, his changing approach to his work, the state of alternative comics, and much more. Bagge tempers blunt realism with a ready laugh, and is probably one of the easiest interviews in comics.
THE PULSE: SWEATSHOP. How did it begin? Where did it come from?
BAGGE: It started with me just occasionally getting random phone calls from (DC editor) Joey Cavalieri and him asking if I'd like to do something for BIZARRO which I first passed on because I had too much other work. But I was impressed with the job he did on BIZARRO, and he said it sold well enough that it gave him a bit more clout when it came to pushing his bosses to do something a little left of center. He talked to me about coming up with a new title and I was all for that but I couldn't come up with anything. We finally went to lunch one day in New York and we were just kibitzing and swapping stories we'd heard about old time cartoonists and how insane they are. And then one of us, I guess it was me, said wouldn't it be funny if we did a comic like that about some cranky old cartoonists and a bunch of younger people try to deal with them. He said, there you go, let's do a comic about it. I said "But nobody would buy it!" But his response to that was "Nobody buys comics anyway," so...(laughter) everyone's a winner!
THE PULSE: Who are the main characters in SWEATSHOP?
BAGGE: The alpha male is a guy named Mel Bowling who does a very bad daily comic strip called Freddy Ferret, and it's a cross between DILBERT and GARFIELD. His personality and even the way he looks, is similar to (Beach Boy) Brian Wilson's father, Murray Wilson. Me and a friend did a bunch of web cartoons about Murray Wilson. We had a web cartoon show -- if you go to my website you can find it. It was on Icebox.com, which got canceled but I liked doing the story about a cranky old man. It's like Archie Bunker. He's a right-winger, listens to Rush Limbaugh, the country's going to the dogs, and so on.
THE PULSE: So who makes his life miserable?
BAGGE: Himself, mostly. His office manager is his sister, who's a real enabler. The whole sweatshop is like a family, its a workplace family. His sister's the mom, and he's the dad, and then there's three regular staffers who do all the work -- he doesn't really do anything.
THE PULSE: His ghosts and background guys, eh?
BAGGE: Yeah, all he does is try to come up with a new catchphrase to put on T-shirts and coffee cups and make some merchandising money, but his catch phrases are all terrible. It's the world of a dally newspaper strip, but SWEATSHOP itself deals as much or even more with the comic book world, because amongst his staff, one guy wants to be a superhero artist, and another guy is like a more undergroundy guy of the Johnny Ryan-Peter Bagge variety and then there's a girl who wants to do autobio comics like a cartoon diary. And he has a freelance writer, a gag writer who's the exact opposite of Mel. He's very much based on Aaron (BOONDOCKS) McGruder, he's a radical, left wing, overly educated black guy, but he's also a sellout because he's selling jokes to Mel Bowling (laughter). He's always trying to get his own daily strip going, which is so stridently left wing that it obliterates any chance of it being funny. let alone being published.
THE PULSE: Now this book has been in the works for a over a year, right?
THE PULSE: So obviously, politics were big when you started, but now, it's kind of like the national obsession. You feel comfortable working with politics, but at the same time mainstream comics haven't really touched on it at all. Is it a "political strip"?
BAGGE: It wasn't deliberate. Whereas in the past my character's politics more or less bubbled to the surface, [this time] I very consciously thought about what each character's politics would be, because it says so much or the lack thereof does-some of the characters are completely apolitical. But it says so much about the characters. And that's something that I used to chafe against in the past.
I remember I read a book by John Waters and he was talking about when he first took his movies to Germany and showed them at a film festival, FEMALE TROUBLE and all those early ones and after it was over all these young Germans were asking, what was the politics about that? what was the motive? what are your politics? And John Waters kept saying "There isn't any. My movies are completely apolitical." And these young Germans screamed at him in unison "Everything is political!"
When I read that I thought, those Germans are obnoxious punks, no wonder people hate them. But the older I get, it's true. Or at the very least you can politicize anything. I started working on this comic after 9/11 and in a situation like this politics are heightened and you find yourself hating people or wanting to scream at people who don't agree. Right now politics is a life and death issue, it's not about raising a bond to pave a street, which it was in the good old days. (laughter) Now it's more like what kind of country do we want to have and want kind of country will we allow another country to have?
THE PULSE: Right. The average man in the street now has an opinion about nation building and unilaterialism. They know the difference between multilateral and unilateral.
BAGGE: They don't know what the word "evidence" means, though.
THE PULSE: There's this one reporter on CNN who always pronounced "cache" (which is pronounced "cash") as "Ca-SHAY." He was all excited. "We're driving through Nasiriya and we found a 'ca-shay' of weapons!" and I'm like, what you sniffed them out? And then whoever he's interviewing will pick it up too, "Well, when we found this ca-shay..." It drove me nuts!
BAGGE: it' s a good thing I'm not on TV because that's what I always want to call it. When I hear them say "Cash" I think "cash money" and I'm like "They found cash. Wow..."
THE PULSE: Well you know that old joke. What did the Czechoslovakian midget say to his friends when he was running away from the secret police?
THE PULSE: "Please, can't you cache a small Czech?"
THE PULSE: Anyway...moving on...how has the reaction of DC been to the political slant of the book?
BAGGE: Well, I'm only dealing with Joey and of course, I'm used to working with Fantagraphics. For 15-20 years I could say whatever I wanted. They might have given me a hard time about this, that or the other thing, but they never said "You can't do this." So I'm spoiled in that regard, and even when I did YEAH, I consciously made YEAH G-rated, so, ironically, it also wasn't an issue. But with this, I'm keeping in mind it's PG-13 for lack of a better description, even though it's not code approved. It's not written down, DC is very vague about (their standards). In effect, their censor is their legal department. But the legal department is making it up as they go along.
The one thing -- and I've given Joey a lot of slack in this regard, though he probably thinks he's giving me some slack - the one thing that drives him crazy is if I make one of the more reactionary or bigoted characters speak derogatorily about people of another race or gay people. Joey's attitude is "I kind of don't care if it's in character for him, I'd rather just not do that at all because it makes the comic sounds too ugly." I try for his sake. I see his point. Rather than say he's been censoring me, I'm allowing him to censor me. But what I do is I try very hard to think of an alternative that would work just as well or be funnier. But sometimes I say no, no, it's too important to show this guy's a homophobe. So it's things like that. The arguments we're having are political but it's not like we're arguing is this a left wing book or a right wing book because we have characters from both, but it's more political correctness, I guess. And whether that would distort people's willingness to accept the book. Sometimes even Joey's been surprised, sometimes he won't be sure, and he'll agree with me and we'll pass it to legal and we're always surprised a) what they'll let pass, and b) what they might decide to make a big stink about.
One very funny thing that we did - boy, I hope Joey doesn't mind that I told you this! - At one point the girl character is showing Mel current alternative comics, and she holds up a copy of ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY. It's just a small version of it the cover that we drew -- it wasn't an actual cover of ACME. It was a drawing of Jimmy Corrigan as a kid.. it's no big deal, and it winds up in the legal department and the legal department complained and said "You better watch it, because the character you drew in the comic book looks way too much like the kid from the FAMILY GUY on Fox." (Uproarious laughter. )
THE PULSE: So what secrets of the comics will you be revealing? Is it a satire or a parody or a tell-all?
BAGGE: It's very much a satire of the whole drawing funny pictures for a living business. And it's not just strictly related to comics. The format is very much like HATE was. It's in a sitcom format, and we also get into the personal lives of each of the characters, their dating lives and stuff like that just to reveal more about what the characters are all about. One story I'm particular proud of is in the second issue, the young female character who does the autobio strip, somehow her comic winds up in the hands of some people who are the equivalent of the Oxygen Network. They want to develop it and it goes through that whole meat grinder and ends up much worse off. I took every TV development horror story and crammed it into one 12-page comic.
THE PULSE: Is anyone going to be approached by MTV to have a cartoon show?
BAGGE: Heh, I don't know.
THE PULSE: It's an ongoing monthly?
BAGGE: It's an ongoing monthly. The basic format of the book is 4-tiered (pages) like the color HATE was, which is very labor intensive. And I'm driving myself and all the contributors crazy because there's a lot of story crammed per page. I feel like there's nothing fancy or elaborate to the way I draw, so I'm trying to compensate for it by having a lot of drawings on each page. It will be a miracle if we can maintain this monthly comic. I've tried to simplify it. I've made attempts to make it average maybe 5-6 panels a page. But I personally don't like it.
THE PULSE: You've got to cram it all in, man! Now what's the breakdown of the work? Other artists are working on it but you're drawing part of it?
BAGGE: Each issue usually has two main stories. The first issue, I drew the first story, and in the second issue I penciled the first story and then Bill Wray inked it. I wasn't going to do more art after that but I'm lettering it. But the fifth issue is one long story and one problem we've had is that it's very hard to get any of our contributors to pencil and ink anything longer. Since the fifth issue is one long story I decided to do the whole thing myself. Which was a big goddam mistake. It's driving me crazy!
THE PULSE: Yeah, you gotta do 22 pages in one month! Who do you think you are? John Byrne?
BAGGE: It's insane and I already wrote issue 6 and handed it in to all the artists, and they're sending it back to me to be lettered and I barely made a dent in #5. But starting out the main artist was Stephen DeStefano and it got to be too much for him, and he said "For what you pay for one page I could make the same for designing a refrigerator magnet," and so...(laughs) that was it for him. It's too bad, I loved the job he was doing.
THE PULSE: Yeah, Stephen is brilliant.
BAGGE: And Bill Wray is doing -- every now and then in the comic we'll have a one page that is drawn by one of the "characters" so you get the POV of the character reflecting on what happened in the main story. And Bill's pretty adept at copying different styles.
THE PULSE: He's good at those parodies, isn't he?
BAGGE: Yeah. He particularly seemed to relish making fun of girl cartoonists. He got really nasty! (laughter)
THE PULSE: Uh oh! Let the protest begin!
BAGGE: Yeah, start burning your bras!
THE PULSE: But don't you actually have a woman artist on the book?
BAGGE: Yes, now with DeStefano leaving, Joey and I were trying to think of who to get, and I thought of Stephanie Gladden simply because I've always written to her on and off over the years and she always seemed to be a big HATE fan. I thought for that reason alone, maybe she would agree to do it on a regular basis. And she did! And it's amazing because right at the time we asked her to do it, she got a full time job again at the Cartoon Network. I don't know where she finds the time. Not only does she have a full-time job but she turns in the strips like clockwork and she always does much a good job. She's just knocking herself out on it. And really easy to work with.
THE PULSE: Stephanie is so talented. Who is inking the book?
BAGGE: I wanted everybody to ink their own work because there's less guesswork involved. Stephanie Gladden said she could contribute to each issue but she's a much faster at penciling than inking, so Jim Blanchard is inking her work. And another new artist is Johnny Ryan so probably starting with #4 or so, each issue going to be one story by Johnny Ryan and one by Stephanie and Jim Blanchard.
THE PULSE: So you don't do art in these aside from #5. You're just the writer.
BAGGE: I'm writing it and doing the covers and lettering it, and doing breakdowns. So between all that it's pretty...Bagge-ian.
THE PULSE: Bagg-esque. You've always been known as more of an underground iconoclast, so what's the appeal of doing a mainstream comic book?
BAGGE: The appeal is a steady paycheck! Fantagraphics, for all of their wonderfulness are still balancing their books on the backs of their artists. What can I say, that's the price you pay, and some would say it's small price to have this total creative freedom, and Fantagraphics' reputation continues to grow. You've got to give them credit for their stick-to-itiveness, and they finally have a great book distributor who's totally behind them. They're doing really well by them. At the same time, an awkward thing not just about Fantagraphics but Drawn & Quarterly, they are more oriented towards books and graphic novels. More and more stuff is square bound, and I can't speak for other publishers, but I know in Fantagraphics case, they make more of a profit off the books. It's their growth industry. The direct market is still floundering, they're leaning more and more towards becoming just a book publisher. Even THE COMICS JOURNAL is looking more like a book all the time. And I like periodicals. Even when my own stuff is collected into books, I don't crack it open. Every now and then someone at Fantagraphics will hand me a graphic novel collection of something by Joe Sacco or the Hernandez Bros. and I don't read it because I read it in the comics.
THE PULSE: You're the one! You're a pamphlet peeper, not a book buyer!
BAGGE: Yeah, it suits my attention span better. But also I just like the format. Its cozy. I always liked the format of comics books. I like that it looks and feels like it's disposable. It's toilet reading and of course it isn't, but I like that it's just there. It has the look and feel of being very accessible and you don't have to wear little cotton gloves when you carry it to your coffee table. It's very ironic, but this economic fact of life that's making Fantagraphics switch over to books more and more is reflected in the material, too. They put out a very slick book catalog now which is strictly for Norton, and I haven't had a new book come out since they started but now finally I do. In the latest one they're reprinting THE BRADLEYS and I did a new cover for it. So I'm on the first page and I was almost embarrassed when I saw my own stuff in this Norton catalog because I stick out like a sore thumb! My stuff looks so cartoony and retarded. Everything is much fancier, more high falutin' design, and more illustrat-y and fine-arty, and my stuff just looks retarded.
THE PULSE: Yeah, but there's a lot of retards out there!
BAGGE: I almost feel as I've gotten too lowbrow and stupid for Fantagraphics. And I sometimes wonder if they feel that way and if they do I wouldn't blame them.
In part 2, more about SWEATSHOP, changes in the alternative comics scene, the Hulk and Spidey, and more.
SWEATSHOP #1 goes on sale this week. Check out Bagge's own website and the DC Comics Website for more info.