Bagge Opens His Sweatshop: Part IIAlt.comix pioneer Peter Bagge continues his no holds barred Pulse interview, with more on his DC series SWEATSHOP, why he doesn't like current alternative comics, his thoughts on '90s nostalgia, and why Dilbert would join Al Qaeda.
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)
THE PULSE: Do you think your audience will follow you to DC? Or do you even know who your audience is?
BAGGE: Gosh, I dunno. They used to be Gen-X slacker dudes, and now they're all moms and dads with kids and mortgages and the last thing they'd ever think about doing is going into a comics shop. There's another problem which I think this also contributed to the problems I had with YEAH. They were hoping that everyone who bought HATE and LOVE AND ROCKETS would also buy YEAH, but a lot of stores and retailers who not only carry a lot of, but very often carry the most Fantagraphics titles, don't even have a Diamond account. They deal directly with Fantagraphics. It's a lot of bookstores and record stores. They just sell some comics and whatever comics they sell are alternatives. They cut out the middle man and get everything at 50% of the cover price. So with YEAH there were too many people who were used to going to a place to buy HATE and they never saw YEAH there, and unfortunately, they'll probably never see SWEATSHOP there. Someone just wrote to me who runs a video store and he sells some comics and someone mentioned SWEATSHOP so he was asking me all about it. I said, you know, you probably don't have a Diamond account and I'm really loathe to tell you to get one but... (Laughter)
THE PULSE: By the same token if it is collected that will reach that audience. You are, for better or worse, a dying breed. The Pamphlet Peepers are going away whereas the Book Buyers are the growth category. Everybody's going that way not just from wishful thinking; they're going that way because they're making money at it.
BAGGE: Right, especially with alternative comics. People who are more likely to appreciate what Fantagraphics does are more likely to go into a bookstore than a comics shop.
THE PULSE: Well, we can't solve that problem, all we can do it turn out good comics.
BAGGE: Yeah, and pray for the best.
THE PULSE: I've always had this crazy theory that people like comics because they're funny, but that isn't reflected too much in the mainstream. A book like X-STATIX by Pete Milligan and Mike Allred, is considered goofy but it isn't considered a humor book. So it is a big departure for DC to do something overtly humorous like SWEATSHOP.
THE PULSE: Do you have any opinion on them doing the overship on the first issue?
BAGGE: It's good!
THE PULSE: You just touched on something with Gen-X and slackers...have you always lived in Seattle?
BAGGE: I was born and raised in New York but I've been out here almost 20 years.
THE PULSE: Right, so you were one of the early adapters of the Pacific Northwest before it became Nirvana-ville.
BAGGE: I'm Mr. Seattle!
THE PULSE: We're kind of in the throes of 80s nostalgia but I'm always joking get ready for '90s nostalgia.
BAGGE: That's right. I started missing the 90s the minutes those planes went into those building! I was like, oh man, the '90s were great and we didn't even realize it.
THE PULSE: Looking back on that whole period, how do you view it?
BAGGE: It's great! (Laughter) My great concern was Monica Lewinsky's dress. Those were grand old times and the economy was booming, everybody was turning up their nose at jobs at Taco Del Mar, and I was a big time cartoonist, now I'm just a well compensated after thought.
THE PULSE: Aw, now...
BAGGE: Well the Pulse is going to change all that!
THE PULSE: Right!
BAGGE: But again all through the '90s whenever one of my books went out of print they'd reprint it, and all the books and comics, they used to keep printing the comic books. But now I notice when I look at the catalog a lot of stuff is going out of print. The comics, definitely, but also the books. And I don't think they're going to reprint them.
THE PULSE: Well, wait until that '90s nostalgia hits. HATE was really one of the primary artifacts of the Seattle Grunge scene. It's right up there with Sub Pop.
BAGGE: Even though I had no such assumption when I started doing it and it was the farthest thing for my mind, I would up reaching a point where I was disappointed HATE didn't end up a movie or TV show. I missed the brass ring. Now I have to wait for the '90s nostalgia to come along and they'll wheel me out like an artifact. I'll be '90s Stan Lee. I've got to get a Rolex and a Florida tan. Gotta get a bunch of catchphrases.
THE PULSE: Don't be to hard on yourself. I think so much of that stuff is timeless. Everyone had a roommate like George. That's a universal. You touched on this a little bit, you said all the slackers who read your books are married with kids, and some of your longtime fans are noticing, that as your child gets older some of your concerns are changing, a bit.
BAGGE: You wind up assuming my readers are like me, so not only do you end up not reading comics you wind up becoming hostile towards them.
THE PULSE: Are you hostile towards comics?
BAGGE: (burst into laughter.) Not as a form of art, but I am extremely aggravated at especially -- I know I'm generalizing -- the direction, by and large, that alternative comics went. For the most part I don't like them. I used to love everything that came out. I don't know if it's just me, I'm just getting older and I've changed. Well, that's not true -- the artists that I've always liked, I still like everything they put out. But there are very few younger artists, by which I mean people in their '30s. It's not like they're no good. A lot of them can draw. And if someone hands me a comic I'll read it and it might be well done, and I'll say nice things about it, but it's not the kind of thing that gets me excited. It's not something I'll go running out to buy or look for.
THE PULSE: Who are some of your favorites that you still enjoy?
BAGGE: Of course, Clowes and the Hernandez Brother and Crumb. Those guys are my all time favorites. I love everything that Adrian Tomine does, it's weird because in a lot of ways he's comparable to a lot of artists his age. There might be similar appeal. There's something about his work, I just think it 's really well done. There's a real intensity to it. And I love Johnny Ryan he's just one guy that I think is hilarious. There are a lot of people who were formidable in the '90s who either stopped drawing or they work less, or their work just doesn't do much for me anymore.
THE PULSE: What is it in general you don't like about alternative comics?
BAGGE: It's too precious. Again, I could be wrong, but when I read it the motivation is to be taken seriously and everybody seems like they're going for a Pulitzer or something. It's all so la-dee-da.
THE PULSE: I'm a fan of both periods, but I will offer this, you, the Bros and Clowes are the trinity of the Fantagraphics Alternative drown your work had always been based on the world, it's speaks directly to what the readers are going through in their lives. I have a theory that comics have shied away from anything that's even remotely topical, certainly in the mainstream. But I always say a good comic should make you think about your own life and world. There is a lot of introspective fantasizing in current comics. Is that perhaps what you find missing, the real?
BAGGE: Yeah, well, that's part of it, but that's also a generalization. I suppose that's part of it too. There isn't...It's just my taste. It lacks a certain immediacy. It doesn't have me lunging for it in the comics shop. I'll see stuff that looks nice and it's well done, but it's nothing that I feel any passion towards. And a lot of it, with the exception of Johnny Ryan, nothing is too overtly funny. There are people who try to be funny but fall on their face and come off obnoxious. It's tough because on an individual basis I can't put anybody down, they're all doing nice work, but it's almost too nice. I keep thinking "This guy wants a pat on his head from his grandma!"
THE PULSE: I'm always pointing this out, there haven't been as many breakout characters like Buddy Bradley, or on another level Too Much Coffee Man, or going back, again, Milk and Cheese.
BAGGE: I suppose they probably think having a marketable character like that is kind of cheesy. I don't see any of them trying to do that. I don't see anyone trying to have a signature characters. Well, Kochalka kind of with his rabbit-eared guy
THE PULSE: Yeah, he has a little bit more. I guess I'm thinking more of humorous characters. I mean, in the latest HATE ANNUAL you take on DILBERT and his art is...problematic...but the point is he did come up with all these emblematic characters that people respond to immediately because they're laughing at their own lives .
BAGGE: I read tons of DILBERT strips trying to familiarize myself as much as possible when I did that strip you're referring to. It's not bad, some of the strips are very funny and observant. The guy had a very specific target audience and he's go to come up with a gag that will appeal to the cubicle crowd every day, so of course you're going to fall flat on your face a bunch of times. The other thing, is when you read DILBERT, to me, it's easy for me to feel this way because I've never had an office job, but it made me feel sorry for people who are stuck in cubicles and have to deal with all the inexplicable whims and policies of corporate life. But that's why I did that strip. For some reason no one seemed to pick up the point I was trying to make with that Dilbert strip - which is my fault - but I kept thinking "This is so despairing!" You know, talk about living a life of quiet despair, that's what I picked up from DILBERT, and everybody including the people who read it are trying to laugh it off and be philosophical about it, but after reading a hundred DILBERT strips I'm like, how come everybody isn't jumping out the window or joining Al Qaeda? And people say "What kind of person would join Al Qaeda?" and I say "Dilbert!"
THE PULSE: The powerless are the best recruits for terrorism.
BAGGE: They're right under your nose! It's Dilbert! But I don't think I made that point too well in that strip.
THE PULSE: Are you still doing HATE?
BAGGE: Yeah. I'm determined to try to do it once a year. And I've got tons of ideas. One thing that's really going to trip me up from doing it this year, aside from SWEATSHOP, which is killing me. I agreed to do another one shot for Marvel like last year I did SPIDER-MAN. I'm going to do a HULK comic.
THE PULSE: When is that coming out?
BAGGE: I was asked to do it and agreed to do it a really long time ago, right after the Spider-man book came out, because that sold well. But then, and I didn't know this until after the fact, Marvel started hemming and hawing. It was a green light and turned it into a yellow light and it was almost a red light, but Axel [Alonso] worked things out. Marvel finally relented and they're going to let me do a Hulk comic, but by that time, it wasn't going to come out in time for the movie, and Axel said don't worry about, it we'll just have it come out in time for the DVD.
THE PULSE: Axel is very smart.
BAGGE: I'm in the DVD wave! What I loved about working with Axel is he would never say "This is no good, you've got to change it!" and when I ask "Change it to what?" most editors say, "I don't know! You're the writer." But whenever he said something wasn't working, he would make a suggestion. And I would use it, because I'm lazy. (chuckles) No. He made good suggestions.
THE PULSE: Yeah, he's definitely one of the best, and his books show it. Doing Spider-Man and now SWEATSHOP you're turning your satirical, parodistic eye or spotlight on comics. I always thought with HATE you were making fun of people's attitudes and hypocrisies. Do you find writing about Hulk and Spiderman as interesting?
BAGGE: I come up with ideas for both strips. My stories for both characters are not at all typical superhero stories. Not how is he going to defeat his nemesis. The Spider-Man comic I had Peter Parker start out as Peter Parker but then a crisis happens. It' s like a what-if story and when this crisis happens he just says "Forget it" and starts looking out for #1. I had him quite deliberately turn into a Stan Lee character times ten, Stan Lee meets Rupert Murdoch. Then another crisis occurs and he has to reevaluate everything so he turns into Steve Ditko. So I had him like turn into his two creators, but of course, I wrote it in a way that the average reader wouldn't have to know anything about Stan Lee or Steve Ditko. The same with the story I have in mind for the Hulk. These ideas just jump out and they seem obvious to me just because of the nature of the characters. And with Bruce Banner it was modern science that he winds up turning into the Hulk, which not only changes his appearances but his whole personality, Everything about him does a 180. So what I wanted to do with that is these days, thanks to modern science, everyone can tweak their personality through Prozac and things like that. So it winds up with all this madness with both Bruce Banner and the Hulk using modern chemistry. They're constantly tweaking and trying to find the perfect balance. They both end up with girlfriends, who are both trying to clean them up. Each one is rather one dimensional so they're trying to figure out exactly what kind of prescription drugs to use.
THE PULSE: They've got to get the meds just right .
BAGGE: Right. And especially Bruce Banner has to keep tweaking between Xanax and Viagra, and of course too much Viagra turns him into the Hulk, so you've got to be careful of that. And the Hulk on Viagra is like a nuclear explosion. (chuckles) Oh, this constant meddling to make them all better. So it's about superheroes but it's about everybody.
THE PULSE: Listening to you talk about the SWEATSHOP characters, one of the things I always like the best about your work is that you really presented people as the lazy, selfish, insane, careless people that they were, but yet they were still likable. You weren't real judgmental. You were never taking sides with your characters.
BAGGE: It's because I don't. When I do the stories I never think, "I like this character and I want everybody to like this character and then he's going to come up against a character that represents everything I don't like." The characters aren't representing ideas or ideals. They're just people. And there's nobody that I find perfect or that I find completely loathsome that I deal with face to face. How I can deal with them has to do as much with how they can deal with me, I guess! (Laughter) Mutual tolerance!
THE PULSE: It's unrelenting and brutal at times, and yet you don't lose sight of the humanity of the characters, which I love. But anyway what else happens in SWEATSHOP?
BAGGE: Well, the long one I'm working on now, they go to a comic convention so comic convention hijinks. All of the characters are single at this point, they're all unattached. So often I've noticed people who are unattached when they go to a comics convention always have part of their brain saying "Will I meet someone?" whether it's for a one night stand or forever. In a way, it's one big romance. It's like the Love Boat at the Comicon.
THE PULSE: and BAGGE: (raucous laughter)
BAGGE: But it ends up being pathetic!
THE PULSE: It isn't what they expected.
BAGGE: No one gets laid! But one character finds love.
THE PULSE: What are some of the other classic comics situations that you take on?
BAGGE: The story that has the kid from FAMILY GUY, in that one the young gag writer quits writing jokes for Mel Bowling for FREDDY FERRET. He finally found a syndicate that will carry his own strip. And he gets into a blow-up, with Mel. "You can't quit, your strip is terrible!" "You're just a fossil, you're washed up and you don't know it." So Mel goes into a panic. He's always going into a panic. He has a very big and very fragile ego. He becomes convinced that his worst fear in coming true, that he's going to be the next Ernie Bushmiller.
So he decides he needs to redesign his strip. He wants to make it hip and edgy but he has no idea what that entails. He forces his young female employee to take him out on the town. They go to see an Emo showcase and a poetry slam and all that hipster stuff, and of course he doesn't get any of it and she winds up showing him her alternative comic collection. But meanwhile, what he winds up doing, partly on their advice and partly on the advice of his superhero fan employee, he makes two attempts, using the same really bad gag, he has one FREDDY FERRET strip drawn completely in Frank Miller's drawing style. Stephanie Gladden did this, and she did such a great job, it's unbelievable. Then Mel did the same gag in Chris Ware's drawing style. And then he takes both of them and has them focus grouped with a bunch of college students. He wants to see which one the college students would like and he ends up in the glass booth having a complete cow.
THE PULSE: Do you think the book will appeal equally to mainstream and independent fans?
BAGGE: I hope. I saw these some guys who are like Frik and Frak who got advance copies and reviewed it. And some people said "I always liked Pete Bagge. This looks great, I can't wait." And the other guy is exactly the opposite he's a superhero fan, so he's allergic to alternative comics. He thinks they're some of the worst artists in the world and they're not going to touch it. So there you go nothing ever changes. So we'll see.
While I wasn't convinced it was going to take the world by storm, I was really disappointed by not only how poorly it sold, but how poorly received YEAH was. So based on that bitter experience, I'm not assuming anything. I have absolutely no idea what anybody is going to make of it.
THE PULSE: Have you seen the sales figures?
BAGGE: No, I'm not going to ask. That's another thing I've always done quite obnoxiously with Fantagraphics and with YEAH, I was constantly haranguing everybody about the sales figures. But now this time I have to remember as long as they're printing it, I get paid the same amount.
THE PULSE: Does anything really piss you off these days?
BAGGE: Yeah, the war in Iraq! I don't understand why so many Americans think it's a good idea. I think it's a disaster. Once a month I write a comic for Reason magazine. And the war is all I can think about, because I'm supposed to be political and topical about that. It's hard to write about the war because then I'm not going to be funny. I'll just start screaming. I just keep writing other things, inconsequential things about popular culture, but I feel like an ostrich. I just put a new one up on the website. And now they're talking about taking on Syria, and I just did a dumb comic making fun of LORD OF THE RINGS. I worry that people are going to read this and say "Doesn't this guy have a clue as to what's going on in the world?" But everybody's just screaming at each other these days. And I don't want to do a comic where the only people who like it are the people who agree with me. I don't want to pander. But it's so hard to think rationally through all this stuff and still be funny.
THE PULSE: It's a difficult time for America. I personally only know one person who is for the war. Where are all these people? I know they exist because they watch Fox.
BAGGE: Do you know Irwin Chusid?
THE PULSE: Yeah, he's a real conservative,
BAGGE: I was on his mailing list and he kept sending me shaggy dog feel good stories about the war and I would just write back screaming at him and making fun of him, and he was so passive aggressive. He kept trying to cop an attitude like "Hey Pete you're losing your cool, I'm all cool and collected I wonder who's right and who's wrong here." I said if you can't even speak for yourself and keep forwarding me crap and having other people speak for you that isn't even true, I'm going to make fun of you!
THE PULSE: What'd your next goal in comics?
BAGGE: Boy I don't have any. That's one sad thing about me. I'm not a man on a mission like I was in the '80s and '90s. I always felt like there were stories that had to come out, I had no choice, it had to come out of me. It was the truest, purest artistic impulse. If I don't tell this story, I'm going to go crazy. And I still feel I have no trouble at all coming up with stories and I'm still happy with what I do but there are no stories that have to come out. There's nothing in me that has to come out. There's no story that I have to tell these days. It makes life much simpler for me. It's easier for me to work as a hired hand, but it also makes me feel like less of an artist. The impulse isn't as pure as it used to be. I'm more content than I used to be. I used to be a seething, vat of anger.
I'm enjoying doing SWEATSHOP except I wish it wasn't monthly, but I had no choice. But I hope it does well, because I have a million stories ides for them.
THE PULSE: Is there hope for comics?
BAGGE: I'm probably going to jinx myself and the whole comics industry, by saying this, but for as long as I've been in comics it seems like there's always a cycle of every three years people are predicting its death and there have been a couple of times since the bubble burst in '93 or '94 and we only had one distributor that I've been convinced. Ever since then I always thought it's a matter of time! I've gotta think about what else I'm going to do! It seemed more doomed then than it does now. But a couple of months ago, I saw Dirk Deppey the managing editor of the Journal, talking about the impetus of Fantagraphics to do books. He thinks the direct market is doomed, and it's just going to go away. That's the first I ever heard anyone say that.
THE PULSE: Will you ever run out of things to satirize in comics in SWEATSHOP?
BAGGE: No! I suppose I will one day maybe if I did it for 10 years, but right now I have tons of ideas. The story ideas are never entirely about comics, it's always about one of the characters and whatever they're going through might be reflected by the comics they like or the industry. There have been a couple of stories that have nothing to do with comics, and I could always do that just turn it into a soap opera.
SWEATSHOP #1 is on sale now...what are you waiting for? More Bagge merriment is available at his website.