Comic Buyers Guide interviewEntertainment Weekly once described Peter Bagge's Hate (published by Fantagraphics Books) as a mixture of "the Ramones, Stranger Than Paradise, and the Three Stooges." Editor Kim Thompson says Hate is simply "Archie Comics played faster and louder." The Seattle Weekly has reported that "20 years from now, when people wonder what it was like to be young in 1990s Seattle, the only true record we'll have is Peter Bagge's Hate."
by Eric Reynolds for Fantagraphics Books
What is it about this comic that causes people to scream, "I Like Hate and I Hate everything else!"? The easiest answer is that Hate transcends every bit of conventional wisdom regarding the schism between alternative and mainstream comics. With 20 issues to date, Hate has become not only one of the most successful alternative comics in history, but is also becoming one of the most successful comics period. Unlike most mainstream comics, Hate sells as well in bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Tower Books as it does in your local comic shop. It has a universal appeal: almost anybody who has experienced the pains of long work hours, low wages, roomate hell, and love troubles can relate to Hate. Despite its misleading title, Hate is as funny and refreshing as life itself can be on a great day.
The comic follows the exploits of one Buddy Bradley, who for 15 issues lived the quintessential slacker life in Seattle, Washington, where Bagge and his wife have lived for the last 10 years. Most recently, when the comic adopted its strict bi-monthly schedule and switched to full-color (with #16), Buddy and his girlfriend, Lisa, moved to New Jersey to live with his parents. The Bradley family, whom originally appeared in Bagge's first series, Neat Stuff (also from Fantagraphics), has been cited by Matt Groening as an influence on The Simpsons (Groening recently told Flux magazine that Bagge was his favorite cartoonist).
Bagge is a keen observer and alert listener who has that rare ability to draw humor from virtually any situation. His expressive cartooning abilities, coupled with a dedicated work ethic, have made Hate one of comics' big success stories of the '90s.
I know you've taken an active interest in what's going on at the distribution level of the industry and I was wondering why you felt such a strong need to do so.
It's my livelihood. And it's not just my livelihood -- I'm supporting a family on my comic book, so I'd Hate to see the rug pulled out from under me. I hear a lot of mixed things: some people tell me not to worry about it, or that even if things get ugly, there's still the law of supply and demand, and there will always be people who want to read Hate. But still, if there's anything within my power to make the situation as good as possible and to move as many units as possible, or at least to perform some kind of damage control, then I'm going to do it.
What sort of activistic approaches have been taken to ensure that Hate can not only weather this storm, but come out of it stronger than ever?
One thing is that I'm glad that you and Chris Jacobs are handling marketing and promotions now at Fantagraphics because I know you would like to establish the best working relationship possible with the direct sales market and the comics market in general, right up to having an interview with me in the Comics Buyer's Guide, which sounds great to me! People in your position in the past have said that they were going to try to do the same things, but always very much keeping in mind that a) alternative comics don't fare as well or don't have as receptive an audience in the direct sales market as mainstream comics do, and b) our publisher is Gary Groth, and to a lesser extent Kim Thompson, who always are very openly and publicly at odds with a lot of the main players in the comic book industry. Sometimes people will even openly state that they are less receptive to a comic like mine than they would be because of who my publishers are.
Then why do you continue to publish with Fantagraphics?
Well, I've certainly thought about what other publisher I could go with. But then I think of the other publishers out there, and whether they're mainstream or alternative, when I go down the list of pros and cons, Fantagraphics always wins out -- not even by a thread, but they win out by leaps and bounds. Even though my comic sells well -- it sells better than several Marvel and DC titles -- when I have talked to other publishers like Marvel and DC (which I have done) about the possibility of publishing something by me, not necessarily Hate, we just don't talk the same language. We just seem to operate on completely different levels. It always makes grateful for Fantagraphics. I very much feel like Fantagraphics is my "home." I always feel the odd man out or like I'm crashing a party when I'm dealing with other publishers. There's other alternative and underground publishers, also, but I feel like I would only be marginalized even further if I were published by one of them, for various reasons. Fantagraphics, because it's gotten so big and publishes so many titles, I at least feel like I'm surrounded with most of the comics that I like and personally respond and relate to. I feel like I'm part of this juggernaut, even though commercially it isn't taking the world by storm, I think that artistically and aesthetically I'm definitely in the right place.
Well, let's talk about your decision to go to full-color last year and stick to a strict bi-monthly schedule, as well as your recent decision to take advertising in the book.
Well, a big part of why I'm doing that is just to try something different for alternative comics. Just to see what happens. I always wanted to do a full-color comic. My favorite comics have always been underground comics, but the fact that they were mostly black-and-white was never a plus or a minus to me. I understood immediately when I first saw Robert Crumb's comics why they were black-and-white -- the economics of it and plus his linework is so beautiful that it doesn't need the color. But I wanted to see what I could do with color, to see if I could make it work, to see if a comic could still be a good, satisfying alternative comic in a way that anybody who's a fan of alternative comics finds them satisfying, and to make the color, if anything, a plus. I just think it looks nicer; it's prettier. It makes it a more attractive, more desirable package. I think it gives the buyer more for their money. It's not like I'm doing something completely out of the blue, because two of my favorite cartoonists, Dan Clowes and Jim Woodring, over the last three or four years have been doing a lot of work in color. In Woodring's case, he's done a few things that were completely in full color. Their comics are anywhere from ten to 50 percent in color. I find it very satisfying; I like the mix. They're not just doing one storyline like I am, though. My worldview has completely gelled into this Buddy Bradley storyline, whereas they still do a lot of experimenting. I found when they would use color it was very satisfying to me. But these days most of my comics are almost always one long storyline; if I'm going to experiment in color, it has to wind up being the whole book. Actually, officially, Hate is like Eightball and JIM -- it is supposed to be just the main story in color, and all back-ups in black-and-white. It's just that so far, except for the newest issue, #20, the main storyline has taken up basically the entire comic. I've done a few one-pagers in the "full-color" Hate, and they've been in black-and-white.
And now you're taking advertising, which is allowing you to do four extra pages of comics per issue for the same price. Plus they get to look at some neat ads!
As far as advertising goes, what really prompted that was the cost of paper. When I first switched to full color, we raised the cover price an extra 45 cents, which I didn't want to do, but Kim Thompson convinced me that we needed to do that to help cover the added production costs involved in using color. Kim actually wanted to raise the price more, but decided not to, gambling that sales would jump enough in color to make the 45 cents increase enough. Although sales have continued to go up slightly, we made the switch just as the market was bottoming out, and the distribution nightmares began, so sales didn't skyrocket as much as we hoped. So recently Kim was talking about raising the cover price again, and I just didn't want to do it. People don't think of my work as Art with a capital "A," the way they would with an Art Spiegelman, Jim Woodring or Dan Clowes. They are thought of as fine artists, and my comic is much more like toilet reading [laughs]. Which is how I want it [more laughs]. I just want people to buy it and enjoy it. I know it's good work, and I've had my fill of things like winning the Harvey Awards -- I've gotten over that hump of feeling like my work is admired by my peers, and now I just want to be accessible and get my work seen by as many people as possible.
Who do you think your fans are?
Well, I've never done a demographic survey, but they're really not different from any other alternative comic reader: aged 18-30, with probably more in the 18-25 range. It's probably people going to college or living in a downtown area, because comics shops in those towns, as well as independent book and record stores, are the places that are selling the most copies of Hate. They have this ready made readership. The problem is once people get in their late 20s and early 30s, they start to get married, get more involved with their career, they move to the suburbs, and they just simply aren't strolling into comic shops any more. So by that point they're not buying any comics any more, they're not buying Marvel or anything. I'm getting away from your question, but this is a reason I would really like to get Hate into more record stores, newsstands and bookstore chains, which we're starting to have some success with.
You've added a UPC code to the comic, which has enabled Fantagraphics to get Hate into places like Barnes & Noble and Tower Records as of #20. That's a big, untapped market.
Yeah . . . I meet other parents through my kid's school and they might say, "You know, I used to read comics. I used to read your comics, but now that I'm a parent I can't afford the time or the money to waste in comics shops." So I'll give them the latest Hate and they still love them, especially with the current storyline.
Kim Thompson was telling me recently that he though #20 was the first issue where you were actively drawing upon your experiences as a father as much as you were reaching back to your experiences as a twentysomething.
It's true. Ever since I had a kid, I was getting letters asking me if I was going to turn Hate into The Family Circus [laughs]. I knew that it was inevitable that I'd get story ideas from being a parent, but I've resisted using them until I could make it work within the natural context of the Buddy Bradley stories. Buddy is still way too young and way too messed up to be a parent. If he suddenly became a parent, I think it would just be depressing, not funny. The situation would be so ugly that I couldn't draw any real humor from it. It would be more of a tragedy. But with Buddy as an uncle, there's that distance there where he can continue to be Buddy and I can still throw kids in there. Much of #20 is based upon not only my experiences as a father, but also as an uncle, hanging out with my nieces and nephews.
You talked about how you think that your audience is not that far removed from that of any alternative comic, but at the same time you've obviously crossed more into mass culture than just about any alternative cartoonist outside of R. Crumb, and you don't even have a movie made about you yet!
Well, again I guess it's just my desire to make my work accessible. I mean, when you say that I have more of a mainstream appeal, you have to remember there's two different definitions of mainstream: one is in the context of comics, there's mainstream comics, which actually isn't a part of mainstream, mass American culture.
I meant mass culture; You're a genuine celebrity in towns like Seattle and New York, and rock stars like White Zombie and Mudhoney are big fans, and even cartoonists who are more successful than you, like Matt Groening [The Simpsons], Mike Judge [Beavis and Butt-Head], and John Krikfalusi [Ren & Stimpy] cite you as one of their favorite cartoonists, and I was wondering what you would attribute that crossover success to?
I write about real life, even though I use fictional characters. I try very hard to make it so that people who have never read a comic will immediately understand what I'm talking about. And I'm not going against my own grain when I do this -- I can see for myself that the more my humor is reality based, it works better for me and the readers. It's about very real things, much moreso on average than most alternative cartoonists or superhero comics. Some of the more quirky alternative cartoonists tend to have a more insular world view than I do, or they try to create their own world, like Jim Woodring -- I think he's fantastic, and when I think about how talented he is, I'm amazed that he doesn't sell more. But he doesn't try at all to base his stories on day-to-day reality; they're so dreamlike that people relate to it on a very subconscious, hallucinatory level. It's very powerful work, but some people just can't connect to it, or simply don't want to.
I didn't finish answering your question about advertising. To go back to that, it had reached a point where my publishers said, "increase the cover price or get rid of the color." As a way of avoiding both, I decided to accept advertising. I didn't just jump into it; I was very nervous about it, because alternative comics have never, as far as I can remember, accepted paid advertising. I figured as long we don't shove ads in the middle of stories, and if it's going to keep the cover price low and add extra story pages, then who can complain?
The only way to increase your circulation is to get people to pick up a copy of it who never did before. The higher the cover price the less likely that somebody's going to take a chance on it. The only way I could avoid this was to take advertising. We tested the waters first with a Crumb movie ad on the back cover of #19, and admittedly that wasn't much of a stretch, because I would have plugged it to the rafters for free in my editorial page. In fact, that was Gary Groth's idea; he said, "I know you're going to plug the movie anyway, and Sony is distributing it, so why not see if they want to buy the back cover? How would you like to get paid to plug the film?" I said, "Sure!" [laughs] So we ran it and out of 30,000 copies I think we've got one complaint, and it was from a guy whose only problem with it was that it was on the back cover. He said he always enjoyed the one page strips I did on the back cover, and described them like they were a delicious after dinner mint that he looked forward to after his main course [laughs]. It's amazing how people will like something but never let you know until it's too late. I'd never had anybody tell me in the past how much they loved my back covers and how they went down like an after-dinner mint!
You've mentioned Jim Woodring a few times. What other comics are you particularly enjoying these days?
Well, whenever you ask an alternative cartoonist that it's almost redundant, since the response is always the same. I like 90 percent of what Fantagraphics publishes and 90 percent of what Drawn & Quarterly publishes, and that pretty much covers all of my favorites. Dan Clowes is probably at the moment my favorite cartoonist. Crumb is there, too, but it's almost like he is in this separate category, because he's a part of another generation, and his output is more spotty than most. Dan's right there in the thick of things; he's a cartooning genius. Crumb is my all-time favorite cartoonist, and when he does come out with new work, he's still able to get in people's faces and really challenge people. He's always pushing the limits artistically, and in terms of content, in a way that nobody else can do as consistently as he. So I love him and Dan, and of course I love the Hernandez Brothers. Other favorites would include Jim Woodring, Joe Sacco . . . I like Terry LaBan. I think he's a master satirist. His short pieces . . . I think specifically Terry LaBan and JR Williams can do short comic strips better than anybody. I would love to have them do back-up features in Hate, because they're consistently hilarious.
Let's talk about the Hate feature film.
Well, about two or three years ago, it was optioned by a production studio in San Francisco called Colossal Pictures, which does a lot of the animation for MTV. They wanted to make a full-length animated version of Hate that would probably be R-rated. Which to me would be perfect. Unfortunately, they couldn't get financing, for real obvious reasons which make good business sense: animation is inherently more expensive than live action film. You can't make a cheap, full-length animated feature like you can a live action film (provided you don't hire Arnold Shwarzenegger). Also, with most animated features, producers are willing to spend the money up front because there's a built-in market with children, who will either go to the theaters or rent the thing forever, no matter how bad it is, just because it's animated. But because of the subject matter in Hate, it wouldn't really appeal to little kids. Although teenagers would eat it up, you're still cutting out about 90 percent of the built-in market most animators depend on when they start a film. The only thing most people can relate to ideas of a Hate animated film are Ralph Bakshi films. His last several movies were bombs, and they deserved to be bombs, because they were just bad movies. But movie financiers just look at the bottom-line, and think Hate is too much of a risk as an animated feature in light of those films. It's really a shame that Bakshi and mature, full-length animation have become synonymous, but that's just the way it is.
But things are looking up. Colossal let the option lapse, but there is a producer there named Jaffit Asher who is still particularly interested, so he and a few other people, including myself, have optioned it ourselves. We're working on a live-action version now. It's a slow process. We have a script, which we've got it in several directors hands. None of us are in Los Angeles, so it makes things difficult. The main reason I want to do it, though, is because nothing generates more interest and publicity than a movie. I want a movie to complement the comic. Movies are the artform of today's world, for better or worse. I can't think of a single human being who doesn't watch movies, although I know many people who don't watch TV, or read comics, or go to plays. With cable TV and VCRs, you can't escape films. With laserdiscs and videotape, you can own a movie and go through it and learn it backwards and forwards.
I know you're flying to Hollywood this weekend to do some work on another of your optioned properties.
Well, besides the Hate property, an old character of mine, Girly Girl, has been optioned by Broadway Video for a Saturday morning cartoon. Broadway is owned by Lorne Michaels, and they're currently developing it and trying to sell it to a network. It's intensely competitive, but right now, the people who are working on it are very optimistic and enthusiastic.
The woman who's preparing the pilot for the show is a cartoonist named Mimi Pond. She's writing the pilot, and they're confident enough in her that Broadway has already renewed the option. She's written for the Simpsons, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and sitcoms like Designing Women, I think. She's married to a guy named Wayne White, who was a cartoonist from the RAW school, and he did a lot of the sets with Gary Panter for Pee-Wee's Playhouse. They're both really talented. I've been talking to Mimi a lot on the phone, and I'm really glad they brought her on board, because she's someone that I don't have to explain anything to. It's very important that there's somebody who understands the characters and will fight for their integrity, to keep it pure. I'm not there in Hollywood every day to fight for it, and these people second guess themselves constantly, and they'll just water it down completely by the time they're done. She's doing her best to keep that from happening, to keep it from being just another terrible TV show that I would be embarrassed to be associated with.
And this is for a half-hour Saturday morning show?
Yeah, and that's the tough thing --trying to make something that kids laugh at as well as those of us who are working on it. For example, one of the plot synopsis has Girly Girl being forced to take tap dancing lessons, and the teacher's hero is Anne Miller, which I though was hilarious, because Anne Miller is this goofy-faced, dancer from the heyday of Broadway and movie musicals. It took us a minute to realize that there isn't a kid on Earth who's going to laugh at that joke! [laughs]
Hate has been popping up all over the place. The film Kids recently featured Hate in a big way, and New York magazine recently wrote an article about directors using "hip" pop-culture references -- specifically citing Hate -- to establish instant credibility with moviegoing audiences. What do you think of that?
I'm not sure how the Kids thing came about. You'd have to ask the director. For all I know, the screenwriter or director had never heard of the comic but somebody told them it would be a good thing to put in there, to add to the cheesy shock value of the film. It did work, I guess, because The New York Times ran a review where the square reviewer was predictably horrified by it. He said that, "the kids were so bad they actually read a comic called Hate!"
How did you pick the title Hate? Do you think it mitigates the accessibility you've strived for?
It's hard for me to gauge whether it drives away more people than it attracts. I would think that it would at least make somebody curious to the point that he or she would ask what it's about, just to have his or her worst fears allayed.
I wanted something that was very direct and undiluted. My original idea was Love & Hate. I felt that, from my experience at the time of doing comics for five or six years -- I had been doing Neat Stuff during this time for Fantagraphics -- I became very aware of the fact that it's better if people Hate your work, or have some powerful emotional reaction rather than being indifferent. I was very aware of the fact that love and Hate always come in equal doses. People who are really passionate about something -- whether it's a person, or a piece of music, or their country -- if anybody is passionate about something, right off the bat you know what it is that they loathe, that they Hate.
I couldn't call the book Love & Hate, though, because Fantagraphics already was publishing Love & Rockets, and that would have caused way too much confusion and too many tired comparisons. Kim said the computer cataloguing and order systems would probably start steaming and smoking trying to process that one. So Kim suggested just calling it Hate, and I liked that because it would be such a short, easy logo for me to work into the cover. Even though Neat Stuff was relatively short, just because it was two words I always found the logo very cumbersome. Gary, though, because he's kind of politically correct, he said, "No way, you guys are nuts." So I thought some more and just couldn't for the life of me come up with anything better. I toyed with the idea of Hey, Buddy for awhile, and I like that, but it's so generic and middle of the road that it's entirely passionless.
You've toured around the world promoting Hate. How do other countries respond to the book?
Well, I've gone through Europe, the U.K., Sweden, Germany. They all seem to like it for the same reasons that Americans do, really. England, especially, because there's no need for a translation. They don't need to translate it in Sweden, but they do, and even then there's still not much of a cultural difference. Even in the areas where they might not get the American cultural references, they're still simply fascinated by all things in American pop culture, of which Hate is part and parcel.
So what can readers expect in the future?
Advertisements [laughs]. I have a lot of story ideas, as you can I have a list right there [points to bulletin board above drawing table], and I cross them out as I do them. I have the thing plotted basically through issue #30. I don't know what it is, but I seem to work in 15 issue cycles. I did 15 issues of Neat Stuff, I did 15 issues of the black-and-white Hate. When I start them I never intend to do 15 issues, but there's something cyclical about it; I don't know what it is. Even though in Hate each issue stands alone and never ends with a cliffhanger, each issue is still a part of a longer storyline. 15 issues is a good length to wrap up a long story arc. I was about halfway done with the first 15 issues of Hate when I realized how it was going to end [with Buddy leaving Seattle to move back to New Jersey]. I was a little embarrassed by this at the time, and tried to figure out how I could extend it. But I just saw how it was going to end; it was obvious. Now, I can see all of this happening again. I can see things escalating, resolving, and closing at #30. I have no idea what I'm going to do after that. Am I going to keep doing Buddy until he's 40 years old? #31 is a big mystery.
I was talking recently about this with Matt Groening. Matt pointed out that even though my comics are very understandable and accessible, they're part of a long string, and so if someone grabs #20 for the first time, they'll understand it and enjoy it just fine, but you'll appreciate it even more if you've read the previous issues. This doesn't happen with the Simpsons. One episode doesn't progress from the other; Maggie will be a baby forever, whereas my characters are aging like they do in Gasoline Alley. The most popular comics and TV shows are like this. People like that predictability: "Oh, there's Dagwood making a great big sandwich again! There's Sarge beatin' on Beetle Bailey again!" I can't do that with Hate, though; even if it made it more popular, it would inevitably grow too predictable.It's a creatively static way to go.
That's why I grew tired of my older characters. The Bradleys were the only ones on a timeline. Everyone else was static. Studs Kirby, Girly Girl . . . they were frozen in time. You wind up relying on clichés. You know you're in trouble when you start sending your characters on Hawaiian vacations [laughs]. Think about every TV show that eventually sent the characters on a family vacation.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Well, I would encourage people to check out alternative comics. I think people who've never read them will find books like mine more understandable and less alienating than they think. Please give me a chance!
It's strange how fans of mainstream comics seem to have this perception of alternative comics as this weird, fringy subculture, while fans of alternative comics view mainstream comics the same way. But your comic transcends that perception: a Hate fan is just as likely to read Cerebus as he is to read no other comics at all.
I'm the least objective person to make this observation, but I would think Hate would be the best lure to try and attract a wider, cross-section of the population as comics fans. I'd like to think that somebody could start reading Hate and then get turned on just about any type of comic, from Neil Gaiman to Dame Darcy. All you gotta do is tell people it's just like The Simpsons! [laughs]