Interview conducted 03.10.00 by Alan David Doane
Peter Bagge is one of the most prominent alternative comics talents ever. His Neat Stuff, Hate and The Bradleys comics from Fantagraphics combine manic energy with an unusually firm commitment to storytelling. I interviewed Peter Bagge for my radio show Friday, March 10th, 2000. My thanks to Peter and to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for helping set up the interview.
Alan David Doane: Tell us a little bit about your background, how you got into cartooning?
Peter Bagge: Well, that would go back more than 20 years, I drew comics of course when I was a kid. Then I enrolled in art school, and tried a little bit of everything. Didn't enjoy doing anything except for cartoons, so I dropped out of art school and concentrated on doing comics full time. After a few years I started doing well enough that I was able to quit my day job.
ADD: Where did you go to art school?
PB: The School of Visual Arts in New York City. I'm New York born and raised.
ADD: And that was a discouraging experience in terms of cartooning?
PB: It was mixed. It got me into the city, it got me out of my nowhere hometown, and I met my wife there, made a few friends. Overall it was a waste of money that I couldn't afford to spend, and just being in New York City and by making some new connections at the school, I befriended some cartoonists outside of school. I would just simply go to their house and pick their brains for free. For example Art Spiegleman. I could have stayed in school and had Art Spiegleman as a teacher and sit there amongst 30 other students and pay through the nose for the experience, or I could knock on his door and bug him face to face myself for free. (Laughs). So I opted for the latter.
ADD: That must have given you some extraordinary insight into the workings of the business.
PB: He was a terrific answer-man, knew everything about comics. I also befriended these guys that did a magazine called "Punks." It was the first fan magazine of the whole Punk movement, which was actually run by a bunch of cartoonists. I made a lot of contacts through them.
ADD: You mention that you ended up quitting your day job to go to comics, just out of curiosity what was the day job?
PB: Oh, I had like 16 of them (laughs), y'know, just one idiotic retail job after another. The last one was a bookstore, just worked at a bookstore for a couple years.
ADD: In my experience there's nothing that's going to send you into a solitary career like cartooning more than working in retail.
PB: (Laughs). Right, right, dealing with the public.
ADD: Was Hate the first comic book of your own that you did?
PB: No, around 1985 I started doing a comic book called Neat Stuff, which was my first solo comic. Also at that time I was the managing editor of a comic book anthology called Weirdo, which was Robert Crumb's magazine, so I got to work with Robert Crumb, too, which was terrific. Back in the mid-80s I started my own solo comic book, then around 1990 I switched to Hate, which was my own decision, because the other comic book, Neat Stuff, was doing pretty well. But I just had this idea for Hate, so I made the switch, and the rest is history.
ADD: How would you characterize what Hate allowed you to do that Neat Stuff wouldn't?
PB: What Hate was all about basically, I zeroed in on one character. Neat Stuff was like a one-man anthology. I worked with all different kinds of characters, and one group of characters was the Bradley family, which was a semi-autobiographical-satirical-suburban-dysfunctional family. And they had a teenage son named Buddy Bradley, who was becoming more and more the focus of the whole series, mainly because he was the most autobiographical. So what I did with Hate was I just aged him a few years, moved him out of the house, so there was a young single guy, a 20-something "slacker," even though back in 1990 that term didn't exist yet (chuckles), and just made every story basically follow his foibles. And "Neat Stuff" sounded too positive. I wanted a more angst-ridden name like "Hate." It's nice and short, made for a nice short, snappy little logo; it's easy to remember. So it's for reasons like that that I made the switch.
ADD: Hate was pretty successful in terms of being a non-mainstream comic book, what was your experience when it first came out, was it immediately apparent it was going to be a hit?
PB: Well again, the title I was doing before was doing a little bit better all the time, but yeah, things took quite a big jump as soon as I started doing Hate. And I wish I knew why. I don't know why it suddenly just caught on so quickly. I guess people like a comic book that zeroes more in on one character and it's easier to describe, and easier to remember a name like Hate, just all of those reasons. For some reason it just clicked, and it just kept selling better and better, until it reached the point where it was the best selling alternative comic book. Although you have to make it clear to the audience that's not saying much (laughs), it still sold like one-tenth of what Superman was selling at the time.
ADD: Which of course is selling about one-one-hundredth of what it was selling fifty years ago.
PB: Right (laughs).
ADD: Did the success of Hate take your career or your life into any unexpected places?
PB: Yes. Back in the '80s it was still a real struggle for me, my wife was still working and still making a lot more money than me, I just always thought it was always gonna be a real struggle. At that point, back then, my only hope and dream was to be able to make at least a comfortable living doing comics. And Hate certainly made that possible, Hate wound up selling more than I ever thought a black-and-white underground comic book by me would ever sell. And yeah, it did open up at least a lot of other possibilities. For example, I started talking to a lot of Hollywood people about doing a movie or a TV show, things like that, which still comes up all the time. It's a bit of a double-edged sword (laughs) since obviously in all these years there still hasn't been a Hate movie or a Hate TV show, but I'm still in contact with these people and still have deals coming and then dying all the time.
ADD: And yet in light of the success of TV shows like the Simpsons and King of the Hill, it's difficult to imagine that, done right, a Hate or Buddy Bradley cartoon wouldn't be enormously successful.
PB: Right. No, I think it would do great. And actually I've gotten pretty close twice. Once with MTV, and then last year I went through the whole development process with HBO. But it's a crap shoot in a lot of ways, there's just so many shows, including cartoon shows, that are in development. There's a 98 percent failure rate once you start working on developing a TV show, because all of these networks and cable stations have so much in development that it's just a matter of luck whether your show's gonna be able to squeeze its way all the way through the funnel or not. Plus another thing too is I don't live in Los Angeles, I can't schmooze 24 hours a day, (laughs) like I probably should be doing if I was that determined to get a TV show.
ADD: You mention The Bradleys being autobiographical; there are some extraordinary things that happen in the series, I'm thinking especially for example, of the guy who ended up killing himself accidentally.
ADD: How much of that came from real life? Or did you find that the story really was branching off into non-biographical areas?
PB: Almost everything that happens in Hate is based on true stories. Either something that happened to me, or something that happened to somebody I know, with some fiction thrown in to glue it all together. The last several issues of Hate, which a lot of readers thought was getting pretty grim, and which it was...was pretty much inspired by me having to go back to my hometown to attend a couple of funerals. I hadn't been there in a while. My father died, and then my older brother passed away recently. So, twice I had to go back, and saw a lot of my old buddies, and they pretty much were the inspiration for Buddy Bradley's friends. They never left their hometown, and they just have all these ridiculous little semi-legal or blatantly illegal scams going...it was just ridiculous (laughs). I just couldn't believe that they got themselves stuck in this weird little trap, and then from my vantage point can't see the forest for the trees.
ADD: That's the thing, there are these people leading these, to quote somebody, "lives of quiet desperation--"
PB: Yes (laughs).
ADD: --But for some reason completely unaware of a simple enough option like, oh, I dunno--move.
PB: Right. Yeah. And to me, they all resent me because of the fact that I got out of town, and I'm doing something creative, and relatively exciting. To them, that's all "luck," like I'm "lucky." Of course, luck had nothing to do with it. I just moved (laughs). I was willing to starve, you know?
ADD: Have they read the comic?
PB: A few of them have seen it. I don't think any of them make a point of going out to the comics shops and getting it. That's the problem, as you probably know, with comics it takes a certain amount of dedication. You really have to be passionate about the format.
ADD: That mindset fascinates me. You're got a comic book about these people, inspired by, or whatever. It sounds it sticks pretty close to the details in some regards. I wrote a story a few years ago about a two year relationship I had, and a lot of people have read it and said that they thought it was really good and they liked it, and the ex-girlfriend, I gave it to her, and she never read it!
ADD: I can't imagine--I said to her, months later, "What did you think?" "Oh, yeah, I never got around to reading it." I don't understand that.
PB: Yeah, that's--like, where I live now, I have a nine year old daughter and occasionally I'll write a story or for some special assignment I'll do a true life story that would actually star some of her friends and her friends parents. I did a story once about how one time her and her friends and a bunch of the parents, we all took them to see a Spice Girls concert, and I did a comic strip about it. There's my daughter and her friends and all her friends parents, and I told them "I did this strip and you're all in it." And they go "Oh, that's nice."
PB: And I showed it to them, and all they want me to do is with my finger point out exactly where they are. (Laughs) they don't even want to sit and read the whole thing, "Just show me where I am."
ADD: That's something I guess. Are we going to be seeing any more of the Bradleys in the future or are you pretty well done with that?
PB: I can't really see, at least any time soon, doing Buddy Bradley or the Bradleys in comic book form again. As you know the comic book business is in horrible shape. I've actually even made some other proposals to Fantagraphics and to DC, the two companies I was last working with, where they even turned me down (laughs). Life all of a sudden I'm a risk. While at the same time I still have all these possible development deals with production companies to make not only--there's a Hate movie possibility, and a Yeah! TV show deal that I have. Plus I've been talking with an awful lot of people about doing a web TV show. And even if these things don't pan out I'm making good money just with the development fees. It's almost like I'm in the business now of not making TV shows (laughs). Which pays great, so I'm having a hard time turning my back on the money that I'm making, plus freelance illustration stuff. So right now I have to say I'm concentrating more on getting a web TV show going than doing a new comic book. So if you see the Bradleys again hopefully it'll be on television.
ADD: Hopefully they'll be moving in some way.
PB: Right. And a few things that are for real, Adobe's web site, starting in April I'm gonna have a little animated cartoon show on that, it's gonna be bi-weekly, it's gonna be these old characters of mine who are also very autobiographical. So lots of things along that line.
ADD: What kind of animation, Flash?
PB: Flash, if you know what that is.
ADD: Yes I do, and I think that would work enormously well.
PB: Yeah, I have mixed feelings about it, it depends on who you're working with. Some people can do incredible stuff with Flash, but more often than not, some directors, all they can do is that herky-jerky South Park stuff (laughs).
ADD: There's one that I've seen, Monkey for President, that's just amazing. It's an ongoing series about a monkey running for President. And the first episode was the press conference where he was announcing that he was running for President, they announce "Now, Monkey," and the monkey gets up behind the podium and just starts throwing feces at the reporters.
ADD: That was Episode One. Just fantastic. You mention Fantagraphics, and I wanted to ask you, some of the enormous talent that's been published by that company, Crumb, and the Hernandez brothers, Dan Clowes--
PB: --Chris Ware...
ADD: How does it feel to be among, I don't mean this in a negative way, but it really is kind of an elite.
PB: You just named all of my all-time favorite cartoonists, so of course I'm very proud to be a part of that, and still am part of that company at some level, and I just thought they were just doing terrific stuff. Them along with another company called Drawn and Quarterly, whose lineup I like a lot. It's no coincidence that they were publishing such good stuff because back in the early 80s not only the mainstream publishing companies but even some of the smaller start-up companies back then seemed to operate more from sort of a mainstream mode, where they still wanted you to do some kind of a genre, they still tried to, even if they let you retain the rights to your creations, they still had certain expectations. Whereas Fantagraphics, while they have suggestions and opinions, they pretty much, once they agree to let you do your own comic book, they let you do whatever you want. You can pick the format, the title, it can be about whatever you want it to be, they give you total creative freedom, absolute total creative freedom. And they've landed flat on their faces more often than not, but some people just couldn't deliver with that much freedom.
ADD: I would have to say I'd rather read a failure created under those circumstances than a success created generally under 90 percent of the work-for hire.
PB: Right (laughs).
ADD: Really, seriously, I think the failures are going to be more interesting than the huge commercial successes.
PB: Right, no, of course, I agree with you. So some people under those circumstances, myself included, and of course the Hernandez brothers, and Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, they just absolutely flourished.
ADD: Dan Clowes being an example, too--I don't think anybody that picked up the first four or five issues of Eightball would have been able to predict the direction that he's taken it in today, and yet--I certainly don't object to it. It's much different than it was in its early incarnation, but it's still riveting.
PB: Right. And now he's actually right at this moment as we speak making a Ghost World movie. So that's a first. Like, of all the titles they've had that have been optioned, which have been many, this is the first time I can think of where one of them is actually going to be made into something.
ADD: Yes, in fact, that movie is the reason why my interview with him has been put off (laughs).
PB: Just as well, I guess he'll have a lot more to tell you once he's done.
ADD: This is true. While we're talking about Dan, can we talk a little bit about the Hateball tour that you guys did? What was the experience of that like?
PB: It was fun. It was incredibly brief, mainly because of me, because I had a three-year-old daughter at home, I just didn't want to spend that much time on the road pretending to be a rock star. It was very funny, because it was almost promoted like we were rock stars, even though we were just a couple of cartoonist-squares. So it was very funny for us, two guys who are used to being wallflowers, who were always ignored all our lives, to go from place to place
and have people going crazy, and just getting so much press. We loved it on the one hand, but we also made a real effort not to let it go to our heads. We kept laughing about it, because it just seemed so unreal, at the time. It seemed very unreal, you know (laughs). Of course, now everybody's like sick of us. Now when I do a signing maybe three people show up (laughs).
ADD: That speaks more about the promotions department of whatever it is you're signing--
ADD: --than the actual quality of your work.
PB: Yeah, well, plus anybody who wanted my autograph, they must have gotten it on that stupid tour.
ADD: (Laughs). Going back to Hate for a minute, the format of that and the style in which you were producing it changed over the run of the title, what was the reaction of the public to that, do you think it was a good idea going from just being a one man show to having collaborators and going from black and white to color?
PB: Yeah, I definitely think it was a good idea. I'm glad I started it the way I did. It's not like I wish it was in color the whole time. When I started it out I actually wanted it to look like just your typical, old, underground comic book. The Freak Brother-type comic books and early Crumb comics that were published on toilet paper. I really wanted it to look like that. But I also had always wanted to do a full-color comic. But as long as my titles were struggling, sales-wise, that just wasn't economically feasible. But then once Hate was selling enough that it was economically possible to make it in full-color I was like, "What the heck, let's make it color." But yeah, I deliberately made a lot of changes to go along with that. I started working with an inker for various reasons, and it changed the whole feel and tone of the comic book. I could understand why some people like the old ones better, but I just wanted to try something different anyway. It's almost like it became a different comic book. The mood and feel and pacings of the stories, they all changed quite a bit.
ADD: For the better or for the worse?
PB: I think for the better, in that I think Hate would have gotten a bit boring and redundant if I'd kept it black and white. I felt like I simply needed to make a change, I thought that the last couple of black and white comics, I saw a certain repetitiveness creeping up. So I wanted to try a whole new different approach, that actually allowed me to tell more involved stories, for technical reasons that the casual reader couldn't pick up on. The stories did get a lot more detailed and heavy, there was a lot more story in the color Hates than there were in the old black and white ones.
ADD: Was that just a consequence of you having more time because you weren't doing the inking?
PB: No, it actually was because, believe it or not, I had a three-tiered, I had a standard format in the black and white ones where each page was broken up into three tiers, and when I switched to color it broke up into four tiers. And even though there was a lot less cross-hatching, it actually became denser. There was just a lot more going on per page, so I was able to fit in more detailed stories with more complex storylines than there were in the earlier issues.
ADD: You mention Yeah!, which is published by DC, you're working with Gilbert Hernandez on it, how'd that come about?
PB: That came about simply because right at the time that I decided to end Hate at number 30 a year or two years ago, I got a phone call from an editor at DC, who just asked me if I'd wanna try doing a title for them. And originally they wanted me to come up with something for their Vertigo line, which is their, kinda like, Goth-kooky-spooky adult line. But I couldn't come up with anything that would fit into that. But I mentioned the idea Yeah!. And how Yeah! came about, it's about an all-girl rock band. And part of the reason I wanted to do that was because at the time my daughter was seven, and she of course couldn't get into Hate at all. She kept bugging me to do a comic that a little girl would want to read. So it's kind of like she threw the gauntlet down. I was like, "All right," (laughs). So I pitched this idea of doing this, you know, it's like a cross between the Spice Girls and Josie and the Pussycats. And I pitched it to DC and they said "Sure, we'll give it a try, why not?" Something DC made clear to me right off the bat was they did not want me to draw it. Even though my comic sold fine...
ADD: "We love your work, but..." (Laughs).
PB: Yeah, well, they said right off the bat, that that cartoony drawing of mine just doesn't fall into the DC Universe at all.
ADD: That seems kind of a short-sighted attitude.
PB: Well, at least they made that clear from the start. The other thing too is that, whatever I did for them, it had to be monthly. And I'm not a fast artist at all, so there's no way I could have drawn the thing. It made me think about what I could do with another artist, and since I wanted to have kind of an Archies feel to it, I figured one of the Hernandez would be perfect to draw it, and Gilbert agreed to do it. And I was real happy with it, I thought it was hilarious, but unfortunately it sold horribly for two reasons. One is, little kids just simply don't go into comics shops anymore, and especially little girls (laughs). So the target audience just didn't see it. The second problem too, is I just assumed that my old Hate fans and Gilbert's Love and Rockets fans would just automatically like it, just because we're doing it, but they hated it, for the most part.
ADD: Neither fish nor foul, right?
PB: Yeah, yeah. The thing just tanked. I mean, there were some people that loved it, but for the most part we just couldn't deliver like we thought we could. Number eight just came out and the next issue, number nine, is gonna be the last one. We're negotiating, of all people, with Will Smith's production company to make a TV show out of it.
ADD: That's terrific.
PB: It'd be funny if, here it was the worst selling comic in DC history and it'd be funny if it became (laughs) a successful television show.
ADD: I've become aware -- my daughter is six, and I have a son who's four--one of my ongoing concerns, you say young girls don't come in comics shops, well obviously mine does. But one of the problems is, if this was a regular monthly book with a two-dollar price tag, I have a real hard time buying something for my daughter that's two dollars knowing it's probably gonna get ripped to shreds within an hour.
PB: Oh (laughs).
ADD: This is my sort of ongoing crusade, that these companies need to really re-think the format that they're putting these things in to. And also the promotion angle of it--frankly I really hadn't even heard about Yeah! until it had been canceled.
ADD: And again, if I am gonna buy a book for my daughter, something that obviously is aimed at her like that, would be something that would get lapped right up, I never even saw it in a comics shop. I just don't understand why they go to the expense to create these things, then under-promote them, over-price them in terms of the marketplace as it exists, it seems like they just don't get it.
PB: No, they were charging two-ninety-five for Yeah!.
ADD: That's insane.
PB: Yeah, no, it was totally insane. And when I complained about it they'd say "Well, even at $2.95 we're losing money on it." But when you sit down and do the numbers, they're losing money on every single one of their comics.
ADD: I can envision buying a comic for my daughter that has, say, four, five, six issues worth of material in it that's three or four bucks, that's got a heavy enough cover that it's gonna withstand the abuse of a six and four-year-old. But to toss her one of these little pamphlets that's just made to be shredded, it makes me despair for the future of this artform. I've been reading comics since 1974, and it seems to me we're at a time now where it's never been closer to just complete disinterest on the part of the public at large.
PB: For whatever reason, the cost of printing anything is just huge, unless you can print in the millions, and you just can't sell millions or hundreds of thousands of comic books, so you just can't bring the price down to a reasonable level like it was when we were kids. At the same time too, how can you possibly compete with all this electronic media, which is for free, as far as the kid's concerned. You turn on the TV, you turn on the computer, and you see stuff that is like comics, only it moves around, you don't have to make struggle of reading it, stuff is moving, and it's for absolutely free. So how can you compete, at least as far as a kid is concerned.
ADD: The artform of comics is too engaging not to survive if you promote it correctly. But there's got to be a value for the dollar. The average comic book, if you hand it to a kid they're going to be done with it in ten minutes.
ADD: If you're expecting to charge three bucks for that when they can rent a video game they can play all weekend for that same three bucks, it's definitely a losing proposition right out of the gate.
PB: Yeah, it certainly is.
ADD: So, you mention the web comics, do you think that might be a solution?
PB: Yes. Well, already, just simply working on it, I hope it lasts, but right out of the gate I'm making more money off of it than I can off a comic book whether it's work for hire or my own thing. So just to simply work on it, try it out, people are throwing an awful lot of money my way (laughs). I had one thing, so far I had one comics feature that appeared on the web. It was on this satirical website called Suck, and I did a feature for them. They sent me to an infomercial convention where they gave out the Oscars for best infomercials. So I did an illustrated feature for that. And I just got bombarded with more mail than I've ever gotten in my life. Because way more people are seeing it than have ever seen a single issue of my comic book. I got so much enthusiastic mail for it, and I've got a lot of mail from people who were or are big fans of mine but they haven't seen my comics for years, and for obvious reasons. They're in their 30s now, they no longer live right above the comics shop, they're somewhere out in the suburbs, they've got a mortgage, they've got families, and the last thing they have time for is to drive downtown, pay for parking to go into a comics shop that might or might not be all sold out of the latest issue of my comic.
So, here they turn on the computer, which they have to turn on every day whether it's at work or at home, and then for absolutely free just sitting there in their basement or sitting there in their cubicle they can see stuff by me. They didn't have to go out of their way, they didn't have to pay any money. And meanwhile, that web site's paying me really good money. So yes, I do think the web is (laughs), it not only will, I think it already is, making comic books pretty much obsolete. Except that people do, there is that visceral element of holding a comic book, especially if you grew up reading comics, there's a love for that medium, that there's always gonna be a small amount of people who are just very attached to it and who love it. It's certainly not a viable, relevant artform like it used to be. I think it will simply remain something that caters to a very small group with very specific tastes. It's gone the way of poetry, what can I tell you?
ADD: Maybe the paper comic books'll end up becoming sort of the portable, archive version of the web comics, where the stuff that you do on the Internet is eventually reprinted in the comics.
PB: Yes, absolutely, absolutely, that at least makes it economically worthwhile for someone like me.
ADD: And it almost would be roughly analogous to how comic books got their start except it would be the web stuff instead of the Sunday funnies.
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