Charles D.J. Deppner
As the decade draws to a close, amidst so much “retro-appropriation,” there seems to be a vacuum of things which could be interpreted as distinctively and truly Nineties – too few to fully illustrate my point. For a few fortunate souls, a certain comic called Hate, despite the misgivings of its title, offered a ray of hope that they were not alone amidst the stoners, slackers, and ne’er-do-wells of the twenty-nothings. Hate illustrated that there was someone out there who if not fully understood them, at least sympathized with them. Despite being simply a comic book, Hate brilliantly did what MTV’s The Real World could only claim to be doing: show a captured slice of reality amongst ’90s youth culture.
Visually, Bagge’s characters explode off the pages: what could best be described as “Big Daddy” Roth heads mounted on Harvey Kurtzman bodies. Features often range from psychotic pop Picasso to tormented Tex Avery. Bagge’s knack for visual exaggeration is compensated by the depth and believability his characters possess. From Hate’_s misanthropic center Buddy Bradley and psychotic friend Leonard “Stinky” Brown, to his neurotic girlfriend Lisa, it’s near impossible for someone to read an issue of _Hate and not recognize a familiar face amidst Bagge’s rogues gallery of unfortunates. Consciously or otherwise, Peter Bagge somehow got his finger on the pulse of Nineties youth.
With its thirtieth issue and Hate Jamboree, Peter Bagge closes the book on Hate as a comic book and sets his sights on new horizons. As well as being an accomplished editor, having initially lost a bid to make it into a post Beavis and Butthead MTV animation, Bagge is now working on developing Hate as a possible HBO series. Peter Bagge is quick to express his disdain for any debate on the validity of comics as art, and chooses to focus more on the task at hand: to entertain.
Do see Hate as a period piece distinctive to the nineties?
Well, yeah. I’d like to think of it that way. It’d sound good. When people talk about it in the future – if they talk about it. That’s my main concern, is having them talk about it. But yeah, as a comic book, I would imagine it would, in the future be considered a “nineties thing.” I mean, how could it not? It started at the beginning of the Nineties and ended at the end of – THIS. So, yeah – a small one. It certainly didn’t have a major impact on culture and society, because its readership was twenty thousand. That’s pretty puny, y’know. Most people never saw it.
Do you have any apprehensions about the approaching decade?
Boy, years ago, I would say that the idea of “What are things going to be like in the turn of the century?” – that idea used to make me a lot more nervous than I am now. Five years ago I was just completely knee-deep and totally invested into the world of underground comics. I didn’t even have a computer then, and, since I didn’t own one, I was very threatened by them. And I used to always worry – and still do – that people were gonna stop reading, or stop reading comics, at least, as the price of paper kept goin’ up and the proliferation of electronic media just kept growing: a lot more TV channels; more and more movies coming out; and now the Internet. People were just spending more time and money on those forms of entertainment than on reading, or specifically, on comics. Overall, sales of comics have been going down almost from day one, since the Fifties… So that used to make me really nervous. More like, “What am I gonna do for a living? Am I gonna become a fossil?” I was just afraid I was just going to become a living museum piece, at best, by the coming of the next century… But I’ve never been busier since I’ve dropped Hate. I’ve been real busy. So, at least for the time being, I feel like I’m sitting pretty, as this century draws to a close. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way. Knock on wood.
Was there anything particularly hard about “pitching” Hate? During the political correctness of the Nineties, it was pretty tough for many people to just get past the title alone. Was it or is it ever frustrating getting past that first hurdle?
I would think for every person that would refuse to read it, OR look at it, OR pick it up, just because of the title, there were probably a hundred people that’d pick it up for the same reason – out of curiosity – even if they’re gonna say, “Aw, I’m gonna hate this!” That’s the big reason why I called it Hate – to be provocative, AND attract attention, AND make people curious.
I mean, that’s gonna be the trouble with anybody who’s making or trying to sell something. It’s just flat out impossible to try to please everybody. Just stay true to form. Stick to your vision. And try to hone that as clearly and concisely as possible and then people who are of like mind will be particularly drawn to it. And that’s pretty much the best anybody could shoot for.
Hate has a worldwide audience. When it’s read overseas, do your audiences identify strongly with your characters, or are they seeing it as a “slice of Americana”?
Both, apparently. Originally, for the longest time, Hate, and my work from the Eighties on, has been sold or translated in Scandinavian countries, and England, of course, then later Germany. And, even though those countries remind me of America, except they got fewer guns, those people would make great hay about how “American” my comics are. “It’s VERY American,” they would always say. “Your work is such a harsh condemnation of American culture.” That wasn’t my intention at all. I wasn’t trying to say anything about American culture. And I certainly wasn’t trying to put it down. I like American culture. But that’s the way they would always interpret it. But within the last three or four years, it was finally translated into Spanish, and it does great in Spanish. It’s selling fantastic. And when I went over to Spain and did the signing there, all people talked about was relating to it. And I got very little of that, “Oh, this is such a great presentation of everything that’s wrong with America.” I didn’t hear that at all in Spain. People just said, “I really relate to your comic. I think it’s funny. I really relate to Buddy Bradley.” And I’d go to these signings that would be 200 deep of Spanish Buddy Bradleys. All these Spanish guys that looked exactly like him as far as the eye could see.
Artists such as Daniel Clowes and yourself expressed that some of your early motivations were rooted in an idealism that comic books could come to the forefront of American culture and be recognized as a true art form. Is there any of that idealism left?
Speaking strictly for myself, I NEVER CARED! From what I understand, that is important to someone like Dan Clowes much more than it is to myself. I really, honestly, and truly do not care if people think it’s an art form or not… I mean, I think I’m an artist, but if there’s somebody out there that doesn’t think I’m an artist, but is still buying my comic – well, what the heck do I care whether if the guy thinks I’m an artist or not? He’s still buying what I’m making and reading it. That’s really all I care about. It’s just a given: if they’re buying it, they’re getting something out of it; they’re liking it. So whether they consciously perceive what I’m doing as art or not, it’s almost irrelevant. To me, art is anything that a human being creates that is meant to express something. And that could be a video game. Y’know what I mean? It could be a Sunday funny. It could be a superhero comic. Like there’s art that I like. There’s art that I hate. There’s art that I think is good. And art that I think is bad. But it’s ALL art. I really don’t understand why people say that something is art and something isn’t.
But did you ever think there’d be a “comic book renaissance” where the comic book would get its “just due”?
There was a huge creative explosion of interest and production of alternative and mainstream comic books that started in the Eighties and exploded in the early Nineties. And it was “written up” and “covered.” A lot of journalists, like yourself, were saying, “Comics Are Now Being Taken Seriously.” And they were. They were being taken seriously, but that didn’t translate into sales. Instead, by the early Nineties, when we were getting all this attention, from that point on, sales have gone down.
“Being taken seriously,” economically speaking, is almost like a death knell. It’s a code word. Jazz and popular music used to be one and the same thing. Jazz was POP music. But once it stopped being POP music and started quote/unquote being taken seriously, all of a sudden, these jazz musicians have to go to Europe or hit government grants to keep playing jazz, y’know, just because the average person doesn’t want any more. It’s like, “Oh, this stuff is taken seriously? Well, get me the hell outta here! I don’t want it!” It’s the same with poetry. And now comics are going the same way, and it’s because – well, I wouldn’t say it’s because, but it goes hand in hand or coincides. A popular art form, where people really don’t give a flying fuck if it’s art or not.”There’s a comic book. I wanna read it.” Then, punk, why don’t you read this thing? That’s when you know you’ve got something is an economically/commercially viable art form. People don’t even care if it’s art or not. All they know is: they see it; they wanna buy; then they do buy it; then they come back some more. That’s a viable art form, even if nobody on the planet is calling it “art.”
It seems so often that as the average Joe (who doesn’t give a fuck if something is art or not) begins to lose interest in an art form then a whole bunch of people – academics, journalists, whoever – start saying, “This should be taken seriously.”
Even though something’s really popular and everybody’s liking it and buying it, at the same time whoever it is who decides these things puts it down, y’know. Academics and journalists. They put that thing down while it’s popular; while it’s viable. Then when it starts losing its viability, they’re like, “Oh No!” Then they’re trying to save this thing they or their predecessors have been making fun of and denigrating for so long. “Hey Jeeze! Where’s everybody goin’? Comics! Comics are great! What’s wrong with you people? You’re not taking it seriously!”
Then, all of sudden, academics and journalists are the new audience… And the only way cartoonists can foresee making any money or getting any strokes at all for this is playing up to the critics. To do work that, on the surface, is done to quote/unquote be taken seriously. The epitome of this is Maus, which is a good book, but was also commercially successful. A lot of people want to do Maus. They want that credibility, and the Pulitzer prizes, and speaking engagements, and teaching gigs, and GRANTS! Government grants and private grants. That’s what they’re all goin’ for, is grants, y’know… if your work is something that the average person wants, responds to, and relates to, that’s the last person you going to give the grant to. “Oh well, it’s commercial. This person doesn’t need me. This guy’s actually making something that people want.” But you want to do some pretentious, high-falutin’ muckity-muck about this crap or another, “do it in a dry pretentious style, here. Free money.” And I’m sure the twelve people out there who give a crap about this stuff will appreciate it.
I’m not a mainstream cartoonist, in that I never liked superheroes and I don’t wanna do superhero comics. But this mindset that I’ve been talking about has completely taken hold amongst alternative cartoonists. So I don’t relate to any of those people who used to be my peers, anymore. I don’t relate to ‘em. Now they tell me, “Well, look. I’ve got this audience of five thousand and that’s fine with me. That’s fine. That’s wonderful.” Then I’ll be thinking, “Next year it’s going to be four thousand. The year after that it’ll be three thousand.” Yeah, five thousand’s better than nothing, but you shouldn’t be fine with that. It’s not like I’m thinking, “Well these superhero comics are selling a lot, so that’s what I should be doing.” No. You should be true to yourself, but just think more: the way you present your art; the way you package it; the way you market it. You should think more along those lines, so that you can still do what you are doing; expressing whatever it is you’re already expressing, but reach more people with it. ◼