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July 12, 2009


CR Sunday Interview: Peter Bagge

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I've long felt Peter Bagge is a significant figure in American comedy in addition to deserving his lofty stature in alternative comics, and I'll interview him any chance I get. I have a better than usual reason this time: the release of a collection of his comics that originally appeared libertarian magazine Reason. Those comics have probably been the most significant and sustained of Bagge's avenues for comics publication after he ended the regular run of Hate at issue #30. Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me And Other Astute Observations contains several of Bagge's comedic, issue-centric essays -- essentially first-person reportage of an event and the context for that event in the light of some greater cultural or societal idea, filtered through Bagge's stellar eye for blowhards and flighty people. Bagge says in the interview below that he doesn't know if his comics persona is funny, but I like it quite a bit: you get this sense of the cartoonist wanting to remain engaged but also frequently becoming discouraged in maintaining his attention. It's the way we all tend to look at issues of the day, only most of us don't end up creating something amusing out of the experience. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking of the Reason comics in a way as a continuation of the comics you were doing for Suck?

PETER BAGGE: Yes, that's exactly what they were. Many Reason contributors also wrote for Suck, including Reason's then managing editor, Nick Gillespie. When Suck ended, Nick asked me to continue with Reason.

SPURGEON: I've always connected the two gigs in my head, and I wasn't sure that was right. It seems like your Reason comics were pretty fully developed right from the start -- how did you and the editors nail down so quickly what it is you were going to do for them?

BAGGE: At first I just did one-page strips, which were all third person editorializing on my part. Later Nick suggested we recreated the format of a strip I did for Details years ago, where I attended a comedy festival. That strip was part of a short-lived series Art Spiegelman was editing for Details, where each month they'd send a different cartoonist somewhere and report on it in the form of a four-page comic strip. Nick liked the way mine turned out, so he would do the same thing: either send me somewhere or have me report/observe some local event or story.

imageSPURGEON: What is the process of doing one of those things like, Peter? Do you pitch them, do they pitch you, is there any editorial back and forth?

BAGGE: Occasionally Nick would have a specific topic in mind. Otherwise I would offer a handful of suggestions and Nick and his fellow editors would pick one. Then I'd head out and do some "field work," followed by lots of online fact-checking and follow-up phone and e-mail interviews.

SPURGEON: Were any of the strips in the new book subject to significant editing in that way, or do they pretty much leave you alone?

BAGGE: I had to submit each subsequent step -- outline, script, roughs, etc. -- to Nick and co. for them to review, mainly to make sure I got all my facts correct. They're real sticklers for accuracy. I was never allowed to play fast and lose with the truth, much to my occasional creative chagrin! Other than that they allowed me to express myself pretty freely, even if some folks on their staff disagreed with some of the points I was making.

imageSPURGEON: Several of the strips have you in the narrative, usually taking notes or having casual conversations. Can you talk about those parts of the process? Do you write down a bunch of stuff and then work from those notes, do you do any kind of visual research via sketching or taking photos?

BAGGE: Yes to all of the above. Nick also liked seeing "me" as a character, and insisted I work myself into every strip. I occasionally had mixed feelings about that, mainly because it's hard to be objective about how "funny" or likable I am as a cartoon character.

SPURGEON: Do people comment on your presence in the strips?

BAGGE: Not much, other than to say "you were making a funny face on page 3" or some such, or maybe relate to my own reactions.

In spite of the book's tongue-in-cheek title, I went out of the way to make it clear that I don't have "all the answers," and I occasionally came away from a story drawing no solutions or conclusions -- the "Bums" story being a perfect example. Most readers understood and appreciated that I wasn't being your typical partisan hack or ideological puritan. Still, there are always those who object so strongly to libertarianism that I always came off as an evil monster to them.

imageSPURGEON: What's the right level of research as far as you're concerned? Is there a story in the collection you remember as being particularly arduous in the reporting?

BAGGE: The Drug War ones were, mainly because our government and other organizations churn out so much misinformation on the subject. Even some people who favor decriminalization tend to infantilize drug users and think of them as "victims," so it was very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff with those two features.

SPURGEON: How much are you concerned about finding a unique point of view, and how much do you feel like you're hostage to what you encounter? I know that one criticism of the Reason strips I've read is that they're sometimes too obvious, that you're pointing out, for example, that Baby Boomers are self-absorbed and that politicians are corrupt, pandering blowhards. At the same time, those things are true!

BAGGE: In any instance where it may seem like I was pointing out the obvious -- mainly in the earlier one-page strips -- I was always responding to something that needed a response, and that clearly wasn't "obvious" to my friends and acquaintances or the media at the time I wrote them. Yes, everyone "knows" that politicians are corrupt whores, but then why do most people turn to them to "solve" the problems that they helped create? Anyone who still supports, say, President Obama's "solutions" to our nation's woes is oblivious to that "obvious" fact!

SPURGEON: I know people who only know of your work through Reason... is there a different reaction to this material from longtime Hate/Neat Stuff readers than from people for whom this is their sole encounter with your work? Do they pick up on different things?

BAGGE: The Reason stuff is overtly political, so anyone who is only familiar to that part of my work seems to either like it or dislike it depending on what extent they agree with my views. Hate, on the other hand, was just apolitical storytelling.

SPURGEON: When putting together the collection, were there any stories that you covered where you recognized that they had progressed further than what you were able to report at the time?

BAGGE: Yes -- all of them! I considered adding addenda to a few of the stories, but that would have been a never-ending trail to start heading down, so I dropped that notion entirely.

imageSPURGEON: Assembling the collection, were you able to reflect even a little bit on your own perspective? Is there something as a commentator you might bring to the table that's unique above and beyond the fact you're doing them in comics form? Do you think your stuff is different in any way -- sensibility, focus -- than the written essays at Reason?

BAGGE: Not too much. I tend to agree very strongly with almost everything I read in Reason, especially since they have a very socially liberal worldview. They're urban hipsters, basically. Just like me! ha ha. We're what more rural and/or socially conservative libertarians refer to as "cocktail party" or "Inside the Beltway" (gag!) libertarians.

My sole regret upon re-reading these strips is my wish that I could have been more concise and less verbose in expressing my views. But then that's a general problem I have with all of my work.

SPURGEON: For that matter, are you able to detect any changes to the way you're approaching things now as opposed to 2000-2001?

BAGGE: No, not really. The only thing that's "evolved" about my opinions is my general dismay and disgust at the way most people don't grasp or follow the libertarian worldview -- how now more than ever the general consensus is we need the Government to spend our way out of all our problems with money that doesn't exist. It's the most intellectually lazy and irresponsible political worldview imaginable -- hence its huge appeal!

SPURGEON: I thought your mall essay mentioned earlier was fascinating to re-read because some of what you were talking about presaged some of the broader economic issues we're facing now: this gap between developed space and people finding an economic use for it, the fact that some created space and communities simply aren't friendly to people other than young single urban folk. If it's not too private a subject, although I really just mean in general: how are you negotiating the economic downturn? Is there something you're seeing about the way people are living through this period that interests or alarms you? Do you detect a difference?

BAGGE: What alarms me is what I addressed above: that too many of us want and expect government to address and fix every real or perceived "crisis" as soon as possible -- a recipe that makes matters worse 100 percent of the time!

So far I personally haven't been affected too badly by the current economic downturn (knock on wood), though most people I know certainly have been. It's interesting to see how people cope on their own in the meantime through bartering and generally reorganizing their lifestyle in order to get by. It's amazing how clever and resourceful human beings can be when left to their own devices. And it's outrageous how governments and the media are always telling us otherwise!

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SPURGEON: Is there a piece in the collection with which you're particularly happy, that maybe wasn't one of the best-received pieces? When one of the Reason pieces really works from your perspective, what are the qualities that stick out for you? Or do you even look at your work that way?

BAGGE: The one that got the most negative responses is "What We Believe," where I debunk notions regarding topics like the perceived dangers of fluoride and vaccines and other myths that well-educated people in particular seem to cling to. I researched that piece very carefully, reading both pro and con articles on each issue, yet people still were outraged by my conclusions.

What's so hilarious about the fluoride debate was that when it was first added to drinking water in the 1930s it was left-wingers who opposed it, convinced it was a way for corporations to make an easy profit at the expense of our health. But then during the Cold War it was the right who took up the cause, claiming it was a "communist "mind control" plot -- a notion that had zero proof and was blatantly idiotic, yet it alarmed enough people to the point that many countries add states refused to add it to their water. And during this whole time the lefty anti-corporate types were completely silent on the subject -- until the Berlin Wall fell, that is, at which point they re-adopted the "fluoride scare" cause just as fast as the cold warriors forgot all about it. People are fucking idiots!

imageSPURGEON: Something I always wanted to ask someone working with humorous opinion pieces: How much does every opinion 100 percent represent your way of thinking? Do you ever go to a place because it's funny more than it's something you endorse or believe?

BAGGE: No. I might exaggerate for the sake of a laugh, but I stand behind every two-bit opinion I state in this book.

SPURGEON: These strips are an attractive feature for a publication that stresses both journalism and editorial writing -- two areas that have taken a huge recent hit in this economy. Reason's also pretty famous for being aggressive on-line, which is where a lot of people will have seen some of this work before. Do you have any thoughts on the general decline of publishing over the last 24 months, the fall of daily newspapers? The Seattle P-I closed up shop in your neck of the woods, although my memory is that it was always closing up shop and I haven't even lived there in years.

BAGGE: Everyone -- including myself -- are simply getting more and more of their information on line than anywhere else, is all. To me that's a very good thing, since not only is it for free but many levels of middle men are cut out of the picture. Distributors especially have been the bane of the print media forever, with their near-monopolistic -- and often corrupt -- control of what the rest of us may or may not read. And access to TV and radio has been strictly limited and controlled by the FCC and their absurd claim that "the public" -- meaning The Government -- "owns" the "airwaves" -- the end result being that only politically connected businessmen can obtain licenses and thus own and profit TV and radio stations. It's all a huge scam that can't die fast enough!

All these "death of journalism" stories are written by journalists who miss -- or will soon miss -- their relatively cushy jobs and corporate benefits. Not that I blame them for being upset about that fact -- I would be upset too! -- but they should just be honest about it and stop claiming that only full-time corporate employees with press credentials and their own cubicles have the ability to report a story accurately. These days everyone is a journalist and a reporter -- you just have to sift through many blog posts to get a clear picture of what's going on -- and that's the way it's always been! For every good "professional" reporter there are ten lazy hacks with an act to grind filling up our newspapers with nonsense and lies.

SPURGEON: You're working with Fantagraphics on this book. Is there anything different about working with them now as opposed to 20 years ago that really stuck out when you were putting this one together? Do they do things differently now?

BAGGE: They use computers now! So I have to deal with them face to face far less often, thank goodness. They're also much more all-business now than they used to be when they'd get hopelessly distracted by feuds with Harlan Ellison and such.

imageSPURGEON: The formal run of Hate ended in 1998, so it's been a full decade after that series, one I consider an all-time comics title. This new book represents a really successful, and I think rightfully lauded bunch of comics, but you've also had some abortive runs with a couple of DC titles and an infamously held-from-the-market Hulk comic following a Spider-Man comic that cracked some people up and confused others. How do you view your career over the last 10 years? Are you happy with the range of work that you've been able to do?

BAGGE: My career over the last 10 years has been an unbelievable roller coaster ride of unexpected opportunities and spectacular failures. After 10 years of doing Hate and nothing but I was very eager to try my hand at many other things -- which is exactly what I have done, though I'm somewhat mortified and chagrined at how -- and how quickly -- the rug got pulled out of some of those projects. Yet I've managed to feed myself through all of it, and it certainly hasn't been dull decade!

imageSPURGEON: I thought Hate worked so well as a comic book -- do you have any thoughts about the near-total disappearance of alternative comic books from the stands?

BAGGE: I think it's terrible. I love the traditional comic book format, and it's by far my favorite format to work it. It's the perfect weight and size, can be easily read in one sitting, and I don't have to wait a year or two to see my work in print! It also floors me that there are so many cartoonists who dislike that format, and were "ashamed" to have their work appear in it. That's like a musician who loathes vinyl records! Alas, economics have doomed comic books to the dustbin of history so I'm just flogging a dead horse here.

SPURGEON: I always think of you as the center of cartooning in Seattle, more than Fantagraphics itself or any of the great cartoonists up there. There are several features for Reason that have that Northwest flavor -- the casinos comic, for one, and the stadiums comic. Is Seattle still a great place to live, do you think? Do you still like living there? Do you think your experience being where you are provides a contrast to Reason contributors that are further down the West Coast or out east?

BAGGE: Well, the simple reason so many of my Reason stories take place in Seattle is because I live here, thus saving me and them travel expenses. But yes, I still love it here. My only concern is how expensive it's gotten, but that's -- literally -- the price you pay for living in a place that a lot of other people also want to live in.

By the way: Reason's staff and contributors are all over the map: small offices in LA and DC, a publisher in Conn, editors in Ohio, Michigan, Dallas Boston and Virginia, and art director in Arizona, etc. They took advantage of the internet almost immediately in allowing their staff to live wherever they want and work from home at 3 AM while in their pajamas.

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SPURGEON: I thought they were only in LA and DC! I think that's all I have... what's next for you, Peter?

BAGGE: A graphic novel for DC/Vertigo called Other Lives -- its working title was Second Lives, but I recently had to change it. Due out in Apr. '10. Oh, and my Hulk comic will finally see print this fall! Only in a serialized form, in a mini-series called "Marvel Underground" [changed to Strange Tales since this interview was completed].

*****

* Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me and Other Astute Observations, Peter Bagge, Fantagraphics, softcover, 120 pages, 9781606991589 (ISBN13), 2009, $16.99.

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* cover to the new collection
* two images from the new collection showing Bagge as a character
* moment from one of the drug war pieces
* image from a second amendment-related essay
* image from the controversial "What We Believe" comic
* I just like the looks of that hobo
* a cover from Sweatshop, the aborted Peter Bagge project I miss most
* Hate, a perfect comic book
* image from the long-lost Incorrigible Hulk project, soon to see the light of day
* comics-related image (below)

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