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September 23, 2017

CR Sunday Interview: Noah Van Sciver Talks To Peter Bagge



I'm a huge fan of Peter Bagge and enjoy the output from all phases of his career: Weirdo editor to the creator of Neat Stuff and Hate, to his magazine journalism and comics-essay making, to this new batch of biographies. Fire!! from Drawn and Quarterly is his latest; it's a biographical treatment of the great writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Noah Van Sciver told me he had an interview with Bagge that had been orphaned, so I bought it (I do that sometimes, inquire first). I like Van Sciver's mix of questions and they all seem shamelessly motivated by the specifics of his own interest in the alt-comics veteran.

Both Van Sciver (as an exhibitor) and Bagge (as special guest) will appear at this year's Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. Bagge like to draw before and at shows. I've hit him up for a sketch already, and .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) Without further ado, here's one of the most promising post-alternative cartoonists talking to great figure in American comics and American humor. Thanks, Noah. -- Tom Spurgeon


NOAH VAN SCIVER: When you were a teenager did you ever try to paint and draw in a representational style?

PETER BAGGE: Yes, though usually in an art class, doing what we were assigned: draw a lamp, a curtain, some trees, and later nude models. I recently found some life drawings I did while at SVA. They weren't bad! But man did I find it boring, drawing "realistically."

imageVAN SCIVER: Back in the early '80s you had to hustle a lot to find any kind of work as an illustrator; do you think that a young, unknown artist would have a tougher time trying to find work now compared to back then?

BAGGE: I imagine it'd be much easier thanks to the Internet. Just give someone your web site address, rather than actually trying to meet up with them and make sure they look at your work.

VAN SCIVER: Art Spiegelman helped you find work early on, didn't he? When he was working with Topps bubblegum he asked you to write Bazooka Joe comics? What was that like?

BAGGE: The only work I ever got from Art was writing some Bazooka Joe jokes. How's that for an odd gig! The ones I wrote were illustrated by Howard Cruse. They looked pretty different from the original ones. They were trying to "update" the series or some such.

VAN SCIVER: Whatever happened to those Bazooka Joe comics? Have they been reprinted anywhere? I'd love to see those!

BAGGE: Well, they appeared with the gum back in 1982! But I think they went back to the original strips after a while. No one really liked the updated version.

VAN SCIVER: One thing I notice about the work you're doing now compared to the issues of Neat Stuff or the early issues of HATE is that your style has become refined and even simplified. You don't do a lot of crosshatching anymore. Was that a conscious decision on your part or is that something that happens as you master a drawing style?

BAGGE: I stopped crosshatching mainly because it's very difficult to color over it via Photoshop, and I was doing more color via computer work by that point. I occasionally did some cross hatching since then, but I don't think it added anything to the story anymore. It felt unnecessary.

VAN SCIVER: Harvey Kurtzman was one of your teachers for the few semesters you spent at SVA. What did he think of the comic work you were doing?

BAGGE: I never took his class, just sat in on it on occasion. He was friendly to me when I spoke to him, but I wasn't really on his radar, not being his student and all. His mind also seemed to be going in and out by then too.

VAN SCIVER: Fantagraphics is celebrating their 40th year [2016]. What were they like when you first became involved with them? Were they still located in Connecticut at that time?

BAGGE: Yes, they were in the 'burbs, living in a 'hood just like the one I'd recently ran away from! I was surprised they wanted to live and work in that environment, but I guess it was cheaper, just cramming everyone and everything into a four bedroom, split level house. They moved to LA -- and a few years after that, to Seattle -- soon enough, though.

imageVAN SCIVER: Did you ever feel like a prisoner of your own style? Like you see other artist's work and just think "Damn, if only I could start drawing like that..."

BAGGE: Occasionally, when I was younger. I didn't always feel that I could pull off some of my story ideas on my own. That's the main reason I used to collaborate with other artists on occasion.

Now I feel I can pull off any kind of a story, though I still struggle drawing certain things -- mainly animals.

VAN SCIVER: Do you think that you can joke about anything, or are there some things that should be off-limits?

BAGGE: Meaning me personally? Or anyone in general? I don't think anything should be off-limits. You just have to make it work: think abut how to do it, and why you ought to do it, etc.

VAN SCIVER: Is there any time from your life that you feel nostalgic for?

BAGGE: If I had to pick any one era it'd be the 1990s. That was a pretty good time for all kinds of reasons. But that's not to say I'm miserable now or anything! Life is still pretty darn good!


VAN SCIVER: It's interesting that you were so connected with the Seattle grunge music scene because I can't imagine you putting a Mudhoney CD on in your car. The bands you've played in have been more pop influenced, right? How long have you been playing in bands? Were the Action Suits the first?

BAGGE: I liked some grunge bands -- including Mudhoney -- but you're right that it isn't my favorite genre. I do prefer more pop stuff. I was in a band between the ages of 12 and 15 or so. Just me and some friends goofing off, and pretending to know how to play something. After a while my friends got very accomplished on their instruments so I got pushed out.

I drummed for Eric Reynolds' band The Action Suits off and on between '95 and... '05? We made some good records, though, I think. And I'm still officially in a band called Can You Imagine? Going on eight years or so. We have two CDs out that I'm super proud of. Too bad we don't really have any fans!

imageVAN SCIVER: When you look at the comics you did for Neat Stuff do you remember where you were when you drew each page?

BAGGE: Occasionally! I remember starting the first strip in Neat Stuff #1 while still in Hoboken NJ, and it has a few Hoboken landmarks in it -- sleazy bars and such. I finished it in the basement of my in-laws' brand new house in suburban Seattle, where the strip suddenly felt very alien and out of place. A few other early pieces were done in Hoboken as well.

Living in the very antiseptic suburb of Redmond, WA for 18 months really inspired me, story-wise. I got a lot of material out of that short stay, due entirely to my alienation, as well as viewing the natives in a way that they clearly didn't see themselves.

VAN SCIVER: You've been around for the domination of the graphic novel over the comic book. Was that a difficult shift, to go from doing standalone short stories and serialized comics, to now graphic novels?

BAGGE: Yes, mainly because I vastly preferred the comic book format to the book format aesthetically, and I also liked having the option of doing a short story if and when I felt like it, which works way better with the old "floppy" format, where filler pieces fit in naturally. The book format is too goddamned "official," with its hoity-toity yet pointless end papers, and the indicia being given its own stupid page and all. So much wasted space, all in an attempt to give the content more weight than it most likely deserves.

VAN SCIVER: Do you miss doing comics that were an "anything goes" kind of package like Neat Stuff?

BAGGE: Not really. While this may sound contradictory to my answer above, I primarily think in longer stories now, and have for a while, so that even with HATE each issue was built around an at least 15-page story.

VAN SCIVER: Was Gary Groth pretty tough about deadlines while you were working on Neat Stuff and Hate?

BAGGE: Not too tough -- though I usually dealt with Kim [Thompson] on any production-related issues back then. We'd agree on a deadline, but being a month or so late was acceptable. Any later than that and they might begin to grumble.

VAN SCIVER: Do you still get excited when you see your work in print somewhere for the first time?

BAGGE: Only if I'm happy with the way it looks, which tends to more likely be the case as I get older. I usually wanted to kill myself when a new issue of Neat Stuff or HATE came out. I'd always think my art looked atrocious, and that I must be blind or something.

VAN SCIVER: I read in an older interview with you that you listened to Perry Como. Is that still true?

BAGGE: Not actively, but if one of his songs comes on the radio I'll turn it up. He had a nice singing voice.

imageVAN SCIVER: Do you ever hear from Robert Crumb these days?

BAGGE: Never. He stayed at my house for a week about 14 years ago, and I haven't heard from him since. I wrote him a fan letter re: the Genesis book a while ago, but he didn't respond to it.

VAN SCIVER: You just recently moved from Seattle to Tacoma after living in Seattle for 37 years. Was it just getting too depressing to watch your beloved city change so much?

BAGGE: Change and growth are inevitable, but how the city's government is dealing with that change is criminal. They're destroying the city's quality of life for reasons that I can mostly only speculate on, but there's no good justification for any of it. Most of their policies are cloaked in feel-good "progressive" rationales, where appearing to "care" trumps everything, including sanity. It's also how they keep getting re-elected, though you'd think the public would have woken up to it by now.


* Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story, Peter Bagge, Drawn And Quarterly, hardcover, 104 pages, 9781770462694, March 2017, $21.95.


* Hurston by Bagge
* old Bagge illustration ad
* Bagge drawing the rare animal
* Action Suits record sleeve cover by Bagge
* Neat Stuff #1
* "Caffy" a Crumb/Bagge Collaboration
* Studs Kirby, one of the great characters Bagge created for Neat Stuff (below)



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