Lion's Tooth co-founder Cris Siqueira first met Peter Bagge in New York City in 1997. This interview took place twenty years later at Fergie's On The Ave in Tacoma, Washington.
Peter Bagge should be a household name. Sure, he’s one of the most notorious underground cartoonists – you’re welcome for the oxymoron – but he really should be indecently famous by now. The amazing (and tragically deceased) comics critic Tom Spurgeon referred to Bagge as “one of the great figures in American comedy”, and that is no exaggeration. Few other artists will make you laugh until your belly hurts as often as he does, while at the same time making you marginally depressed and oddly endeared by aspects of human nature no one should celebrate.
In addition to his seminal comics Neat Stuff and Hate! and more recently an acclaimed series of biographic graphic novels, Bagge has been involved in multiple groundbreaking projects, collaborating with the likes of Gilbert Hernandez, Alan Moore, Dana Gould and Robert Crumb – a partnership chronicled in the recently released The Book of Weirdo, which you should buy right now, from Lion’s Tooth, of course.
More than any other alternative cartoonist of his generation, Bagge has always seemed destined to find a multi-million mainstream vehicle, like Matt Groening, Mike Judge, or South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. When I first met him in 1997, he seemed to be on track to do just that, developing an animated series for MTV in New York, a frustrating experience he later painfully dissected in this interview.
I was visiting the US from Brazil, interviewing some of the best cartoonists in the world with my photographer friend Carolina Pfister. We had already met Dame Darcy, Kaz and Tony Millionaire, and all three of them told us about a party for Peter Bagge. I'm sorry to say we weren't invited by the actual host, the great Jennifer "Queen Itchie" Nixon, but we decided to go anyway.
I have no pictures of that party, only a half-assed drawing in my diary, featuring the worst Peter Bagge portrait ever drawn. It was a bizarre experience to hang out with my art heroes in an intimate get-together in an Alphabet City apartment [actually off Houston St on Attorney according to Jennifer Nixon] – Bagge was there, of course, as well as all the aforementioned cartoonists, plus Joe Coleman, Gary Leib and others. No idea how it got to this, but at one point a lady took her clothes off. As she displayed her truly amazing body, my 23-year-old self thought “oh, no, it’s a suruba” (the Brazilian word for group sex). Luckily, we were standing by Gary Leib, who muttered “don’t worry, it doesn’t get any worse than this”. And it didn’t.
Very realistic depiction of the night I met Peter Bagge
I went to visit Bagge at MTV a few days later, but Carolina wasn't with me, so there are no photos of that either, and you’ll just have to take my word that I interviewed him back then.
In 2017, exactly twenty years later, I met Bagge in Tacoma, where he now lives. He suggested a hip bar and café with 5 stars on Yelp, but it was too noisy for the recording, so we ended up going across the street and drinking cheap beer at a wonderful dive called Fergie’s On the Ave. An old-school hang with a back room filled with day drinkers and gambling machines is the most Bagge experience one could hope for (and every day in Milwaukee, which is why I live here). Bagge’s work is permeated by a genuine appreciation of the middle class and disdain for glamour or fads of any type. It is no wonder his comics resonated so well with the lowbrow grunge aesthetics of the early 90s.
Over the years there has been talk of other TV projects and movies based on Peter Bagge’s characters. I am partially glad that the mainstream hasn’t “stolen” him from comics yet. I take solace in the fact that there is something unbreakable about his vision, a stubborn cynicism and nostalgia that could be mistaken for conservatism, but is always filled with empathy and authenticity. You can’t take the Bagge out of Bagge, even if he eventually gets the showbiz millions he deserves.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Cris Siqueira, Jan 9 2020 - Intro and excerpt featured in the Milwaukee Record
What made you start making biographical comics about female historical figures [Margaret Sanger, Zora Neale Hurston and Rose Wilder Lane]?
Bagge: Well, this was slowing coming, starting roughly around the year 2000. I started doing more and more nonfiction work, journalistic comics for Reason magazine and other places. Then I also started doing very short biographical comics for various people. It started out as little one-page vignettes about scientists from the past or early American politicians. The subject matter interested me, but I was also trying to get a laugh out of it. I started doing longer biographical pieces, until it reached a point that I thought I could do a full-length biographical comic. It was something I wanted to do, or wanted to try.
But why did you decide to concentrate on women?
Bagge: For various reasons, I became very interested in women writers, artists and activists from a specific time period, between the two World Wars. There were certain similarities and a lot of things about them that I found incredibly inspiring. Mainly how independent they were. This is like a full generation before the 60s, and they lived such fiercely independent lives. The work they did was very much on their own terms. Also, when I read about the lives of these women, not surprisingly, I found that they led very adventurous, crazy, insane lives. This was like something you could draw, as opposed to somebody just typing page after page. They did stuff! So I pitched the idea of doing a series on them to Chris Oliveros [then editor at Drawn & Quarterly]. I had several subjects in mind and for various reasons we picked [Margaret] Sanger first.
Was Chris still at Drawn & Quarterly?
Bagge: Yes. Well, it’s technically still his company. He just doesn't work there full time anymore. He's semi retired, so I believe he shows up at the office once a week... He's a very nice person. He left the company in the hands of Peggy Burns and her husband Tom. Mainly Peggy, I would think.
Didn’t he retire to make comics?
Bagge: He's working on something. I know he is and that's another reason why he retired from the company for the most part. Now, I can't remember if it's a novel or a comic book, but he's working on a book, some kind of book.
I love the book he did a while ago, The Envelope Manufacturer. It is exactly what you would expect, it looks European [laughs].
Are there more books coming out in this series of biographies?
Bagge: I'm on the third one [Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story, released in 2019] and it may very well be my last one, at least of this series... It’s another woman, that's pretty much the theme. The company, Drawn & Quarterly, they're very happy with the books and they would like me to keep doing them, keep the series going. Peggy Burns said to me "there's going to be seven, right?" and I don't know where she got that.
I have a woman you can feature if you want, a sword swallower.
Bagge: A sword swallower? [laughs]
She was amazing. She lived in the same time period. She joined the circus when she was almost 40.
Bagge: What was her name?
Mimi Garneau. She was actually a sideshow attraction.
Bagge: I remember Jim Rose [of The Jim Rose Circus]. He didn't have any actual freaks; they were just otherwise normal people who did freaky things to themselves. We had some mutual friends who used to run with him, people who were in his show pretty frequently. It was a similar social circle and-- I don't know how to describe it. They got a bit defensive. We asked them a question and they never gave you a straight answer. Like if I'd say “where are you from?”, they would say, “Mongolia”, and I'm, okay, you’re not from Mongolia. I’m just trying to pick a small talk and you decide to lie to me. Let's be honest, I don't give a f*ck where you are from. [laughs]
Sword swallower Mimi Garneau
But that’s totally the circus and sideshow mindset, it’s a show business lie.
Bagge: You have a circus fixation. [laughs]
Back to the biographic comics you’ve been doing now…
Bagge: Well, this one might be my last, just because it's too much work for not enough money. It's like three solid years to put out one of those.
Did you get any backlash for being a male cartoonist and writing about female historical figures? Or a black historical figure [Zora Neale Hurston]?
Bagge: There was so little of that. I remember a lot of people were worried on my behalf that there'd be a big backlash. I wasn’t even aware of it until somebody called me and told me that there were some people complaining on Twitter. I had to look for it, and they weren't addressing me directly. Nobody who had an issue with me being a white guy, writing about a black woman, nobody brought that up with me directly. There was a little bit of noise about it. It was really stupid. I think one of the first people who complained said, "Why was a white man assigned this job?" Like I was hired, like somebody called me up and asked me to do it. I was like, "I wasn't assigned." It was so difficult doing it, actually.
A scene from Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story
"Hey, I'm actually losing money here."
Bagge: It was while I was working on that book that I reached a point where I pretty much had no choice but to sell my house in Seattle and move to Tacoma. I couldn't afford the mortgage on my house anymore. I'm glad I made that move because now I don't have a mortgage, I'm totally out of debt. I wouldn't have made that move if I wasn't knee deep in this book and not making any money. [laughs] I had almost no income. I was like, "Geez, if there's a woman of color who also wants to lose her house…" Anyway, most people who wrote about the book liked it. There were few complaints.
Zore Neal Hurston
Do you feel that artists are being pushed out of major cities because of property costs? How was your transition out of Seattle to Tacoma?
Bagge: It’s not so bad. If I could afford to do it, I would've stayed put just because moving is a pain in the ass. But I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I'm down here now. I like it better down here than up in Seattle. There is hardly any traffic, it's a lot cheaper, people are a lot friendlier. I just am so much more comfortable down here. All my neighbors are super friendly. I would say they're like average Americans. By that I mean they're regular people. I’ll say “people in Tacoma are so friendly” and they are like, "what are you talking about? Why wouldn’t we be friendly?". But I’m comparing them to people in Seattle.
[The bartender comes up]
Bartender: Excuse me. Do you want another?
Bagge: Me Too.
Bartender: I won't be bugging you anymore.
Bagge: No, it's great.
Bartender: Thank you.
Bagge: They're so nice. [laughs]
I know. Everybody is really nice. People are the nicest in Milwaukee too, but sometimes there’s a very subtle passive aggressiveness to it.
Bagge: That could be the Northwest too, but Tacoma is different from Seattle. I haven't gotten that “Tacoma freeze”. I don't think it exists. [laughs].
Will you eventually come back to the characters in Hate! or are you done with them?
Bagge: For 10 years I did the annuals. Then they kept selling worse and worse. There just wasn't interest in Buddy Bradley being this old crazy looking guy, who owns a dump, and who's married to a crazy-- People just didn't care anymore. Not enough people cared for me to keep doing it. I was just like, "Ah, forget it. That's enough."
Were you personally curious about what would happen to the characters?
Bagge: No, I would keep doing it if I was. It's just that nobody was reading it, nobody cared-- I shouldn't say "nobody", but fewer and fewer people. There were too many other things that I also wanted to do, where at least there was more money attached. I've done three graphic novels, two for Dark Horse and one for Vertigo. Apocalypse Nerd might become a TV show [laughs], a cartoon show.
I love that book. It reminds me of Shaun of the Dead, the same type of parody.
Bagge: Then there was one called Reset that totally fell through the cracks. I feel like I did that one a little too quickly, because I wrote it and then while I was drawing it, I kept rethinking it, I was rethinking it too much. Then, there’s the one I did for Vertigo, it’s called Other Lives.
I like that one a lot too.
Bagge: It seemed like hardly anybody read it. It didn't get promoted, it just disappeared. By the time it came out, they were contractually obliged to pay me in full and to release the book. By then DC had its great big turnover. It was all brand-new people there. They printed some copies, gave it to some stores, and that was that. They did absolutely nothing to promote it or let anybody know it existed. A lot of my own fans, when I would bring copies to comic conventions, they'd always be, "What's this?"
How fast do you work? Most cartoonists I talk to seem to draw one page a week.
Bagge: Well, I manage to get two, I'm fast [laughs]. I get two pages a week. Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes, it takes them a week to get a page done as well.
Do you think your work will ever be made into a TV show or movie?
Bagge: My work is still routinely being auctioned by Hollywood, but it never gets made. I make some money with the development deals. When I met you, I was at MTV. I went through that whole thing all over again with MTV with a second development deal. Especially Hate! and the Bradleys, Buddy Bradley, there’s been so many-- At least five or six development deals.
One thing I remember from talking to cartoonists 20 years ago is that everybody seemed to be waiting for their big break. Everybody seemed to be in the cusp of it. Then I got to Daniel Clowes and he said, "Thank God we're not famous. It would suck. Can you imagine if we were mainstream?"
Bagge: Really? He said that 20 years ago? That's pretty funny. [laughs] It wasn't the fame that attracted me, it was making a decent living, making a good living and being financially secure, because how is a cartoonist supposed to retire? [laughs] You want to be able to make enough to retire. There's all of that.
How old is your daughter now?
Bagge: She is 27. Time just flies.
From Hate Annual #2
She's a millennial. I think they're more enlightened, millennials.
Bagge: In some ways, more enlightened, and in some ways, a little bit brainwashed, take your pick.
Does your daughter draw?
Bagge: No. She is an elementary school teacher.
She didn’t want to draw?
Bagge: No. My wife [Joanne Bagge] is a cook and she didn't want to cook either. We didn't care.
What kind of cook is your wife?
Bagge: She just loves to cook. She used to be a professional cook and for eight years her and her sister had a New York style delicatessen. She likes to cook everything. She likes every style of it. People always go “Why don’t you start a restaurant or work for a restaurant again?" She says, "No." It was the biggest lesson I learned when she had her food businesses. She was like, "I only want to cook for people I like, I hate cooking for assholes." To her, food is love.
Do you cook?
Bagge: I'm not a cook. My daughter isn't much of a cook either. My daughter, unfortunately, she's like me that way, we don't fully pay attention when we're in the kitchen. It's like, "Everything's under control." I walk away. Don't walk away. [laughter]
The reason I asked if your daughter draws is because I recently met Natalia Hernandez [Gilbert Hernandez’ daughter], and she is a pretty good artist. It’s exciting to see a new generation.
Bagge: I think she's not going to go to college to intern for people, filmmakers or people in television.
Artwork by Natalia Hernandez
So another one bites the dust? Oh, c'mon, not yet. [laughs]
Bagge: She probably sees how hard he works for such little money and she's like, "No, I don't want to do that." [laughter]
But back to your wife, doesn’t she collaborate with you in the comics?
Bagge: Yes. My wife does 90% of the coloring. If anything has to be a certain color, I'll cover it first and then she colors it, and then I'll just go over it quickly, but yes, she does the bulk of the work on the coloring.
I always remember that story you drew in the beginning of Hate! in which Fantagraphics is an island and you mention that things you considered immoral are acceptable by the mainstream, but then the art you like is considered obscene… Do you feel vindicated by the recognition you and Fantagraphics have gotten since then?
Bagge: In some ways. We used to always make fun of that line, “comics aren't just for kids anymore.” For decades people always felt if they'd write about any of us or all of us, they had to put that in the title somewhere. They don't say that anymore. Now everybody knows that comics aren't just for kids anymore. But it's still a struggle to get people to pay more attention to alternative comics. One thing that wound up being somewhat disastrous is that just when we thought we were breaking superheroes’ stranglehold on the comics medium, all of a sudden, CGI movies exploded. I was tongue-in-cheek saying to somebody who is in the movie industry, "It's almost like those movies ruined the whole comic book industry all over again." And the person I was talking to said, "They ruined the movie industry too." [laughter] They ruin everything. That's all everybody goes to see, that's all everybody talks about.
No kidding. It’s like we’re going backwards.
Bagge: I want to tell the story about when we sold our old house and bought a new house. I was on the phone for a long time with my house insurance company, my insurance provider. The insurance company is based in Texas, but I'm talking to a man on the phone and he's using a very business accent. At one point he was trying to draw up some figures. While I was waiting, he decided to make some small talk and he said, "What do you do for a living?" I said, "I'm a cartoonist." Then his Texas accent came right out and he goes, "All right, I got a question for you. Superman versus Batman." He goes, "That's the new movie, right?" I go “Yes”. I'm so used to this, so I'm “Okay.” He goes, "What is the deal with that? They're both good guys." [laughs] "But now they're fighting." He goes, "What's that all about? Did they run out of ideas or what?" I go “Yes, that's exactly what happened.” [laughs] They had Superman fight Batman in the comics a million times. They've run out of ideas a million times. [laughs]
[Peter Bagge and I talk about all things comics and not at all about the circus for about an hour until I realize none of that was recorded]
Damn, the tape recorder was off, I don’t know for how long.
Bagge: Oh, who cares, really. Seriously?
Alright, so this one time at the sideshow…