Peter Bagge: Shallow, Stupid, Retarded, but Not!

Peter Bagge briefly attended the School of Visual Arts in New York. At the time, Bagge says comics were reviled at the institution, which he found ironic, since it was originally founded as a cartooning school. Living in the city, with its myriad newsstands and unique corner stores, he caught his first glimpses of comics by Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Bill Griffith.

The raunchy, primal and wild underground cartoonists were a major inspiration to an impressionable Bagge. These were exactly what he wanted from comics, and he was disappointed when he discovered the comix volumes he’d been devouring were reprints of twenty-year-old issues of titles like Zap. Bagge links the old disparagement of comics to the risks that artists such as Crumb were willing to take with the form. As Bagge put it, “You can be as stupid, idiotic and offensive as you want, and nobody cares!” He seems to half-wish that the medium had never become accepted by ivory tower artistic and literary circles.

Bagge’s cartooning career got it’s start when he co-published a tabloid-sized anthology called Comical Funnies, which led to an opportunity to work with Crumb editing Weirdo for Last Gasp. Bagge credits the legendary cartoonist with encouraging him to make the sort of comics he might be afraid to produce, the ones that he thinks somebody might make fun of. Since then, he has strived to reveal raw, embarrassing and true emotions, in an active and loose-limbed cartoony style he describes as looking “like shallow, stupid, retarded bullshit…but it isn’t!”

He is most known for his semi-autobiographical Buddy Bradley stories, serialized in the Hate solo anthology. Buddy is always ten years younger than Bagge. As the old axiom goes, comedy is just tragedy plus time, and the struggles of a slacker in his twenties are hilarious to a cartoonist in his thirties. The series was a hit during the “grunge” era of the 1990s, but Bagge insists that he just happened to be in Seattle at the time, and set his early Buddy comics there because it felt futile to try to recapture 1980s New York (where the true-life inspirations for the comics took place), while living across the continent ten years later.

Eventually Buddy moved back home to New Jersey. Bagge wanted to capture more of the crazy, shouting, Catholic family dynamics unique to the New York suburbs where he grew up. Although he was actually raised in Peekskill, New York, north of the city, Bagge felt that an average reader’s associations with Westchester County would be too hoity-toity, and would clash with the working-class neighborhood he was trying to capture. So, he depended on our country’s collective image, incomplete as it may be, of New Jersey as a land of oil refineries, rail yards, swamps and garbage dumps instead.

More recently, Bagge has collaborated with some of his fellow alternative comics greats, such as Daniel Clowes, Aline Kominsky, Alan Moore and Adrian Tomine. The team-up that took him farthest from his usual, hyper-sexualized and rough material was a short-lived  series with Gilbert Hernandez for DC Comics called Yeah! It was intended to be a comic that his nine-year-old daughter would like, with a group of teenaged girls playing music and solving mysteries in the manner of Josie and the Pussycats, for which Hernandez aped the classic Archie comics Dan DeCarlo style. Even though DC didn’t care whether it met Comics Code approval or not, Bagge prided himself on getting the stamp of approval for all nine issues without a single change requested by the authority, “whoever the Comics Code was, nobody ever knew. Some chimp in a shack.”

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