In its time (the nineties) Peter Bagge’s Hate was seen as one of alternative comics’ breakthrough success stories as well as something of a flagship title for publisher Fantagraphics, achieving a circulation of 30,000 copies at peak popularity. Since ending its original series run in 1998, Bagge has hustled quite a bit of work from higher profile—and presumably higher-paying—publishers, having had a hand in a surprisingly diverse array of projects: Spider-Man and Hulk parodies for Marvel; graphic novels for Dark Horse and DC; journalism for Reason magazine; a Bat Boy strip for the late, lamented Weekly World News; last year’s Margaret Sanger biography; and, to my mind, two of the most lamentable missed opportunities of recent comics history, the DC series Yeah! and Sweatshop, short-lived attempts at courting the mainstream all-ages readership in which even DC and Marvel seem to have little interest these days. Yet it is for Hate and its protagonist Buddy Bradley that Bagge continues to be most known, and in 2000 Bagge resurrected the title and character for a series of annuals released with surprising regularity over the next ten or so years.
In individual issue form the stories now collected as Buddy Buys a Dump came across as a bit slight: conciliatory narrative crumbs for the aging Gen X diehards still devoted enough to make the trek to the comic shop and plunk down five bucks for a floppy. The Bradley stories therein took up only a comparatively small portion of the annuals, the rest of the pages devoted to Bagge miscellanea such as reprinted Reason pieces and repurposed commercial work. I am happy to report, however, that the accumulated stories function beautifully as a complete book.
Creators like the Hernandez brothers and Frank King get all the credit for showing us comics’ especial capacity for real-time storytelling, the emotional power of their work derived from the fact that their characters have been granted the privilege of growing, aging, producing offspring, and dying. But Bagge, too, deserves respect as an under-appreciated master practitioner of real-time storytelling. The success of much of his work, especially this book, owes itself to his willingness to take the risks that such a farsighted approach demands. Think of this: Buddy Bradley first appeared in 1981’s self-published Comical Funnies, predating even Love and Rockets. And because Bagge hasn’t been nearly so prolific in his output, Buddy Buys a Dump serves as the culmination of a more accessible—but no less impressive—paragon of expansive, real-time comics narrative. Even more relevantly, it demonstrates how remarkably well Bagge’s commitment to the long form suits his observational adeptness, acuity of insight, and his idiosyncratic comedic prowess.
So much of the volume’s power, in my own reading experience, depends upon knowledge of Bagge’s earlier work that I worry Buddy Buys a Dump will be yet another book appreciated by fans but ignored by the unconverted altogether. Each chapter in its own way centers on how Buddy, a onetime shaggy-haired icon of grunge-era slackerdom now burdened with a wife and child, navigates the compromises of adulthood. (In this way, the book works as well as an installment of Hate as a spiritual sequel to Chet and Bunny Leeway’s tales of early-middle-age malaise from Neat Stuff.) In interviews Bagge has been candid about the delicate economics of continuing to do comics for a living, so it makes sense that so many of the stories here revolve around the Bradleys' struggles to balance financial security with a sense of personal fulfillment, whether that fulfillment comes from wife Lisa’s obsessive desire to redecorate or Buddy’s ill-advised ambition to become the captain of his own Aquabus. In one story, Buddy considers abandoning his position as the proprietor of a secondhand collectable kitsch shop for a real career-with-benefits as a UPS driver, sick of his persona as a purveyor of retro-hipsterism.
In “Creative Outlet”, Lisa befriends Stacy, a fellow mom and half of a pair of self-described “cool parents,” at a PTSA meeting only to find herself stuck in a musical and personal relationship with a “best friend” she doesn’t even like. The duo forms a band whose debut performance at a dingy strip joint culminates in Stacy’s disastrous re-entry into her former career.
As a writer, Bagge rivals the showrunners of prestige cable dramas in his capacity for sharp, character-revealing gestures. His characters’ behavior often surprises but never strikes a bum note. For instance, the paranoid, race-war-preppin’ politics of Buddy’s younger brother Butch are probably appropriately alarming and hilarious even to Hate novices but they carry extra weight for those of us who remember the preadolescent army-guy-bashing Butch of The Bradleys and the troubled teenage Butch of Hate whose idea of a fun time was lighting a hobo on fire. If we are to take Buddy Buys a Dump as a whole and self-contained work, the reappearance of Buddy’s deceased old friend Stinky is a confounding and unearned non sequitur, but as one of many callbacks to the long history of these characters, it’s immensely satisfying. It’s not for nothing that the book is given the windy subtitle The Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from “Hate” Comics Vol. III. (This makes it all the more frustrating that it appears that both the original color trade paperbacks and the Buddy Does Jersey compendium collecting the excellent latter half of the Hate series appear to be out of print).
Yet even when we limit our scope to this fairly slim volume, Bagge’s unrivaled talent for true character development—the kind that risks reader-alienation through upheavals to the status quo—is on display. Just witness Buddy’s physical transformation. He begins the book with his trademark look (immortalized in doll form by Presspop toys): eye-covering mop top, yellow flannel, sneakers. But by the fifth chapter, in which he uproots his family after having found his calling as a scrap yard kingpin, his head’s been shaved and topped with a sailor cap, a black pirate’s patch covers his right eye, and galoshes reach to his knees; the uniform of the urban bohemian has given way to the uniform of the rural weirdo. There’s something genuinely moving about the way Buddy and Lisa come to embrace their own idiosyncratic brand of suburban living, about the way Buddy harnesses his curmudgeonly social isolationist personality as a means for providing his family financial and emotional support while retaining his rebellious, be-your-own-boss integrity.
Although it should be unsurprising by now, it’s worth mentioning that Bagge handily elicits authentic pathos in his typically loose-limbed, bug-eyed style. His deceptively slapsticky approach, equally indebted to Harvey Kurtzman and Looney Tunes, draws the comedy out of some dark and all too relatable moments, particularly in the book’s previously unpublished concluding chapter, “Fuck It”, which sees Lisa caring for her slowly dying mother and Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. You wouldn’t peg Bagge as the ideal choice to depict a scene as heartbreaking as an adult daughter discovering evidence of a hospice nurse’s abuse while helping her ailing mother wash up in a seated shower stall after an accident, but he pulls it off with aplomb; the cartooniness of his art understates, without undermining, the trauma. Similarly, Lisa’s father’s dementia-addled behavior is frequently funny but true-feeling enough that you don’t feel it’s just callously being played for laughs. One of the funniest moments in the book revolves around Lisa’s father’s impassioned defense of risqué restaurant décor:
I don’t mean to praise by mere comparison an author whose voice and vision is so uniquely his own, but it strikes me that Jaime Hernandez’s recently reprinted The Love Bunglers is an appropriate analogue to Buddy Buys a Dump. Bunglers derives much of its effect from the way it recontextualizes three decades' worth of comics storytelling, the characters’ vantage point—i.e. middle age—providing a lived-in history that, even if the reader has never read a previous Locas book, adds a complexity and depth that only real-time narrative allows. Buddy Buys a Dump is not so precisely structured as Jaime’s book, but it actually works better that way. Bagge’s series of vignettes simulates the natural aging process even more effectively, each short chapter, most spaced roughly a year apart, emphasizing that we readers are privy only to brief windows into the whole of the Bradleys’ lives. These characters have lived and will continue to live off the page. And if Buddy Buys a Dump doesn’t work flawlessly as a standalone book, that’s all the more incentive to fill in that history by checking out Bagge’s excellent—and, it seems to me, increasingly underrated—back catalog.