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“Your Theory Is More Than a Theory”: Zak Sally’s Interview with Peter Bagge (Part Two)

The first part of this discussion can be read here. This portion of the conversation was conducted via Skype, late last year.

Peter Bagge: I can’t believe we’re seeing each other. The future!

Zak Sally: You look all- I’m seeing me in ten years.

Am I that lovely? I’ve never done Skype till a couple months ago, and this is the first time I’m doing it with video on. I feel like such a grandma.

No, let’s turn it off. It’s freaky.

Okay. [Laughs]

Let’s see… I don’t know how I turn mine off.

There should be a button that says “video.”

Okay, “stop video.” All right!

So now we’re back to old-fashioned. [Laughs]

Okay. Well, you know, we wrapped up last time and I felt like we talked about real general stuff with a lot of me trying to get you to bitch, and maybe we didn’t get to as much of—

I didn’t bitch as much as you wanted me to.

You totally didn’t bitch as much as much as I wanted to you to.

About high art versus low art.

Ah man, I was so hoping to get you all in a froth about that and instead-

[Laughs] I’ve already talked too much about that.

I mean we were talking so much about that generally, we kind of skipped over parts I wanted to hit regarding where you’re at in your career now and the kinds of works you want to do, and how you feel that fits in with stuff that you have done, or how it just led you to the place that you’re at today.

Right, okay.

I want to do that, and I also want to talk about something that doesn’t get talked about that much and that’s the reality of trying to make a career out of this. You have been making a living doing this since what, the ’80s, I guess?

Well, I started making what most Americans would consider a livable wage around 1990, maybe a little bit before then. So twenty, twenty-five years.

Okay. Maybe it’s just me teaching at MCAD, but—and I don’t want to open up your tax records or anything, but just-

[Laughs] Oh, like Mitt Romney.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. You know, cartoonists don’t talk about the nuts and bolts of that very much and I’m just kind of interested in how that has gone for you, or even you know… tips.

Sure, tips.

The cover to Spice Capades #1.

The cover to Spice Capades #1.

Well, let’s start with this, because I know this is not the direction you want to go to, but you know I think I’ve pretty much got everything you’ve done. Except maybe the Spice Girls thing. I couldn’t get with you on the Spice Girls, Pete.

[Laughs] Some completist you are!

‘Cause that was just, you know, I couldn’t—

And you’re supposed to be against high art in favor of low art.

[Laughs] I know. But with that said, before this interview I realized there was one piece that I had missing, and that was something that I had seen a little bit of while it was happening but I hadn’t purchased the collection, because, frankly, it was eighteen bucks and I never have eighteen bucks. But so today I went and got the Bat Boy collection.

Oh, okay.

I thought that shit was amazing [Laughs]

Thanks.


It was good that I read it, because it’s something that you do a lot. It’s like you sort of don’t have the freedom to do that as much.

Right. Well, first of all, they payed me $400 an installment, which in retrospect was pretty good money. [Laughs]

Was it weekly?

Yes. I’d never done a weekly strip, and I didn’t own the rights to it. It was an existing character. But they said “we can only pay you 400 bucks,” and after a while they couldn’t even pay me that, and that’s why I quit. aAd then they went out of business. They did say that within reason I could do whatever I want, “within reason” meaning don’t show people fucking, don’t use swear words, but otherwise we trust you to go nuts. The editor who hired me was a longtime fan of mine. I had a lot of fun with it. Also it was satire; I’ve never done pure satire like that. It was almost Simpsons-like, where you had this regular familiar character in the form of Bat Boy, and had him mixing and mingling with whoever was in the news that week.

With Ralph Nader?

Yeah, Ralph Nader. One thing that at a certain point I was asked to do, was to back off on using Condoleezza Rice. For whatever reason, every single writer working for the Weekly World News was also having a field day with Condoleezza Rice. [Chuckles] I guess everything about her just seemed ripe for satire, everything about her is ironic. So after a while it was, like, wall-to-wall Condoleezza Rice [Laughs], and the editors felt compelled to tell everyone to knock it off. Meanwhile, I had a teenage daughter at the time, so I was very immersed in pop culture, and pop music, so when I had Bat Boy elected president, I had his cabinet filled with all the teenybopper stars of the day.

[Laughs] You know all that stuff I was bitching about the last time we talked, it’s not like I require that from a comic, the entertainment and yuks, but Bat Boy had me laughing out loud, and that’s a rare thing these days.

It was so loosey-goosey. I wasn’t trying to to impress anybody with my brilliance on any level at all with that strip. I had a lot of fun with the art; it really showed in the artwork.

It did!

I was really happy with the way those strips came out. There was even a couple of those where I didn’t do my usual process of using tracing paper. I think I told you I always just draw everything on tracing paper and I flip it over, draw it again just to fix it. There were a couple of Bat Boys where I actually skipped that step, and I have to admit is was to save time, but also my gut told me it would probably work out okay. It was the small handful where Bat Boy was the only character. When I look at those now, it still looks really lumpy. I can see why I still use the tracing paper step—because it looks all wonky. But it was Bat Boy, so who cares!

I really noticed that going through it. I mean I guess I should have known—it was the Weekly World News—that that was happening weekly, but the art on that looked– I mean I really, really liked the art on that.


So do you feel like you have a love for that? I mean reading that, it was sort of like “this is one of the things Pete Bagge was born to do”, you know? Because you say you had no expectations, or everyone thought it was this goofy character, I kind of thought you just popping off … was brilliant? [Laughs]

Well I can’t see doing that forever. For one thing, he’s not my character, and he’s always gonna be this ten-year-old boy whose frozen in time.

Couldn’t you do a spin-off series with—?

You know, if the money was right, I could have kept doing what I was doing for a while, but I really couldn’t see doing that forever. I have to admit that in a creative sense I get bored and restless after a while, and I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. You know how Fantagraphics is reprinting old Peanuts strips? Well right now, my wife is coloring all the Sunday ones.

Holy shit.

And they’re brilliant, but even though it’s the best comic strip of all time, I keep thinking I’d go out of my mind if I did that. And he did the most that one could with that format. She’s coloring at that point where Schulz was at his most brilliant, going into the early ’60s, but man… I would have lost my mind to keep doing that. I suppose Buddy Bradley is my “Charlie Brown,” and I still want to keep doing stuff with him, but the idea of just doing only him for the rest of my life sounds horrible. It might have been wise of me to just keep doing Buddy Bradley, since he was relatively successful compared to everything else I’ve ever done, but by 1999, 2000 I was getting a lot of other offers, and it seemed crazy for me not to do them. And I committed myself fully to every single project. I’m really proud of everything I’ve done, even though half of my so-called fans haven’t even heard of half of the things I’ve done since then. But I’m also glad that I could hop from project to project. That’s something I really like. Maybe I get bored too easily.

A Bat Boy strip from 2004.

A Bat Boy strip from 2004.

The other book that I love is the collection that Fantagraphics did of the Reason strips, which again was probably the other comic that made me laugh out loud and the other comic where I was like “Pete Bagge is born to do this.” Is that ongoing? Do you still do that?

Yes, though not quite as regularly. Reason seems to go to a different managing editor every ten years, so through the oughts I was working with an editor named Nick Gillespie, who if you watch all the cable news channels, he’s on it pretty regularly as a guest on all these different shows. While he was the managing editor of the magazine he wanted me to do four features a year, so that was a very regular thing while he was there. I get along well with the new editor, a Matt Welch, but he doesn’t have that same expectation. With him, he just said “Do something whenever the inspiration strikes.” That turned out to be a good thing since I’ve gotten very immersed in other graphic novel projects. I’m working on something for them right now; for the first time ever in my life I visited Detroit, so I’m doing a feature on Detroit.

Oh, wow. So that’s kind of an open invitation from them?

Yeah, pretty much.

Here’s the other thing I was struck by about that: how do they like you? [Laughs]

As a human being? [Laughs]

No, I just— I’m not the most political guy in the world, but I know that you’re a libertarian and that’s a libertarian magazine and it just didn’t feel, to me, I’d have to go back and read them, but they felt personal, they didn’t seem like they were being done to specifically prove any sort of political point.

Well, I am very much a libertarian, and there’s a couple of fellows there who I knew and worked with even before I started working regularly for Reason. There used to be a website called Suck, and they had a managing editor named Tim Cavanaugh who still works for Reason, and another guy, Brain Doherty, and they’re all huge alternative comics fans. They’re huge fans of a lot of the same people that you and I are fans of. But it’s embarrassing how much I agree with almost everything that they write; it’s extremely rare that I read anything in their magazine that I don’t agree with 100%. There is a very shared world view there. But yes, there’s a more personal element to what I do for them than what they do. They do much more straight reporting than I do. But they allow me to express self-doubt. It makes my comics that I do for them a bit more convincing and compelling. For example, I’ll say that I want to do a strip about homelessness-

Yeah, I remember that one.

OTHER-STUFF-103Where I figure I’d find “the answer,” only to come away more confused than when I started. And I met with people who ran homeless shelters who did not say at all what I thought they would say. I thought they’d give me the usual progressive crybaby stuff and blame everything on capitalism and the callousness of the Republican party and blah blah blah … and they didn’t at all. If anything, they were callous [laughs] after years of working with the homeless. Not callous, but realistic. So how can I come up with answers to the problem of homelessness when the people who’ve dedicated their lives to working with homeless people have no answers? No simple ones, anyway. They’re still trying different things, which I touched on in the comic. But if everybody I talked to has no conclusions, how can I pretend to come up with some. Kill them all?

[Laughs]

Or give them everything they want? There’s two simple answers for you.

You know, I guess that’s why I was asking, because it seems like, especially in this country today … We talked about it a little bit in the lost part of the interview, but you have to come down on these party lines.

You don’t have to, but way too many people do. I’m utterly disgusted with 99% of the people I know when we’re in an election cycle. I can’t believe how willingly they parrot the talking points of whichever major political party they’ve aligned to, you know? Like yesterday a tragedy happened, what was it? An ambassador in Libya got blown up along with three or four other people, and Romney blamed the White House, naturally. And then I go onto Facebook and everybody’s screaming at Romney. People are dead and their response is to direct all of their anger at Romney, who had nothing to do with it. And he was right! This blind partisanship is so intellectually lazy. And it’s tribal. It seems like the more time people spend in college the more tribal they are with this crap. I hate both of the major parties. They’re awful institutions run by evil, awful people. I don’t see any difference between them, except for abortion. I guess how you feel about abortion decides whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. It’s horrible.

[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know. As we’re having this conversation I’m wondering, of course, if I do that. It’s tough for me to even- I don’t know where I fall within that spectrum either, other than that they’re all full of shit and I don’t trust any of them, but that doesn’t seem terribly helpful.

First of all, we’re both artists, and you live in Minneapolis, and I live in Seattle, largely by choice, and socially we are very liberal.

Right.

But unfortunately for way too many people that we know, that means you have to buy into this whole party line just because socially we feel this way. For example: I am completely in favor of unrestricted gun rights, but that doesn’t mean that I want to move to Idaho. I’d be miserable in Idaho and everybody there would think I was a total freak, because I’d be bitching all the time that there’s no tapas bars, ya know? [Both laugh] And I have zero interest in hunting; I think hunting is gross. I want to go to the store where my chicken is already plucked.

(continued)

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24 Responses to “Your Theory Is More Than a Theory”: Zak Sally’s Interview with Peter Bagge (Part Two)

  1. DL says:

    Please have Zak Sally read some of Gary Groth’s interviews. He doesn’t seem to have any understanding of what an interview is. This piece is painful to read.

  2. I think Sally is one of the best interviewers in comics since Groth. I still think about sections from his comic art interview with Kim Deitch and his long TCJ interview with John Porcellino. This interview is two artists talking and I think it’s great.

  3. Scott Bieser says:

    I laughed until I cried, and cried until I laughed again. Then I went back over it to try and figure out who was interviewing whom.

  4. RL Crabb says:

    Back in “the good ol’ days” when a young artist came up to you at a convention and asked for advice, the standard reply was “don’t quit your day job.” In the jobless 21st Century, I’d council newcomers to marry rich (or at least someone who has a job.)
    Really enjoyed Pete’s Weirdo memories, and especially his libertarian sensibilities. I once illustrated a story written by Loompanics publisher Mike Hoy about his experience selling books at a Libertarian Party convention. Loompanics was always known for its over-the-top, first amendment on steroids approach to publishing, and the party officials were trying to make libertarianism look mainstream. They threatened to kick him out if he didn’t hide some of the more outrageous publications.

  5. Sam Henderson says:

    The problem is not with Zak, but the way it’s promoted. It shouldn’t be sold as an interview, but a dialog between two cartoonists, something TCJ should have as a regular feature.

  6. Tim Hodler says:

    Or maybe there’s no problem at all, and the internet has driven all of you insane!

  7. Memo Salazar says:

    I enjoyed this conversation as well. And I’ve been a huge Bagge fan since… well since everyone else on this message board was, too, I’m sure- but I have to say, Pete is starting to show his age with his old man opinions. What he seems to be forgetting is that there was no money in comics either when Crumb et al started out- they did it because they had to express themselves somehow. It just so happens that what they had to say was something people wanted to hear, which brought in the money.

    I’ve got nothing against money, but this idea that the internet is going to kill the medium is ridiculous. Artists have been making art while finding ways to scrape out a living since the very beginning, and the idea of copyright is pretty recent, too, as most of us should well know. I understand how anxiety-making it must be for Pete to see his stuff on the pirate bay, but the reality is all those downloads don’t translate to potential book sales. If we didn’t have the internet, most of those pirating kids just would never discover Bagge’s work, or they might go to the library and read it for free, like I did back in the day (not that there were comic books in libraries back then. But definitely records.) I loved Napster and discovered a ton of great new music because of it, which has translated into album sales and concert tickets over the years for those musicians. Getting rid of it was a truly bad move for music, despite Bagge’s apprehension. It’s a curious opinion to have for such an outspoken libertarian, that’s for sure. You gotta put your money where your mouth is, Pete, even if all you’ve got is a buck fifty!

    There are plenty of kids who don’t have 20 to 30 bucks to plunk down on a “graphic novel” that will take them 2 hours to read. Them downloading stuff is not a “fuck you” but an “i love you”, and that’s fine. Eventually some of them will get paying jobs and pay for their comics, because they’ll realize that Bagge needs to eat. That’s what I do, and I’m glad I’m contributing to Bagge’s retirement fund- but I also understand and accept that the idea of “owning” your ideas is fundamentally flawed. The concept worked for a little while, and now it doesn’t- so move on and find another way to make a living. Good art isn’t going to go away because of it.

  8. ant says:

    Oh yeah I’d forgotten about the Comic Art Deitch interview, that was bloody great. I thought Mr. Sally’s Jaime Hernandez piece in TCJ 300 was ace, too, albeit a bit short.

  9. ant says:

    Wow I love your comics Mr Crabb, the only problem is I can’t find enough of them! Everything about your drawing is so appealing to me. sorry to be off-topic, sycophantic, whatever criticism the intranet wants to throw at me but I saw ya name and thought it was too good of an oppurtunity to pass up.
    Hail Crabb!!!

  10. ant says:

    Also, that JD King back cover for Weirdo is fantabulous! I utterly adore his drawings. That strip with the two visually opposite characters he did in Weirdo, that was funny as hell and I always assumed it was, you know, taking the piss out of those type of reactionary youth, like the one where they dress as hippies and go to the head shop?!? And of course, his masterpiece “Elfsquelch”. That last line kills me every fucking time. Oh Louie & Bulldozer, that’s the duo I was thinking of. Really daft, lowbrow humour but his level of craft/drawing ability was/is so high. I need a collection of JD King’s work “stat”, as the kids say.

  11. Pingback: Comics A.M. | IDW’s CEO talks digital strategy, book market | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  12. Sam Henderson says:

    I never saw the Ted Kennedy back cover as a political commentary, just silliness that anyone could appreciate.

  13. R. Fiore says:

    I don’t suppose Bagge is 100% in earnest when he calls Fantagraphics a “reprint house,” but it’s close enough to perceived reality that I had to wonder, has it allowed itself to become primarily a classic reprint publisher? Doing an Amazon search of books published/to be published after December 2012, counting first publication of American cartoonists’ books and first US publication of foreign cartoonists, I find 24 from Drawn & Quarterly and 27 from Fantagraphics. What is extremely notable is that Fantagraphics does far more classic reprints; D&Q publishes something like two-thirds to three-quarters new material, with Fantagraphics it’s more or less reversed. Fantagraphics is a new comics publisher wrapped around a reprint house, D&Q is a new comics publisher that dabbles in reprints.

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    It’s worth noting, from my understanding, that Canadian publishers receive grants to publish Canadian authors. Fanta has no such support and instead relies on the reprint market to stay afloat.

  15. Peter Bagge says:

    R: This interview was conducted about a year ago, and at that time Fanta appeared to me to be going very much in the direction of being largely a reprint house. With the appearance of this interview it was immediately pointed out to me that such is not the case. Still, I in no way meant to imply that they were becoming JUST a reprint house, nor was I trying to make a direct comparison to Fanta and D&Q in a way that found the former wanting. I was simply trying to illustrate how and why I wound up doing my most recent project for the latter.

    Frank: I’ve been told that D&Q gets government assistance. I of course am not in favor of that. Only at the time I agreed to do my Sanger book with them I simply had no other solid book deal offers to chose from, and, well, I have to make a fucking living. I also must say that Chris Oliveros was quite enthusiastic about my proposal and in helping me shape and format it, and only an idiot would walk away from someone who’s that eager to invest in you, both literally and figuratively.

    Meanwhile, I also work for the Reason Foundation, who receives money from the Koch Brothers. I have absolutely no problem with that, though many others do. I’ve also done a lot of work for DC, who are a part of a huge corporate empire that enjoys tax breaks and government subsidies that independent companies do not. I DO have a big problem with that, yet amazingly no one’s ever made an issue of it with me. Bottom line: All money is “dirty,” and if I refused to accept work for any of the reasons listed above I’d be living the life of a caveman.

  16. R. Fiore says:

    Let’s put it this way — I can see how you’d get that impression, and part of the reason I made the count is that I didn’t know the answer. Fantagraphics and D&Q, who I took as examples, have always had differing philosophies, and the differences are interesting. Part of the Fantagraphics imperative has always been to publish a lot of books. D&Q started out with the policy of playing it close to the vest and expanding slowly. Classic reprints were much more of a priority of the first generation of independent publishers, and Fantagraphics is nearly the last of those standing. D&Q is probably more invested in classic publishing than most contemporary independent publishers.

    If I’m the Canadian Arts Council I’d have to think I was getting a pretty good return on my investment in D&Q. Having positions on other countries’ policies on subsidizing the arts seems a little perverse. If it results in publishing material I would enjoy at no cost to me I’d say knock yourselves out. Raid the Milk Fund, it’s fine with me. I don’t think Fantagraphics has anything to make excuses about in its classic publishing activities.

    Back when I worked there, which you must recall is something like 25 years ago, the one complaint I used to hear about Fantagraphics (usually prefaced by the words “My only complaint about Fantagraphics . . .”) was how long it took for cartoonists to get paid. I think I heard it from you once. I sometimes suspect I was being told this because they wanted it to get back, though it didn’t from me. D&Q certainly seems to have become more of the home of big name alternative cartoonists, and I always assumed the pay schedule was the reason. Fantagraphics always saw itself as something of a cooperative enterprise, and that’s also something of a first generation characteristic. I expect a change in the policy would most likely require publishing fewer low-profit books.

  17. Jeet Heer says:

    To complete the thought about all money being dirty: I believe the money the Koch Brothers give to Reason is funneled through a non-profit charity. Which means the Koch Bros. get a tax break for part of the money they give — which means that the American taxpayer is a partial subsidizer of Reason (and by extension of Peter Bagge). To allow the Koch Brothers to have their hobby of funding a libertarian magazine, everyone else in America has to pay more taxes (or the government has to borrow more money, to be paid for by future taxpapers). I should add, just so I’m not misunderstood, that I think Reason is an excellent magazine, and I enjoy almost everything they run, including especially Peter Bagge’s comics.

    I really don’t see why a system of paying for culture through indirect tax breaks is any better, morally speaking, than paying for it by taxing and direct government spending.

    One the subject of grants in general, it’s worth noting that there are grants (both government and private sector) for artists in the United States as well. In general, American cartoonists don’t avail themselves of the grants that they might be eligible for. There are complicated reasons for this — could be that many people that comics are (still) looked down upon and the grants are a longshot. But in general I think it would be a good idea for cartoonists to think about granting as a possible revenue source, not the only one of course but one means among several of financing a comics career.

  18. Jeet Heer says:

    As to whether Fantagrahics is becoming a reprint house, this will sound like name-dropping but I took up this very issue with Gary Groth two years ago. I had just gotten the Fanta catalog and it seemed top-heavy with reprint projects with few living cartoonists aside from the Hernandez Brothers.
    Gary made a few points to me:
    1) That particular catalog didn’t quite match where Fanta is at since it was exceptionally reprint heavy.
    2) Fanta has always done a mix of archival projects and new stuff. Remember back in the 1980s they were doing Popeye, Prince Valiant and Nemo magazine in addition to Love & Rockets and Neat Stuff.
    3) Fanta is publishing more now than ever before, which means more new cartoonists as well as more reprint books.
    The final point, which Gary didn’t make but I will, is that the vast majority of the reprint books that Fanta does are archival projects of stuff not easily accessible elsewhere. Making all of Herriman’s Krazy Kat full pages available again isn’t the same as Signet or Dover putting out a new edition of Shakespeare’s sonnet. The type of archival work Fanta does (and IDW and D&Q and others as well) is making something new in the world.

  19. Randolph J Realnamingsworth says:

    the term reprint house seems kind of dismissive. firstly, the only reason there is a reprint market that can support something like the complete Barnaby, is because of the last 10 years of fantagraphics raising the bar on what can be expected from a collection of comics. before they and Chris Ware started on Krazy Kat the DC comics Archives style was basically the standard, and before that there just wasn’t much reprinting of anything. the fact that they’ve committed to actually doing the whole of several many volume series is incredible and worthy of praise not scorn. so of course that means year after year we’ll keep seeing Peanuts,Pogo,and Uncle Scrooge books. also look at how much they publish which hasn’t been printed since it’s original run as a newspaper strip or 10 cent comic book. so it’s not like lazy ol fantagraphics is leaning on the reprint market and serving up more Captain Easy books which, clearly everyone already read back in 1940.

  20. Frank Santoro says:

    Well said.

  21. patrick ford says:

    The only trouble with reprints is on the whole the quality of the things being reprinted is so high (at least in my opinion) that I can’t keep up with all the newspaper strip collections coming out, and new things I’d try in a dryer market get left behind.
    I’d really like to support more living creators, but those dead guys are so good.

  22. spencer says:

    …and after I finished reading this interview… I went ahead and downloaded some Peter Bagge comics.

    Just kidding!

    The interview was very funny, especially towards the end. I remember reading the Reason Mag collection at a Barnes and Noble a few years back, and not because I knew or liked his work but because I like to read political stuff I totally disagree with–It’s a dialectical thing Marxists like myself have a hang-up about.

    But I really enjoyed his work for what it was–well crafted funnies.

  23. spencer says:

    One more thing: I think I also enjoyed them because I’m a native Seattle.

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