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

I don’t know if it’s me turning forty or whatever, but I found all these old undergrounds, some of the more famous Crumb ones and some of the other ones, and just reading through those made me think about Weirdo. Weirdo didn’t have any political “stance,” it wasn’t overtly political, but something came through that was. And those undergrounds, I mean they were all part of the counterculture and everything, and some of it was goofy and reflective of that particular moment in time, but it really made me wish there was some way to address some of these social, political issues now, in a way that was thoughtful and reasonable rather than this screaming and yelling, red or blue. You know what I’m saying?

Everything’s political if you make it political. There were occasionally some politically related pissing matches that occurred while I was the managing editor of Weirdo. And it was mainly me trying to allow people to express themselves, but without seeming like I was endorsing anything, which I realize in retrospect is impossible. Well the most obvious example was— There’s a cartoonist named J.D. King, do you know him?

Yup.

He’s mainly an illustrator now. I always loved the way he worked, and back when I lived in New York he was a close friend of mine. And he’d flip-flop. One week he’d be like a hardcore Republican, and the next week he would literally be, not just a Communist, but a nostalgic 1940s-style-Russian-Jew-from-Brooklyn Communist.

[Laughs]

He’d even once called up my wife to ask her how you make borscht. It wasn’t even the just the ideology, it was the accessories that appealed to him.

Nice.

But when I first met him, he was in more of a contrary, hardcore Republican mode. Because I loved his artwork I asked him to do a back cover for Weirdo. Do whatever you want, just draw a back cover. So he did a Big Daddy Roth-style drawing of Ted Kennedy driving Mary Jo Kopechne off the Chappaquiddick Bridge. [Laughs]

Nice. [Laughs]

And it had a caption that read, “Ted Kennedy, son of a bootlegger, son of a bitch.” It was blatantly obvious and over the top. I also knew that it was just begging for some kind of a partisan response, because it did come across as the partisanship that I’ve been bellyaching about. But I did say to J.D. King, “Draw whatever you want,” so he took advantage of that. Well, I did say, “Do you really wanna do that?” and he said, “Yeah, you got a problem with that? What, you love Ted Kennedy?”

Which by the way is always the best kind of argument, “What, you like him? What, you don’t like it, Bagge?”

Crumb's back cover from Weirdo #15.

Crumb’s back cover from Weirdo #15.

[Laughs] I did like the drawing. It indulged my Big Daddy fetish that I had at the time. Anyhow, though I can’t imagine Robert Crumb being a Kennedy-clan lover, it immediately got his left-wing hackles up, so he said, “I’m doing the next back cover.” I said, “But Robert, you always do the front cover. The back cover is for other artists.” He said, “I gotta respond to that.” He did this drawing of a goofy-looking guy throwing eggs at a poster of Ayn Rand. I was like, oh great, Ted Kennedy or Ayn Rand. Take your pick, people! [Laughs]

Oh God [Laughs], see, I…

I did a comic about Ayn Rand, about how polarizing she is: you either worship her or you think she’s Beelzebub. I don’t feel either way. I have very mixed feelings about her and her writing. Anyhow, like the King drawing, I loved the art — I always love Crumb’s art — but I thought both pieces were childish.

See, now here we go, because I thought that was hilarious.

Okay.

I thought that that back cover was just— and this may be exactly what we’re talking about, because Weirdo, I know it was just so absurd, and…

Yeah, but didn’t you also wonder where the heck that came from?

Yeah! But I thought it was just so kinda stupid and goofy that it still cracks me up. It’s just like, some dude throwing eggs at Ayn Rand? Saying, “Take that, ya witch”? I guess maybe that’s why I thought it was great.

Oh, okay. [Laughs]

Because I just thought it was out of nowhere. What? Oh all right, that’s hilarious. But that’s my point, like with the J.D. King thing that you just said, and the Ayn Rand, both of those being in the same magazine, within a couple issues. I loved that those two things had equal billing, and both were just kind of nuts.

Yeah. It certainly was that.

What emerged from that whole thing is not the politics of being this thing or that thing but the politics of being a fucking weirdo. And that’s about the only “political” thing that I could ever get behind, you know?

But it was a pissing match.

Yeah, but-

And by the time he did the Ayn Rand drawing, J.D. King was a “communist.” [Laughs]

To me, not knowing it was a pissing match, the thing that came through was just that it was the container for a bunch of artists and cartoonists, who are supposed to be a bunch of left-wing whatever-

While I was the managing editor of Weirdo for that brief period, the harshest criticism I got was from the other contributors, who would be offended by the work of other artists I ran. For example, I reprinted a three-page comic strip by S. Clay Wilson that originally ran in Screw magazine. Screw magazine probably told him, “Be your S. Clay Wilson-est, go crazy and break every taboo.” So he just went nuts, drawing the most sexist and racist and scatological comic he could possibly think of. He really went overboard, and I loved it. [Laughs] So I reprinted it.

You see, one of the things that was great about early underground comics is the way they gleefully and compulsively broke every societal rule imaginable. It was very cathartic to see that, and it was one of many things that helped loosen up our culture. But by the ’80s, those rules started to tighten up again, largely from the left, surprisingly, and under the guise of political correctness. The false notion of direct causation—that, say, a depiction of rape causes someone to commit rape—was gaining a lot of traction again, which made it easy again for people to demonize and ban material that they didn’t like.

The S. Clay Wilson strip was obviously meant to fly in the face of this new political correctness, yet artists who were offended by it kept saying, “It’s been done before, time to move on.” To which I said, “No, it’s obviously time to do it again.” [Laughs]. I felt that critics of the strip were being disingenuous when they said “Wilson isn’t funny anymore,” since I don’t think they ever thought he was funny. They simply felt that now was the time to say it out loud, and over and over again. A number of artists said they’d no longer contribute if I ran a strip like that again. So I ran another strip by Wilson that was even more offensive. [Laughs] That may sound childish and spiteful on my part, which it was to some degree, but I also thought those strips were very, very funny, so it wasn’t solely about making a point.

Huh. Did you-

I suppose everything becomes political when you’re the managing editor of anything.

Well, if you guys would let me fire up Weirdo again, I could find out for myself… [Laughs]

other stuff

Bagge's collaboration with Adrian Tomine from Hate.

Bagge’s collaboration with Adrian Tomine from Hate.

I almost started another anthology towards the end of Hate‘s run. I was running work by other artists in the back pages. I was thinking of expanding on that, even changing the name of the magazine. I wanted to drop the name “Hate,” because the word became politicized. As if liberals don’t hate stuff. [Laughs] They like to pretend they don’t hate anything. I thought that that would go away, this politicization of a verb. But it didn’t, it’s only gotten worse, with the advent of “hate crimes” and all that. So I was thinking of changing the name of it, and I mentioned it in an interview in The Comics Journal. And when that interview wound up in print I immediately got bombarded with submissions, 90% of which were really bad. And all these horrible memories came back, of this totally thankless job being the managing editor of a comic-book anthology.

Yeah. I mean, I guess the reason I ask was I know all those things were political, but the stuff I see you doing for Reason, it’s perhaps supposed to represent, um, “the libertarian perspective,” but those strips for me just read like this is some guy giving you his take, from no overt political perspective, other than this is what I believe, and this is what I feel about this thing.

Right. But I am a libertarian, so it is from a libertarian standpoint.

Yeah. It doesn’t read like some didactic—and that’s the shit that I hate, whether it’s Republican or Democrat or whoever the fuck, you know? If it’s that didactic-

But the problem with the partisanship, with Republican versus Democrat, is its high stakes. There is a reason why people make a huge deal out of these absurd distinctions, and that is that when a party gets in power, they have a lot of power. They control the purse strings, and they get to hand most of the money out. So if you back the right horse, you benefit from it. You could pretend to be the maker of solar panels, and con the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars and never go to jail. Or with both parties, people on Wall Street are getting away with murder, and nobody’s gone to jail over all that crap. Both under Republicans or Democrats none of them go to jail because they give whoever’s in power fuck-loads of money, so they have a “Get out of jail free” card. It’s corruption. With average folks you get leverage through groups like the teachers’ union or the NRA. They tend to back just one horse, so they have to head for the hills when the wrong side wins. And demonize them on Facebook in the meantime. [Laughs]

Well, let’s get it back to that. Where do you see yourself fitting in to all this, like the stuff we’re talking about and the kind of comics you want to do, and the kind of comics you feel like you have to do? I mean, do you want to keep doing comics forever?

Yeah, sure. I mean I wish it paid a lot better than it has been lately, and that’s been a real issue. It might be a mistake because it’s causing me a lot of sleepless nights, but a year or two ago I finally noticed and took advantage of this thing Google has called Google Alerts. And I typed in my own name, so basically in my e-mail box, whenever my name comes up anywhere in the internet, they’ll tip me off, they’ll send a link.

Ooohhh…

And 90% of it people putting up entire graphic novels that I had just drawn, so that everyone in the universe could download it for free. And I spend entire days writing to these people saying, “Look, this is my livelihood, you’ve gotta take this down.” I look at the websites and they’re all, “corporate motherfuckers, fuckin’ Google, fuckin’ Coca-Cola, fuckin’ Time Warner empire,” and I’m just like, I’m not any of that. I shouldn’t have to say any of this, but you know I’m intimidated by their ballsiness. You know, Pirate Bay, Megaupload, they make you jump through all these hoops to get them to take your stuff down. I’m the sole owner of this artwork, and they’re completely robbing me of my livelihood. And that’s just it too, it’s always the same guy for years now, even before I started getting these Google Alerts. There’s this guy who goes to all these file-sharing sites, and amazingly he hasn’t changed his name. It’s Leonard T Spock. For as long as these file-sharing sites have been on, this person who calls himself Leonard T Spock has uploaded literally every drawing I’ve ever done, and shares it with the entire world, onto every single one of these file-sharing sites. And when I click his name he’s not just doing it with me, he is sharing with the world, for free, every single comic page that Joe Sacco has ever done, that Gilbert Hernandez has ever done, that Jim Woodring has ever done, that Gary Panter has ever done. He’s such a big fan [Laughs] of alternative comics that he wants all of us to be in the poorhouse. This is the one thing where I disagree with most libertarians. I tell them that this is something that’s hitting me in my pocket book. They basically don’t believe in copyright laws, and they would say to me, “Well, wouldn’t you say because of the internet, and file sharing, and modern technology, wouldn’t you say that copyright laws are meaningless?” And my answer to that is, “Yes, it is.” But I still hate it, for obvious reasons. As a producer, that is. Not as a consumer, ha ha.

But is it meaningless morally, or is it just-

No, it’s meaningless in the practical sense. Because it’s reaching a point where, if I draw something, it’ll be solely because I want to. This is something everyone likes to pretend isn’t true, but it is true. If I’m just drawing to indulge myself, if I have a notion in my noggin, and I want to get it on paper, and then I want to share it with the world, I’m going to upload it to the internet. From that point on people can do whatever the fuck they want with it—that’s fine. But that piece of artwork, that thing that I created and I shared for free with everybody will never be anywhere as good as something where I thought I could potentially make a lot of money off of it. I mean, why are there still publishers? The last time I saw my editors from Reason, they were saying, “Do you still really believe in copyright law?” And I go, “Well, yeah.” But it’s wishful thinking, it’s all a moot point, a lost cause. Be prepared for the rest of history not having comics as good as what you’ve grown up on. You’re not going to see it. And you already are not seeing it. The profit motive is evaporating, and we’ve already seen it with music.

Yeah.

Think about music ever since Napster.

I don’t have to. [Laughs]

And I’m not saying I’m against Napster. It was inevitable. But think of music, since file sharing’s come along. And compare that to the 1960s. Or even the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The last time there was this huge blast of music the likes of which you’ve never heard before, was in the early nineties, when indie rock suddenly became massively popular. After that these was a lot of good pop music for a while, which may not have been totally original but it was lively and interesting, where producers where doing new things with new digital technology. A lot of this was targeted towards pre-teens, but then they were the last demographic who still paid money for new music. They and their parents hadn’t quite gotten onto the file-sharing thing yet. Now that we’re all downloading music for free there’s not going to be any music that will thrill and excite you, it’s all going to sound like something that came before. Music has gotten really boring, and comics now are starting to get really boring, and it has everything to do with this new technology.


(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.

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  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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