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

Hold on. I’ve got to clarify, though, because I agree with what you’re saying, but I come at it from a different perspective. You’re saying that you think that if you have this idea in your head, and you want to get it down on paper, and you do that thing, that it’s going to be nowhere near as good as the thing you’d get down on paper if you were trying to make money? Because I might have to totally disagree with you.

If you knew there was a financial reward to make it as good as possible. Just to get the competitive juices flowing, to make it worthwhile.

I’m trying to wrap my head around that because I get that, but I feel like your generation, and going back to Crumb, I know that was the drive, to attempt to make a living, but at the same time, the reason I think things are so washed out, or becoming so washed out is there’s more and more and more stuff. The world is lousy with cartoons, with comic books, and in one way it’s fucking great–there’s an amazing amount of stuff being done, and a lot of it is fantastic. And at the same time– me and John P. talk about this all the time, the old feeling of Hey, I’m really glad you started doing this a few years back. But, also, I’ve been doing this for twenty years, you know? And the same with music. I cannot understand how much music and how many bands there are. Everybody has the means to go and do this, and the means to get it out into the world.

They’ve eliminated the middle man, which is great.

OTHER STUFF-107It is great. But at the same time, when we were talking earlier about you teaching yourself when you were young, having that learning curve and that drive of “I have to teach myself to be a cartoonist and to be good at this.” That was very real, and there were far more impediments in the way of anyone getting their stuff out there and seen. You knew that you had to bust your ass to get this thing done.

Right.

And it wasn’t an immediate line from I’m doing this to now it’s in the world. There was this level of work and intensity you had to put in to even get it out into the world. You know, when you bring up the alternative thing and the grunge thing and all that shit, I do think that whole thing came from from a bunch of kids who, when they started doing it, had no clue and no aspirations beyond just getting heard—a bunch of people who were like, “I’m in a fucking band, ‘cuz that’s what I have to do here.” I mean, in hardcore music, there was never one iota of belief that this was something palatable, or commercially acceptable, and a whole world erupted from that thing. And then that whole world turned on its edge when everybody said, “Oh, Nirvana? There’s money in this?” Because before that everyone had assumed there was zero.

But that told them there was money in-

But that’s when things started getting shitty! [Laughs]

You know, the easiest time to start your own record label was the early ’60s or even before. It got more consolidated, mainly due to distribution, since then. So sure, anybody could start a record label since then, but forget about anybody hearing what you’re putting out if you don’t have a distribution deal with EMI or Warner. It was never easy easy, but it used to be more loosey-goosey. It’s been a real double-edged sword, the new technology. I guess new technology always is. Now all you need is a scanner and access to the internet, and there you go. The whole world could potentially see it immediately. But you’re also just a part of this cacophony, you have thousands-

A million voices.

There are photos of the Kardashians to look at, so why would you look at Joe Shmuck’s mini-comic? More than ever I see people not getting beyond a certain point. You know, there’s certain levels, but I don’t really see people killing themselves like they used to. Because I think they reach this point where it is like, what’s the point, you know? To really pushing the envelope. I don’t see it. I might be jaded, though.

That was a question I had at the beginning of this, your generation was all those guys who came out of that mindset, and who are still doing it. I’m talking you, Chester, the Hernandezes, Clowes, all those guys, you had to get it up to that level to continue.

That’s just it. If we were going to do it we had to make the absolute most of it. We had to go crazy and invest everything.

I’m surprised that people your age and younger are not more cognizant of how the nature of the internet defeats that. That’s the point I’m trying to make, is that it does take the wind out of your sails at a certain point. It’s all, you know, it looks good—I’m not talking about you—I mean, with a lot of people, it’s like, yeah, it looks good, but how to take it to the next level? And just raise the bar, and “Try to top this.” Me and Clowes and the Hernandez brothers, we used to literally say, “Try to top this.” [Laughs] We were like, real assholes about it. And of course, they would, and then I’d be… [Laughs]

And that hasn’t happened since, I totally miss that. And as you say that, I always thought that it was this kind of internal drive with you and the guys I just mentioned. And the same with me, I have this internal thing that I feel makes me keep trying to hit a certain self-imposed level. But you know, like you said, that’s self-imposed, and with every passing year… How do I put this? The world is changing in a way that gives me less chance-

To make a living as a cartoonist?

Yeah. Again, me and John P. talk about this all the time: Bust your ass however you’d like, but it feels like we’re not going the direction of getting closer to making a living, we’re getting closer to being, like, poets.

Right, or teachers.

Poets and teachers. And I am a teacher, and if I wasn’t I’d be totally fucked.

OTHER-STUFF-128That’s the new competition: everybody wants to be a teacher. When I last taught at Seattle U., they dropped some pretty clear hints that they’re not gonna have me back due to my lack of a teacher’s certificate, let alone a BA, even though no one’s complained about the job I’ve done. Quite the opposite. But there’s a lot of people who could do what I’m doing, and do it well, who might have master’s degrees.

I didn’t go to art school at all, and I’ve been doing this for six years, and it’s been told to me, flat out, that that’s the reason I can’t advance, or be taken on in a real way, regardless of how well I’m doing my job. And that if I wanted to advance I should work in some way to go get a degree. And that’s like, really? Really, you want me to spend forty grand and fucking years of my life to go get some bullshit degree, so you can tell me I can do the job that I’m already doing?

Right, teach all the same lessons [Laughs]

No, it’s so that when you come back you’ll have the students taping string to the wall or make little piles of sand. [Laughs]

Yeah. But there’s still this part of me that knows good and well… Thank God that I have that gig, because my comics don’t sell well at all. And I’m slowly getting resigned to that, but there’s this other part of me—I did spend twelve years in a band, and it’s like you have to do it. You have to do what you have to do, if you’re going to make this “art” thing work.

Did Low break up?

No, Low is still a band, I just quit.

Do the others make a living being Low?

Yeah.

And do you feel like you’d be making a living being in Low if you still were with them?

I know I would, yeah.

So was that a really difficult decision? To not do that anymore?

Yeah, it was.

Was it something that you wrestled with for a long time?

Yeah, and it came down to some particular personal stuff going on in the band that put me in a position where I basically had no choice. I laid down some stuff, and I said, “Either some stuff has got to happen, or I’m done.” And it didn’t, so i was done.

But then relatively late in life you had to commit yourself to cartooning, and that must’ve been really difficult.

It was terrible.

[Laughs]

And it still is.

You said it was terrible and I just laugh. But you have my sympathy!

And after Low, I didn’t think I was walking around with a sense of entitlement to a certain sized audience. I felt like I came at the whole music thing from a pretty reasonable standpoint. I never dreamed it’d be anything I’d do as a job. I didn’t even aspire to that really because it was too ridiculous. But Low had such a slow growth period, so gradual, that by the time I quit we were doing pretty well. We had a good audience for a mid-level indie rock band.

You had a dedicated cult following.

Yeah. So I went from busting my ass, and the result of that busting ass, when we put out a record we’d sell about thirty thousand in the States and about thirty in Europe. And I was just the bass player, you know, that wasn’t my sole artistic thing, but it was something I worked my ass off for, and it meant a lot to me, artistically. I went from that to barely being able to crack a thousand people buying my book.

But if you stayed in the music biz you’d have to keep touring, and touring sucks. Yet something I’ve noticed with cartoonists is that one of the main ways to keep making money is to go to comic conventions. It’s weird how, just like people pay more money see a show than ever before, while they’re downloading their favorite band’s music for free, it’s the same with cartooning. More and more people are downloading my stuff for free, but now when I go to comic conventions, people don’t quibble over the price of a sketch. But the catch is that means I have to travel. And while I’m traveling I’m not making comics. Because when you go to a comic convention, it’s not just those two days, it’s the travel days. And also when you come back you’re totally wiped out. It’s not like you can go right back to the drawing board. At least I can’t. I have to decompress while I talk myself out of getting a real job. [Laughs] You become a dog-and-pony show. You’re doing the same thing that the surviving members of the Vanilla Fudge are doing. Just when you think you can stay home to nurse the gout forever, you suddenly have no choice but to hit the road again. You have to go and stand up and meet and greet and pretend your back doesn’t hurt. We cartoonists now all have to go and be part of this circus sideshow. I once read about how the all-time great pitcher Grover Alexander spent his last days as an attraction at a Times Square sideshow, right next to the bearded lady, and at first I thought, “Wow tragic.” But then I realized: “Hey, that’s me!” [Laughs]

See, again, I’ve turned that into a great lucky thing for me, because I eat shit at conventions as well, you know?

But what happens if, for whatever reason, you can’t travel? Then you’re just fucked. What if you have a crippling fear of flying? What if you’re 80? What are you supposed to do then? It’s better than nothing, but it is absolutely not better than staying at home, making new work, and collecting money off the work that you used to do. That was better. [Laughs]

OTHER-STUFF-032Going back to earlier, I haven’t had my stuff stolen and posted online as far as I know, but that drives me insane. And the whole culture that comes out of it of like, “I get this thing for free, and fuck you.” It’s not only “I get this thing for free” but it’s like, “You made it, I get it, and fuck you.”

But this James T Spock guy, he’s not saying fuck you, in his brain he’s saying, “I’m your biggest fan! I’m such a big fan I want the whole world to read everything you’ve done for free.” He’s not thinking fuck you at all. I’m thinking fuck you.

[Laughs]

It’s a new sense of entitlement. When I write to these sites I know I’m wasting my time. It’s getting harder and harder and harder to even find that link to an e-mail, so I can just tell somebody in the politest terms. They even instruct you, they pretty much instruct you, “You have to beg us. If you swear at us we’re gonna ignore you. You have to beg us.” And they have more and more hurdles, and you have to weed through tons and tons of moral self-righteousness on their part. They always talk about anybody who has a copyright alert, if you are trying to protect your copyright, you’re Coca-Cola. You’re Hollywood. We’re all one and the same.

And that’s the mentality. It’s all free. The idea that everyone is going to get this– your artistic output, my artistic output, a band’s, whatever– it’s gonna all be free? If all of that stuff is going to become free, then everyone in the world at a certain point has got to be prepared for, okay then, you get what you pay for.

Yeah, which is going to be bad art.

Exactly.


(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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