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

You wanna hear my new tactic?

Sure.

[Laughs] You don’t really, but you said sure and that was nice.

Well, I’m not expecting much but go ahead. [Laughs]

[Laughs] My new tactic, and of course this is a tactic of desperation, but I just started playing in a band again with a geezer, who’s my age-

A geezer who’s your age. [Laughs]

It’s actually exciting for me to feel like, “I’m doing these things that I am positive nobody gives a shit about.” And that’s why it’s exciting, because it has no possibility to make a dent in the incredible noise of culture right now. It’s not even a possibility, so I might as well have as much fun as humanly possible, and be willfully stupid. Like, I’m doing this, and it’s actually kind of fun to be like, I know what this is up against, but-

It’s liberating. But then you have to be aware of the fact that that opens the door to self-indulgence, and boring everybody who isn’t you who might be listening to it. You have to think about that.

What else are you going to do?

I’ve always done that. That’s a thing that you go through when you’re younger, too, ideally. I’ve got nothing to lose. That’s what you’re describing, is this “I’ve got nothing to lose” angle. But then what do you have to gain? You also have to think, “I also, potentially, have everything to gain.” And that’s the other thing you have to think about when you’re making art. And that’s what propels you forward.

Yeah. I mean, yes, but at the same time, it’s like if you’re actually going into it like, “I want to do this thing for no reason other than that I know that I am going to enjoy it.” And the byproduct of that being that I actually have enough faith that, if I enjoy this thing enough-

That somebody else will.

That somebody else will. That’s the only thing I can be sure of at this point in my life.

Well, that’s good, that’s true. And I agree, that if it means something to you it’s got to mean something to somebody else. That’s a problem too, though, as an artist as you get older—at least this is very much true with music and it’s true with comics—your potential audience gets dispersed. Because people who will always respond the most to your work are people in your own demographic.

Right.

sammy-72I’ve been in a band for the last five years. We try as hard as we can with our limited time restraints to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, and I’m really proud of the records we’ve made. But finding an audience seems to be impossible. I suppose the last thing anyone wants to hear is yet another band a bunch of 40- and 50-somethings. We’re supposed to get out of the way.

Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I resent that. [Laughs]

[Laughs] What, resent being told to get out of the way?

Yeah, fuck ‘em! Kids, they don’t know what… So, I remember the last time we had lunch when I was in Seattle, you were talking to me about a book project. And I can’t remember her name, but it was about one of the first ladies to bring forward birth control?

Yes, that’s what, whenever I could find the time for the last two years, I have been working on. It’s Margaret Sanger. The book will be published by Drawn and Quarterly.

Holy- Really?!?

They asked me not to talk about it yet, but I see it’s listed on Amazon already, so oh well.

Wow. Have they been being nice?

“Nice?” Well sure, they’re easy to work with. And they gave me a big advance that I spent immediately.

Yeah.

I burnt through it in a month. Since then I’ve been slaving away on it while making no income. I’ve been auctioning off a lot of original art in order to pay the bills in the meantime.

No, no, no.

I also put it aside at one point to do Reset for Dark Horse, which actually paid a bit better. One graphic novel subsidized the other.

Okay. Wow, I’m really glad that that’s going to happen.

I really enjoy doing comic biographies, and I have a long list of people I’d love to do, but it remains to be seen if anybody will buy it. In fact I also just did another very short founding fathers strip for Dark Horse Presents on Alexander Hamilton. He was such a nut, that guy!

ff

I was just going to say I loved those founding fathers things.

There’s a vague possibility that if I ever give it enough pages that they’ll do a collection of them, but I still have to do a lot more before that happens.

As soon as I can stop working on the thing doesn’t pay any money [Sammy the Mouse], I’m going to do that real “shopping” thing, too, because I have a Philip K. Dick biography on the-

Comic biography?

Yeah.

Do you have a publisher interested? Or committed?

I had a meeting with the First Second guy, and he was interested, but I’ve got to get my real proposal going on that. But I think that’s what people are interested in right now. Like Noah Van Sciver, he’s got the drive. He’s like a kid cartoonist who’s got the drive to bust his ass to do that. And he just did that Abraham Lincoln bio.

I just read it. It was good.

Yeah, and it’s getting a lot of attention. I mean I’m hearing a lot about it. You know, to the point where I’m like, “Noah, you’re twenty-five!”

Is he that young?

Oh, he’s young, yeah. [He’s 28.] But you know, he’s a machine, the kid just draws like crazy. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s really great that he’s getting that attention. And at the same time I was like, “Why is this book attention when Noah’s been doing his comic BLAMMO for ages?” And everyone’s like, “Well, it’s Abe Lincoln.”

WOMANREBEL.coverPrior to Drawn and Quarterly being interested in doing the Sanger book, there were much more obscure people who I wanted to write about, and they weren’t against it, but that was obviously a much tougher sell. I’m amazed at how many people never heard of Margaret Sanger, whenever I mention her name. They’re like, “Who?” I thought she still was a household name.

I mean, I don’t think she was to me, but when you started explaining it it sounds like-

She should be. She was at one time.

So you think you’re gonna keep trying to go down that nonfiction road?

Yeah. Well, this has been happening for a long time, but every couple of years I’m ready to completely quit comics and get a job as a delivery truck driver. That’s always where my head goes. It’s so ridiculous, it’s just like a little girl, when you say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And they’ll say just what they’ve seen, a teacher or a mommy, you know? [Laughs] And because I’m stuck home all the time, being self-employed, lots of times the only person I see is the mailman or the UPS or FedEx guy.

I always think about UPS.

That’s where my head always goes, because it’s so the opposite of what I’m doing. But of course I’d hate it. I have a friend who drives a bread truck. He’s been doing it for years and likes it, but when I asked him what exactly the job entailed it sounded like a nightmare. Far more complicated and stressful than you’d ever think it’d be, not to mention getting up at four in the morning. So I’m stuck. I have to just keep doing this till I drop dead. I’m in it for the long haul. Too late to change now.

Hey is Fanta going to freak out? Or do they know?

They know, and they don’t seem to care much. If they do care they sure don’t show it. Well, I’ve been working with other publishers now for quite a while, so they don’t care about that stuff. They’re becoming more and more of a reprint house now.

They are doing a lot of that.

Basically the only thing that seems like they’re not is the misplaced loyalty of the Hernandez brothers. [Laughs] I’d like to always do work for them to, if I can. I certainly intend to.

You know, those guys. That stuff kind of gives me faith.

They’re still totally up for publishing new cartoonists, it’s just that some other publishers give guaranteed page rates or decent advances, which is hard to walk away from. I can’t sit down and do 100 pages, which will, for me, take a year or two—it’s literally impossible to sit down and do that, and nothing but that, and have to wait another six months before I see a dime from it. It’s impossible.

Yeah, and you know when I first started realizing I should take a stab at the Philip K. Dick thing, I talked to Eric [Reynolds] and, you know, the Sammy the Mouse stuff, that stuff I’m obviously going to do whether or not I’m making a dime on it. And I hope someday I’ll make a couple dimes off it, but I’m doing that. And that’s what I do.

Right.

But it was actually kind of freeing for me to be like, “So I do want to do this Philip K. Dick bio, I’ve been thinking about it for years and I want to do it,” and, realizing what you just said, knowing, I can’t talk to anybody unless I’m gonna get twenty grand. Like this is going to take me a solid X amount of years of my life, and if nobody’s going to give a livable amount of money to take this on, then I’ll just do the thing that pays zero. You know what I mean?

Right. That’s what I was going to say before: Why do publishers give us a penny? Why does any publisher give me a penny, when what they’re paying me to do is going to be put up on file sharing. And as time goes by more and more people are going to know about that and take advantage of that, how are they going to make any money and why are they going to give me a dime?

sammy-73Maybe I’m being naive, but I feel like, at some level people have to understand that if they don’t reward quality and effort, things will shitcan quickly. That everything isn’t for free.

It’s the consumers who have to figure that out. Everyone has to figure it out. It’ll all be hashed out somehow eventually, where it’s financially worthwhile to keep making new work. I just don’t see how at the moment.

And as I said before there’s comic conventions. Something I became very aware of at the last comic convention I was at, I was sitting next to this mainstream artist, a very gregarious guy, and he was doing lots of business. But I noticed that the more money people gave him to do a sketch, the more time they spent hanging around and talking to him. They’re not just giving him money for a drawing, they’re also buying his time. It was almost prostitution, in that they got to pretend they were his best friend for a half an hour. And like a prostitute the artist felt obliged to be nice to them and pretend they weren’t boring the shit out of him.

Right.

These people that would give him the most money were the most boring.

[Laughs]

I don’t have that problem myself, of course. My fans are fascinating. [Laughs] And poor.

[Laughs]

Well, now you have to go meet them and pretend to like them. As you draw a scantily clad Wonder Woman. That is something that I also used to refuse to do. Now I do it all the time, make lots of money.

[Laughs]

It beats making nothing and complaining about it. I used to tell them they could go to hell when asked to draw Batman. I just wanted to draw my own characters, and didn’t get why people wanted me to draw Darth Vader or Betty Boop. But at some point their requests got weirder and weirder. That’s another weird thing about fans at comic conventions: they try to think of something unique for you to draw. Like this one guy, his book was all superheroes, but they were all throwing up. Another guy had everybody draw monsters and aliens from Star Wars movies, but it had to be only monsters and aliens that had 1-5 seconds of screen time.

[Sighs]

He had all this reference material to draw whatever monster I wanted from the background of Star Wars movies. I saw this one monster, he was like camouflaged as a mountain, a big mountain or boulder with vaguely defined legs and arms. I said, “Does this count?” And he said, “Yeah.” So he gave me fifty bucks to draw a rock, basically. Out of guilt I wound up giving the drawing a lot of detail. I kept cross-hatching this rock monster. [Laughs] By the time he came back he almost started crying. He couldn’t believe how good it was. [Laughs]

Did he give you more money?

No. I still thought he was gonna get mad at me for choosing the rock.

You should have been, like, “Every tear you shed is another twelve dollars.”

Yes. So it’s total prostitution.

[Laughs]

Another absurd thing at the last con I went to, is that Avengers movie had just came out, so if someone asked you to draw the Hulk they wanted it to vaguely resemble the actor who played him, Mark Ruffalo. [Laughs]

Damn. All right man, well. Now that we’ve insulted everyone who could potentially give us money ever.

Right. Well, it’s The Comics Journal. Only bitter wretches read that thing, so we have nothing to lose.

Well, I’ll get on my guy for transcribing this.

Oh poor guy, jeez.

Yeah. They need stuff to do.

He’ll love it. He’ll love it and then he’ll kill himself.

FILED UNDER: ,

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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