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

[Laughs] Chris Ware had a giant effect for a while there...

You think he inspired what I just described? I don't know...

Well, people were drawing like him and coloring like him for, like-

They were? Well first of all, how many people can draw like that?

Yeah, well, I think the effect that he had— Man, I remember it seemed like every single thing I saw, people were trying to emulate what he was doing, in one way or another. They were trying to emulate all of these things that he-

You mean drawing style-wise?

Yeah, drawing style, thematically. You know, he just had this crazy, rippling effect through the world of comics.

I remember one artist who— and his work doesn't quite look so Chris Ware-like any more, but what was his name ... Ethan Persoff? He looked very much like he was mimicking Chris Ware. But other than that, I can't think of anybody-

Really? I feel like there was "The Chris Ware Effect" going on for a good while. A friend of mine said something recently along the lines of, "People have finally gotten over Chris Ware." And I said that to another cartoonist and he was like, "That's a bunch of bullshit!" because he thought I was ragging on Ware's stuff and that wasn't it at all. But I agree with that statement because in retrospect, he sort of had the same effect that maybe Crumb had when he first appeared on the scene. You know, all of a sudden he's just such a force that everyone has to reckon with it. He was just the elephant in the room for a good while, and it took a while for people to--

Maybe they were trying to but they were so off the mark that I couldn't tell that that was what they were striving for. What I remember being a more obvious influence from that era where those three Canadian cartoonists that-

Seth, Joe Matt-

Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth, who all had their own distinctive styles, but for a while there were so close that a certain shared esthetic evolved between them that then rippled outwards. So I blame them! [Laughs] Or at least they seemed to define what became the standard approach more than Ware did. Now that I think of it I think Ware's influence became more noticeable later, based on much of what I'd see in anthologies like Mome.

That's interesting. You know, earlier when we were talking about ... I'm not getting quite at my personal bugaboo here. I just feel like the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction of what comics— I don't want to say that, of something that I loved-

You don't see it swinging back at all?

I think it will some day. But-

From Peter Bagge's Other Stuff.
From Peter Bagge's Other Stuff.

I'll always see something by a small handful of artists whenever I go to some comic convention. They'll have their little table, with their little self-published comics that have that spark that you're talking about, that irreverence that you'd see in something like Weirdo. But they almost always never stick it out. They never perfect it. They're just starting out. But I never see them continue down that path. More often than that they just stop doing comics all together. They're just sticking their toe in, and I don't know what they were expecting to happen: people throwing money at them? Which never happens. The last person that I could think of that did was Johnny Ryan.


But after that I can't think of anybody. Well, somebody whose stuff I think is really funny, and everything she does is basically like—she's almost like a weekly comics strip cartoonist—is Kate Beaton. Do you like her work?

Yeah. I mean, I haven't seen a ton of her work, but she's-

She seems to be doing pretty well too, though her work is also somewhat sophisticated, since it's full of literary and historical references. So no one would have to apologize if they get caught reading it.

Do you think that- I'm kind of also conflicted, because I agree with you and I don't want to sound like- You're sounding way more positive than I thought you would. [Both laugh] I'm trying really hard to pull the negativity out of you and I just can't, man.

Read interviews with me from ten years ago when I was bitching like crazy about all this stuff. But I'm done whining about it. I felt like a voice in the wilderness back then, pointing out all of the things that you're talking about now. I'm sure that wasn't the case, but it felt like nobody agreed with me, or worse, didn't even understand what I was talking about. And I really felt pretty much on the outs as an artist, and even as a person. It just seems like the whole aesthetic thread of the alternative indie comics world went in one direction, and I didn't go in that direction, and I felt really lonely and even ostracized because of it. So I went through a rather bitter period, of resenting it and not knowing what to do about it, trying to figure out what to do about it, and then eventually concluded there's nothing I can do about it, so whats the point of whining?

That bums me out. You know, I think- I did see that sort of happen with your work, and I was like, "Wait a minute, what the fuck? Why has this gone in this direction exclusively? It can do this one thing, but it can no longer accommodate this other thing?" You know, what I was talking about earlier, it not being allowed for comics to be smart and funny and entertaining anymore. Those qualities were somehow "less artistic," or something. And that shit drives me nuts. And I see that taking over comics, and I want to be Mr. Positive in saying that I totally agree with you, that there are more people and better work being produced in comics than ever before. I really do. But there's some things happening that just reek of -- this sensibility that's getting a foothold, and it is a sensibility makes me really unhappy. Like in our earlier conversation that was lost, we were talking bout how Norman Rockwell was totally reviled in the world of art-

In certain circles he was. He was beloved everywhere else. [Laughs]

But he was just completely reviled for all these years because the people who were, not controlling that, but the people who were-

The elite.

The elite were saying, "This shit is worthless, this shit is garbage." And then twenty years later, they arbitrarily decide that it's okay to respect what the guy did, and -

They also were very virulent about their criticism of him largely because he was so popular. It just drove them crazy that after attending art school and working as curators at galleries that they then go home to mom's house for Thanksgiving and there's Norman Rockwell all over the walls. They're just thinking, "What I'm trying to do isn't sinking in at all. As soon as I leave these tiny little enclaves you just see stuff like that everywhere." I can understand them being upset if they see bad art that lacks depth or doesn't appeal to them. But I don't know why they had to pick on Norman Rockwell so much. It's like, pick on a bad artist, why don't ya? [Laughs]

For many years I just thought it was built into the DNA of comics, that there was something about it because of where it came from and because of all of the work that I loved, that brought me to this comics deal-- that it had this inherent quality of it not being pretentious, it not being engaged in the world of that fine art fucking nonsense. I thought that there was-

Yeah, just it being ephemera. What's interesting, too, is a year or two ago I saw Art Spiegelman here in Seattle give a lecture, and he was talking bout how it was his mission for many years to get comic art accepted as Art with a capital A. And he said he realized now he pretty much succeeded in that goal, but he said even he misses what was lost in the process. Exactly what we're talking about. He realizes now in the wake of his own success, that what's missing is comics as this "back alley" thing, this ephemera. You still need a strong gut instinct to openly admit that the tiny little toy that came with your Happy Meal is incredible, as opposed to being told what is good, because it's in a frame and hanging on a white wall.

Yeah. I guess within the last couple of years I'm seeing that actual fine-art application towards comics, I'm seeing that take a foothold in a way that makes me really, really mad.


You know, that kind of gatekeeper sensibility, the determining of artistic worth based on some bullshit set of criteria. Things are starting to play by fine-art rules, more and more. And I thought it was just kind of a passing phase, like, as I said-

This happens after a while to everything. Like there's that old joke: "Even whores and ugly buildings become respectable if they stick around long enough." And everything that used to be considered low-brow, and the epitome of what well-educated elites despised eventually becomes respectable. But that's also when all the life gets sucked out of them. Like take poetry, poetry used to not be this thing you had to go to college to appreciate. Everybody used to take a stab at writing poetry, and poetry books used to be bestsellers.

Did they really?

But then all of a sudden it went through this academic filter. And it became very specific about what is and isn't good poetry, and what is good poetry is pretty much inaccessible to the average person. They have no use for it, so now poetry is no longer a part of 99% of peoples lives. An even better example would be jazz music. Jazz used to be extremely disreputable, and the elites hated it, absolutely despised it, prayed for it to go away, and yet it also was incredibly popular. It used to be treated like a plague, like a cancer, it was like the worst thing that ever happened to American civilization in the in the early 20th Century. But then slowly but surely, it became more respectable, and the musicians who made it started taking themselves really seriously. Now it's a fossil. There's no real life left to it at all.

Yeah, but am I just living in this total illusion world of thinking, like, well that happened for Crumb, you know? That changed because of Crumb; the art world decided that he was accepted, but that was still-

Yeah, as a fine artist. And he always was a fine artist. I was talking about how my definition of fine art is when somebody creates a piece of work solely because he or she has something in themselves that has to come out, they have to express something. They're using any kind of medium a form of self-expression. And I think Crumb was the first person that totally took that approach with a comic book. Like I said, he treated the comic book like a blank canvas, or a chunk of plaster, and had no regard for Where would I sell this? He didn't think about the market, or offending advertisers. It just burst out of him. I'm not surprised that his original art is going for a fortune, because it always was fine art. The big difference, though, is now these people are buying it framed, and it's hanging on their walls, and the strips are all broken up more often than not. And to have a cover or individual comic page framed and it's all by itself and it's totally taken out of the context that made people like me fall in love with it. Crumb is my all-time favorite artist, so if I see one piece of his, even if it's one random page out of a twenty-page story, I'm still going to love it, I'm still going to marvel at it. But that page was originally part of two other things: a comic story and a comic book, and they all work together, and they were best appreciated together. So it's bizarre how someone might not even want that comic book. And of course it's the original art, it's were he put pen to paper. But when he did put pen to paper it wasn't intended to be hanging on one person's wall, it was intended to be reprinted for all the world to see, to love or hate. So, in a way they're completely missing the point.

Bagge's collaboration with R. Crumb, "Caffy"
Bagge's collaboration with R. Crumb, "Caffy"

Aren't they always, though? [Laughs]

It is a good investment. If I was a bazillionaire, I'd be buying his original art, but my favorite thing about him will always be his comic books. Because that's how they were meant to be seen and read and digested.

In that way it's not surprising that the fine-art world has accepted Crumb, but I think your definition of a fine artist, I agree with you on that-- that's a fantastic definition of how a "fine artist" should be defined— but that definition of a fine artist nobody agrees with anymore, or understands in that way. You know, everybody else's definition of a fine artist is this person who does this certain thing that-- that is almost entirely the opposite of Crumb. They think of...

Well, there are quite a few people that would agree with my definition, and it really is its original definition, but the term became co-opted, since World War II, by people who liked artwork that was was nonrepresentational and inaccessible to the average shmoe. After World War II, all of a sudden the working class had an expendable income, and they became art consumers. They started buying Norman Rockwell calendars, they started having artwork of some kind and hanging it on their wall. They were also buying comic books, they were buying records, they were consuming art. It wasn't high art, but they were consuming art -- and the well-educated, the elite, the snobs of the world, they had to figure out some other way to differentiate themselves from their garbage man. They could see that everybody can appreciate art if the artist is very good at representing what he's drawing. Anybody could say, "Oh that's a really good drawing of a tree," or "That sure is a hot babe you drew."

Did you— Oh. I thought you said a hot baby. [Laughs]

So art that is representational became a bad thing. So that's why people who were working in more abstract styles and conceptual art became much more celebrated, while simultaneously anything that was representational was getting denigrated. And soon anything that was painted realistically, or in the form of even a low-brow comic like the kind I draw, something where the average person doesn't need an intermediary to explain what's going on, all of that became denigrated. What people in the fine-art establishment mean when they say, "This is good art, this is bad art" or "This is fine art," they're pretty much just talking about what defines and differentiates themselves from the masses. It's snobbishness. And it's just a genre. What they like is a specific type of art genre. But they're so full of themselves that they refuse to acknowledge that. They feel like, oh it's not another genre. In fact, it's the only real art. Everything else isn't real art at all. Because we like it, it's real art and nothing else counts. [Laughs]

My introduction to this whole line of bullshit corresponded with me falling in love with comics, when I was a teenager and thinking, "Well, I like drawing and making art and maybe I'd like to do this. I wonder what that's all about." So I picked up an issue of Artforum or something, to sort of try to make sense of that world. Because they say this is what "Art" is, and they have to be right because look at this fancy magazine and all these galleries and all that, they must be right. But all of that stuff was totally impenetrable, and that left me feeling like, "Oh my god, I don't know anything about art. I thought it was this thing but it's not. I guess i don't understand anything." And at the same time being shown through comics that -- knowing for certain that comics were awesome, and that there's no question that they were art, at least in the way you just described it, and in a way that made sense to me without having to be "explained" to me by some blowhard. And all of this being the counter end to the fake world of "real" art that really taught me, "No, forget all that. That's all a bunch of nonsense." I didn't go to art school because by that point, I knew they were going to try to teach me that line of hokum, and by then, because of comics, I knew it was all bullshit. And with every year that passes in my life, it's this incredibly pernicious force -- it's just terrible. If I have to define it, you know, it's like: my mother is a smart, intelligent woman, period. And she's got plenty good taste. And bring her into a museum and she's just like everyone else in the world, who's like, "Well, I don't know what to say about any of this, because I don't understand any of it." And that is just pure nonsense, but everybody buys that line.


It's just such a shell game, and it just tries to turn this thing that is subjective, applying a bunch of rules to it that are trying to create an objective set of worth to something that is subjective. It robs people of the right to say, "I like this, or I don't like it."

That was very well put. Did you make that up? [Laughs]

Did I make that up? I did, thank you.

You should copyright that speech.

Thank you. But the thing that is so upsetting to me right now is I see that value system working its way into comics, and I don't know if you pay attention to this, but I've seen it work its way into comics on the very site we're doing this interview for. And I understand it, and I understand why it's happening in certain sectors of comics right now. But I see it taking hold more and more and I'm really, really opposed to it. And I'm really opposed to it on a number of levels--

And we discussed all the levels. Again, this is a yin and yang that always has gone on, and it will continue to go on, and it's something you can always resist or benignly accept. But what's depressing is how suddenly there's this recognizable definition of what is regarded as "good comic art" or "respectable comic art," the stuff that you should be doing, and how quickly people will fall in line with it. How even people you've known for a long time will go along with this group-think. But they do it because they benefit from it, at least in the short run. There's safety in numbers, and in a set of rules that everybody can follow, and so long as you're following the rules you aren't taking any chances. It's the safe road.

And they do it because they don't want to feel stupid. Because the whole viewpoint that props this shit up is just, like, "You don't agree with me? You must be some kind of-- peasant." If you don't agree with it, that means one thing: you don't "know what's going on."


But I see this happening and feel like "Hold on a minute: I know exactly what's fucking going on: You're all full of shit." What you just said makes more sense than what I'm thinking, but I felt like there was a part of comics that was deeply resistant to that sort of stuff, that kind of snobbery and elitism, the kind that serves as the currency of the "Fine Art" world. But it looks like I might be wrong. It makes sense, as comics are turning into more of a niche thing, they're not mass-market ephemera in the way they used to be. So. And Crumb being a perfect example. Like Rockwell, the fine art world wouldn't touch him, but all of a sudden-- Well, he got taken on by that world but he did not give an inch. It was on his terms. He just did exactly what he does to the point where they had to accept him rather than the other way around.

But he was always true to himself. I mean he was very confident in his own artistic abilities, and always had a great work ethic, that's for sure. And it's easy to have infinite confidence in what your gut is telling you when you-

Are a genius? [Laughs]

—Have Robert Crumb's talent. [Laughs]

Damn, I missed when they were passing that stuff around.

Even that being said, I've always been really impressed by how much he sticks to his own guns. I never met anybody that was quite that true to themselves as he is.

The End of Part One. Stay tuned for Part Two, next week.