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

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

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

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

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

No, let's turn it off. It's freaky.

Okay. [Laughs]

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

There should be a button that says "video."

Okay, "stop video." All right!

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

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

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

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

About high art versus low art.

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

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

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

Right, okay.

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

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

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

[Laughs] Oh, like Mitt Romney.

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

Sure, tips.

The cover to Spice Capades #1.
The cover to Spice Capades #1.
Well, let's start with this, because I know this is not the direction you want to go to, but you know I think I've pretty much got everything you've done. Except maybe the Spice Girls thing. I couldn't get with you on the Spice Girls, Pete.

[Laughs] Some completist you are!

'Cause that was just, you know, I couldn't—

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

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

Oh, okay.

I thought that shit was amazing [Laughs]


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

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

Was it weekly?

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

With Ralph Nader?

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

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

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

It did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy shit.

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

A Bat Boy strip from 2004.
A Bat Boy strip from 2004.

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

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

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

Yeah, pretty much.

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

As a human being? [Laughs]

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

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

Yeah, I remember that one.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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