Toon Town -- Peter Bagge Leads The Way To Seattle Comic Riches -- What Is This Thing Called Hate? -- How Seattle Came To Be A Sanctuary Of Alternative Comics
NOT TO ALARM YOU, BUT know this: There thrives in our midst a cult called Hate.
Its headquarters are right under your nose, Seattle, though you will find adherents anyplace aimless young people work in secondhand bookstores, drinking beer for "kicks" and listening to rock "music" that sounds like a chain saw with a wide-open throttle being fed into a wood-chipper. The signs of this Hate cult are subtle yet unmistakable. There are the black baseball caps (look for the "HATE" logo). Also, the T-shirts and buttons that announce: "I LIKE HATE AND I HATE EVERYTHING ELSE!"
The surest indicators of all, of course, are the Hate tracts themselves, entitled: "Hate."
These flimsy, stapled pamphlets are no bigger than an Archie comic book. These are comic books, too, strictly speaking, but how different they are in style and content from the amusing exploits of that penny-loafered lad from Riverdale! Hate comics bear the advisory "Recommended for mature readers" and traffic in the graphic portrayal of numerous scummy things, many too scummy to mention in a family newspaper.
WARNING: ALTHOUGH THE FOLLOWING THINGS HAVE BEEN DEEMED NOT TOO SCUMMY TO MENTION IN A FAMILY NEWSPAPER, RESPONSIBLE ADULTS STILL MAY WANT TO SHIELD THEM FROM CHILDREN AND THE SCUMMY-SENSITIVE.
De-elasticized jockey shorts; sex without love; mattresses without box springs.
Shockingly, this Hate-fest represents but one example of a more widespread phenomenon, one that appeared to have died out almost two decades ago, along with safari-scene Quiana shirts, but, like many a synthetic fabric, has shown remarkable durability.
What used to be "underground comics" - titles you couldn't find in the Sunday funnies or on a rack next to Superman and Richie Rich - are now called "alternative comics," and Seattle has become a hangout for the people who create them. Most notably that monger of Hate, Peter Bagge.
"PETER BAGGE" RHYMES with "rug of shag" and has been pronounced one of the great cartoonists of the post-Robert Crumb generation - this from Crumb himself, godfather of underground comics, foot fetishist, and creator of "Mr. Natural."
"It cracks me up . . . a laugh riot," Crumb has said of Bagge's work; we would have asked him to elaborate, but he lives now in faraway France, where cartoonists are respected as artists and dogs are seated at restaurants.
Hate sells roughly 25,000 copies per quarterly issue, making it one of the top three alternative comic-book titles (the others are "Eightball" by Dan Clowes, of the Bay Area, and "Love & Rockets," by the Hernandez brothers of L.A.).
While the audience for a mainstream superhero comic book like Spider-Man snaps up several hundred thousand copies per issue, an alternative comic sells about as well as a typical first novel - i.e., it's lucky to break into the high four figures. This is one reason your high-school guidance counselor never suggested it as a career. Also, it helps explain why some alternative cartoonists live in rented houses with curtains fashioned from strips of crepe paper.
In this context, the 36-year-old Bagge is an extraordinary success and a tasteful decorator. He owns a charming house in the $180,000 neighborhood of Ballard with a framed 1947 "Nancy" original, signed by Ernie Bushmiller, and a wine rack.
Interest in Bagge's work has come from outside the cloistered world of comics as well. Movie and television rights to several Bagge characters have already been optioned. The same people who brought "Beavis & Butt-head" to the small screen paid Bagge to write a script for a computer-animated short called "The Blockheads" that you might have seen on MTV's "Liquid Television." National magazines pester him with illustration offers. Record companies invite him to embellish their upcoming releases (among his cover credits: one for guitarist/comics fan George Thorogood, and another for a Troggs tribute album titled "Groin Thunder"). (Also, a show of Bagge originals is now in progress at a fledgling Seattle art space on Capitol Hill, the Vox Populi Gallery.)
A maker of fine writing instruments even hired Bagge to design the graphics for a "grunge rock pencil."
"The job paid great," said Bagge, a man who finds cheer in zeroes. "Plus they're sending me 2,000 pencils, free."
FOR THE NON-INITIATES, a brief catechism.
Why is this thing called Hate?
In part, Bagge chose the name as "an overreaction" to the wimpy title of his previous comic book, Neat Stuff. He wanted "something more appropriate to the cynical nature of the stories."
Do the stories advocate flag burning, ritual pet sacrifice, or White Supremacy?
Well, then what's Hate about?
About 24 pages and two and a half bucks. (Rimshot.) No, really it's mostly about the exploits of Buddy Bradley, a twentysomething pillar of slack with a bad haircut and a nose like a bratwurst. Buddy and his shiftless friends live in Seattle, where Buddy holds down a dead-end job as a clerk at Used Book Emporium. One of Bagge's friends described Hate as "adventures in poverty."
Is Hate funny?
We can't guarantee that you'd be amused by Buddy's use of the word "pork" as a verb, or the sound of a marijuana cigarette being toked ("sssuck"), or a club called The Fetid Malodorous Cafe, but it can make us laugh.
Who are these "friends" of Buddy?
There's his childhood pal Leonard ("Stinky") Brown, and a reclusive oddball named George Cecil Hamilton III - they all share an apartment with a view of both the university and a neighbor who sometimes copulates on the roof. Also, there's Buddy's two Prozac-poster girlfriends, Lisa (hates herself; once tried to commit suicide by sticking her head in an electric oven) and Valerie (hates others; violent mood swings turn her teeth into saw blades).
Teeth turning into saw blades seems far-fetched. We thought Hate was known for its high degree of realism.
Bagge's drawing style is particularly expressive ("One of the most distinctive in comics - it's a style that thrived on the back of high-school notebooks," said Scott McCloud, a Massachusetts cartoonist and author of the recent, erudite look at his craft, "Understanding Comics"); but the content of Hate boils down to a saga of wastoid youth, littered with references to actual Seattle people, places and things.
Could these references be useful to future scholars?
Yes, especially if they happen to be interested in studying beer labels, a Belltown artist known for her tattoos, a Capitol Hill comics shop, or the names of local rock bands.
Is that why Entertainment Weekly called Bagge's comics "a rowdy cartoon accompaniment to the Seattle grunge-rock scene"?
Bagge more or less cemented his association with that subculture in 1992 when he devoted two issues to a story where Buddy managed Stinky's grunge band, Leonard and the Love Gods, whose original lineup included three guys named Kurt. Buddy split with them over artistic differences related to his belief that the Love Gods played "the worst kind of music ever invented in the history of the world."
With the Seattle grunge-rock scene becoming passe, what's in store for Buddy?
When last we saw our hero, he and Lisa were winging their way to New Jersey, where Buddy planned to move back in with his parents.
Do cartoon characters exercise free will?
If they did, do you think they would choose New Jersey?
PETER BAGGE HATES superhero comics, and the stained teeth of people in European countries where everyone smokes, and "The Cosby Show" (a spontaneous anti-Cosby diatribe once reduced a "Cosby" fan to tears). He hates several talk-radio hosts (he often listens while working in his bare basement office). He also hates some of his own old comic books (he once compared his early craftsmanship to that of a moronic "garage mechanic who copies out of `Car-Toons' magazine"). I asked him to make a list of things he hates, and it turned out he hated that, too. "I don't want to come across as some caricature," he said. Bagge might not enumerate what disgusts him, but if you listen long enough, something will stick in his craw and he will have no choice but to spit it out. "He can rant," his wife, Joanne, confirmed. "Get on a subject and go on and on."
On the other hand, the cartoonists who know Bagge describe him as generous, encouraging and approachable. In person, I found him to be mild-mannered and fond of donning tweed sportcoats, making him the most formally dressed of his set. "A hard-edged, cynical sense of humor - in a way that's my form of protection," Bagge offered, "like other people wear leather jackets so you won't see what sensitive wimps they are underneath."
Sometimes his cynicism extends to the motives of his boss, which is unusual in that he is his own.
In the latest issue of Hate, in a rare autobiographical, non-Buddy bonus story, Bagge depicted himself as a castaway marooned on "Hate Island," his quest for mass appeal scuttled by his own misanthropy. "I never deliberately try to offend or turn people off with my comics," the cartoon Bagge lamented, fret beads flying off his brow, "it just always comes out that way." He vowed to become more lovable by emulating one of the Beach Boys and wearing his hair in a ponytail (his hair, not surprisingly, remains close-cropped).
Meanwhile, Bagge's publisher, Fantagraphics Books, is doing its part to expand the relatively narrow market for Hate and its alternative comics kin. One tactic: shipping mail-order comics catalogs to subscribers of such general-interest publications as Mother Jones, The Nation and The Village Voice. Another: sending Bagge to Los Angeles recently to promote his new trade paperback Hate collection, "Buddy the Dreamer," at this year's American Booksellers Convention (Bagge's comic is mostly carried by specialty shops, such as Fallout Records & Skateboards on Capitol Hill).
"In a nation of 270 million there should be 100,000 people who buy literate, artistically satisfying comics," said Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth. "There's this public perception that comic books are either for children or morons, or fodder for more respectable media like TV and movies."
Which brings us to Hate, the motion picture. The latest word from Bagge is that the producers who bought the rights to Buddy Bradley have abandoned the idea of an animated feature, and are now pitching Hollywood studios on a live-action version.
"Naturally, the people putting up the money would want to hedge their bets," Bagge said. "Of course that makes me nervous. Hedging your bets means Keanu Reeves starring as Buddy and lots of car chases and calling security if I show up on the set."
SOME CARTOONISTS ENVY Bagge's success and are eager to smear his reputation like so much wet correcting fluid.
J.D. King, for instance. He and Bagge met in the 1970s in New York. They published a comic book together, but King couldn't hack it in that medium. Now he cranks out illustrations for the likes of The New Yorker, and lugs around a portfolio of bitterness.
"So what kind of dirt do you want to know?" King said when I called, as if he had been sitting around, waiting for a chance to knock his friend down a peg. "For starters, he's a Jim Croce fan."
King believes that a man can be judged by his record collection, and on this count finds Bagge guilty.
"He likes whatever was popular with middle America from any given decade," continued King, his voice modulated by a mixture of scorn and glee. "From the '50s he likes Doris Day. From the '60s it's Roger Miller, the Beach Boys. The funkiest he gets is Yes."
For this Velveeta taste in music, Bagge refuses to apologize. On the contrary, he went defiantly public when it became clear that many fans of his comic book were assuming he might enjoy the same bands as they did. This warning appeared in a Hate editorial, ca. 1991: "If I get one more tape by some grunge/noise/punk/gloom/death rock band I swear I'm gonna tape Ray Coniff over it, and I'm serious!"
Never push a cartoonist when he starts talking in italics: Bagge does own several Coniff cassettes and he's not afraid to use them.
There are those who might look at Bagge's record collection, or his landscaped back yard and wonder: How can he be an authority on the scummy concrete and used-condom world of Buddy Bradley? Rest assured, Bagge has lived in that neighborhood; what he suffered no man could forget.
"I was always looking for a better-tasting beer than I could afford," said Bagge. "I settled on Miller in the bottle, which was weird, because I thought Miller in the can was the worst."
WHEN YOU BUY A copy of Hate, you help control the ranks of the jobless.
"I have no other way to make a living," Bagge says. "No other skill."
Behold, the loser within. His training as a child growing up in the New York suburbia of Peekskill consisted of absorbing hours of television, especially cartoons. He drew, but considered his older brother the more accomplished artist. The Bagge boys put out a single edition of a homemade newspaper, which, mirroring many real papers, existed mostly as an excuse for a place to put comics. He found solace in National Lampoon and The Beatles and Looney Tunes.
"Doing nothing," Bagge recalls, "was my favorite activity as a teenager."
He enrolled in New York's School of Visual Art - where Bagge's abysmal high-school grades mattered less than his willingness to pay - and discovered underground comics, just as the head shops that sold them were disappearing. He picked up a copy of a Crumb comic called Hytone; its cover showed a cartoon character and a cartoon toilet and the function that often passes between the two. "It appealed to every one of my tastes and sensibilities," Bagge remembers. "It was lucid and slap-happy and funny. It was a comic book where the artist could do whatever he wants from cover to cover. No ads for Twinkies or seeds, no licensed characters owned by some horrible corporation with its own list of dos and don'ts."
At art school, Bagge also cast his eyes on a classmate named Joanne, who was destined to marry him or someone similar. Joanne had been deeply touched by "My World and Welcome to It," the TV series inspired by the life of cartoonist James Thurber. She fell in love with the idea of a husband who sat around the house all day, drawing, though originally she had set her sights on Charles M. Schulz.
"I copied everything he did," Joanne recalls, "in case he got sick and I had to do Peanuts that day."
The love-struck, comic-crazed couple soon concluded art school was an expensive farce, and dropped out. Joanne worked in restaurants; Pete held down a series of minimum-wage jobs and spent his free time at the drafting table. He sold some early cartoons to "men's magazines." He also wrote gags - at $50 a pop - for the comic inside Bazooka Joe bubble gum. (His favorite one starred the turtleneck guy; he was chewing gum; it fell out of his mouth; "Darn," he said; "Now what'll I do all day?")
"I was one of those guys who was afraid to stick my neck out," Bagge says. "Joanne . . . used to practically dial the phone number (of art directors and editors) and hand me the receiver."
One big break came when the comic anthology Weirdo, published by his hero Crumb, started accepting Bagge's work (eventually, Crumb would invite him to take over as editor, which Bagge did from 1983 to '86). Another came when Fantagraphics published the first issue of Bagge's solo comic Neat Stuff in 1985.
By this time, the Bagges had moved from Hoboken, N.J., to Kirkland, where Joanne's sister needed help opening a delicatessen. Pete, meanwhile, opened a virtual cartoonists' chamber of commerce, urging colleagues to visit, then seducing them upon arrival with Joanne-prepared dinner parties. Bagge also lobbied Fantagraphics to relocate from Los Angeles ("Possibly," reasoned co-founder Kim Thompson, "to save himself Federal Express bills"). More cartoonists followed, multiplying, according to one who preceded the invasion, "like head lice."
The first issue of Hate appeared the same year as the birth of Bagge's daughter Hannah, who is 4 now, and sometimes gets the words "drawing" and "working" mixed up.
AS NOTED, THIS town is lousy with cartoonists. It sometimes seems like you can't throw an empty malt-liquor can out the car window without hitting one, especially if you happen to be driving by one of their parties. See? Cartoonists are so thick on the ground here, they even have their own parties, which help cultivate an atmosphere of collegial unity and inbreeding.
Sample exchange between two partying cartoonists:
Cartoonist No. 1 (regarding his own Mickey Mouse T-shirt with shame): "What can I say? I'm doing a laundry."
Cartoonist No. 2 (regarding the other's Mickey Mouse T-shirt with scorn): "I used to have one of those - in junior high."
To throw a successful cartoonist party requires three things: free beer; one bag of Fritos; and Peter Bagge.
Bagge socializes methodically and expertly. More than one of his colleagues testified that when they think of Bagge, they imagine him somewhere festive, surrounded by a circle of people hanging on his every word. He also is an alert listener and a keen observer. He notices marginalia: odd sideburns, a sudden outbreak of goatees.
"He's very attentive," agreed Jason Lutes, one of the Seattle cartooning scene's Younger Turks. "He makes you think he really cares what you're saying. Because he does. He's always looking for material."
One fun cartoonist party of late was hosted by Larry Reid, who works for Fantagraphics. Fantagraphics does more than publish Hate; it is the world's largest publisher of alternative comics, with more than 50 titles and headquarters in a converted house off Lake City Way, and a nearby warehouse that once was a roller rink. Reid orchestrates the company's publicity and drives a motor scooter covered in pillow feathers.
At Reid's party, which featured a stunning array of sliced cheese, I noticed Bagge talking to a young woman. She was saying: "You're creating all these new archetypes. Carl Jung would love you!"
She wore a short skirt, and boots of a design favored by phone-company pole climbers. She identified strongly with Bagge's character Lisa, whose motto is: Crazy and proud of it.
"I hate therapists," she told Bagge. "The minute you mention suicide they make you sign a contract or they turn you in."
A moment later, she was balancing on one lugged sole while wedging the other pole-climber boot behind her neck. "These women tell me their neuroses," Bagge confided while the human pogo stick wobbled. "I can't help it. I'm all ears."
Standing there on one leg, she looked like the kind of follower who would hop after Bagge wherever he chose to lead, a devoted member of the cult of Hate. It was a perfect time to make her pledge eternal loyalty and carve a big "H" in her forehead. Bagge, however, had wandered off toward the cheese.
------------------ A 'TOONS WHO'S WHO ------------------
A roll call of Peter Bagge's Seattle-area colleagues would include Jim Blanchard, Mark H. Campos, Andrea Chang, Bruce Chrislip, Donna Barr, Rod Filbrandt, Shary Flenniken, Ellen Forney, Justin Hampton, Tom Hart, Thor Jensen, Megan Kelso, David Lasky, Jon Lewis, Scott Musgrove, Eric Reynolds, Stan Shaw, James Sturm, Ward Sutton, Blair Wilson and Mark Zingarelli. It is due to a lack of space, not necessarily of talent, that we now say a little about only a few of their ilk, with accompanying self-portraits.
Other occupations: Drew cartoons for corporate slide shows, of sprinting bleach bottles and boxing mustard jars.
Moved to Seattle: In 1991 from Minneapolis.
Recently published work: You and Your Big Mouth No. 3 (Fantagraphics; Nos. 1 and 2 on Starhead Comics).
Content and form: Big Mouth is a collaborative comic, with Moriarity illustrating stories written for him mostly by others (including Charles Bukowski, Robert Crumb, Henry Rollins, Harvey Pekar and Ballard-by-way-of-Olympia raconteur Dennis Eichorn).
Other occupations: Gas-station attendant; book-store cashier; night janitor at health-food grocery.
Moved to Seattle: From San Francisco two years ago.
Recently published work: Lowlife No. 5 (Aeon)
The road not taken: After high school, he was accepted at a comic-book art school run by the illustrator of "Sgt. Rock," but he never enrolled.
Content and form: Heavily autobiographical; skinny, hydrocephalic but neatly drawn characters grappling with post-adolescent ennui.
Other occupations: Hauled garbage; employed as a story-board artist at Hanna-Barbera and other animation studios.
Moved to Seattle: In 1988, from Los Angeles.
Recently published work: Jim (Vol. 2, No. 1); Frank in the River (both Fantagraphics). Also, at work on a 190-panel comic to appear in the upcoming Whole Earth Millenium Catalogue.
Unique home decor: His dining room features framed displays of pen nibs and cheese wax.
Content and form: Persistent, disturbing visions from beyond the veil of sleep.
Other occupations: Drew display pictures of Yuppie gadgets for point-of-purchase displays; manipulated Claymation raisins and corn chips at Wil Vinton's studio.
Moved to Seattle: From Portland, in 1985.
Recently published work: His comic book, "Crap" (currently at work on issue No. 4, on Fantagraphics), about five underachievers who share a house. Also pens The Bad Boys, two leering "twins of terror" who make Bart Simpson look like a Cub Scout.
Influences: When J.R. was young, his parents confiscated his comic books, believing them to be pernicious. They never found them all.
Content and form: Almost-cute caricatures camouflaging a twisted sense of humor.
Other occupations: Designed erotic comic books for Fantagraphics; washed dishes; works as managing art director at The Stranger.
Moved to Seattle: In 1991, after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design; once here, ruptured his spleen.
Recently published work: "Jar of Fools," his weekly strip, appears in The Stranger; Lutes also has published a collection of the strips (Penny Dreadful Press).
Influences: Mother read him comic books when he was a child; later, parents supplied him copies of Tintin by the Belgian comic-book artist Herge.
Content and form: Crisply rendered scenes suffused with mystery and a touch of evil, but little dialogue. He calls his work "visual fiction."
Other occupations: Pasted up specialized trade magazines (including "Dialysis and Transplantation"); now produces color separations for Fantagraphics.
Moved to Seattle: From the Los Angeles area in 1989.
Ink in her bloodlines: Her father wrote and penciled Donald Duck comics for Walt Disney.
Recently published work: Naughty Bits No. 12 (Fantagraphics), and Vol. No. 2 of Artistic Licentiousness (Comix Bitch).
Content and form: Raunchily energetic accounts of the adventures of Bitchy Bitch, a woman "programmed for misery."
Other occupations: Worked as a screen printer; taught art; jerked espresso. Also draws a weekly strip, "Crackerbox Theatre," syndicated to alternative newspapers.
Moved to Seattle: In 1977, from Texas.
Recently published work: "I Can't Tell You Anything," a book of illustrated short stories (Penguin, 1993).
Content and form: Embarrassing personal experiences - especially car and woman trouble - and truly made-up tales, drawn with blunt, manly vigor.
Kit Boss is a Pacific staff writer.