Peter Bagge is one of the greatest cartoonists of all time.
His comic series Hate, detailing the life and misadventures of Buddy Bradley, is one of the best pieces of comics literature ever made. It was published in the early 90s and told the story of what it's like to be an American male in your 20s—what it's like to deal with crazy roommates, family members, girlfriends, and shitty jobs. It was known as the "grunge comic" because it was set in Seattle when that scene was going on, but it's more than that.
He also recently made Woman Rebel, a graphic novel about the life of Margaret Sanger, the mother of modern birth control and Planned Parenthood.
Now, he's doing comics for us! I did this interview with him to brag that he's now doing comics for VICE. Here's a photo of us enjoying each other's company a couple years ago at Desert Island Comics.
VICE: What's interesting to you lately? What's on your mind? Is there anything that you're into that you want to talk about?
Peter Bagge: You sound like a shrink! Nothing is weighing on my mind in particular. I listen to old music, hate on all politicians, and read biographies of dead people. Typical old man stuff.
Tell me about Musical Urban Legends. Didn't you start doing that comic for Spin?
It was for Magnet Magazine, another indie-rock mag. Interestingly, the first MUL comic I did was of an actual urban legend involving some unnamed band. After that, I simply relied on stories involving well-known people at their most embarrassing moments.
What comics did you like as a kid?
I loved MAD Magazine from 1965 to 1971, when I was roughly seven to 13 years old. After that, I became too aware of the magazine;s formula, and then the National Lampoon came along. I liked Gahan Wilson, Sam Gross (whose night class I took at the School of Visual Arts—SVA), Rick Meyerowitz, Charles Rodrigues, M. K. Brown, Ed Subitzky, Ron Hauge etc.
Also, funny daily comic strips, mainly Peanuts.
Do you think your sense of humor was largely informed by MAD and the Lampoon?
They were a big influence, sure. Plus, they were both wildly entertaining for someone my age.
What were your earliest comic attempts like?
My earliest attempts were me trying to imitate my older brother's comic strips. I thought he was really funny. His comics were a combination of satirical and absurdist. They had a simple, yet funny drawing style. Sam Henderson reprinted some in the latest Magic Whistle. I mainly recall a character named "Dick Disease." He had diseases.
Was your brother anything like Buddy Bradley's brother in the Hate series?
Butch Bradley is vaguely based on my younger brother when he was little. My older brother, Doug, was rather neurotic—very anxious and, well, weird. Also bossy, in that, if you wanted to hang out with him, you had to do things and see things his way. At one point, his group of friends seemed more like a cult, with Doug as the leader.
What are your siblings like now? How did they feel about the portrayal of the Bradleys in your comics?
My older sister is the principal of an English language school in Peru. She and her husband have also taught in China and Japan. My other sister is married to a contractor, and she has done various art-related odd jobs throughout her life. She's a talented artist and painter. My younger brother worked at an art foundry for most of his adult life. My older brother, Doug, passed away 20 years ago. My parents are also both gone now. None of them ever had much to say about the Bradleys. They found the stories amusing, and they saw how it was inspired by our upbringing. If any of them were put off by my stories, they never said so.
Was there anything you were trying to emulate or that you were thinking about early on in your comics or drawing style?
As for emulating, I remember around the age of 11 or 12 earnestly trying to copy certain MAD artists: Paul Coker Jr. especially, since I felt like his art was the perfect blend of cute and garish, if you know what I mean. But I fell so far short of the mark that it was disheartening. I also occasionally was inspired to recreate certain drawings by Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, just to see if I could get anywhere close to approximating what they were doing, only to be even more discouraged by the massive gulf, skill-wise, between kid-me and them. The way they drew didn't seem humanly possible. After that, I rarely copied directly from other artists' work, and I mostly just drew from my head, which lead to more of a "doodle-y" style.
What was your first published work?
A strip for the East Village Other in 1980. It was a Goon on the Moon strip, I think. My memory is failing me—I meant the East Village Eye, which was more arty/new wave-y. The Other was gone by then. Those guys were also using John Holmstrom, occasionally. I don't recall any other cartoonists whose work I know. They paid very little—possibly nothing.
What about Comical Funnies?
Comical Funnies was a collaborative effort between me and the cartoonists behind Punk Magazine: John Holmstrom, Bruce Carleton, and Ken Weiner, as well as J. D. King. We pooled our pocket change to make a short-lived comics tabloid in the early 80s. My involvement with Weirdo started shortly after that.
How'd you end up editing R. Crumb's Weirdo Magazine?
He asked me to. We didn't even know each other, other than a short snail-mail exchange. Go figure. He told me later that I was the least neurotic person he could think of. Faint praise!
The biggest thing I see you and Crumb having in common, besides your ability, is that you both managed to define and describe the hip culture around you while being outside of it.
Yes, I suppose, though he always felt even more alienated from it than I ever did. His extreme outsider status is a big part of his identity.
Your hallmark creation is the comic series Hate, which stars Buddy Bradley. Did you come up with the name Buddy Bradley or draw him first?
I believe I named him the first time I drew him, or perhaps by the second Bradleys strip. I was going for something generic, as I often do, and the name just stuck. I did a little one-page "Meet the Bradleys" strip, where I introduced this typically dysfunctional family, much like my own, as if they were some lovable TV Brady Bunch–type clan.
At what point did you consider expanding the Bradleys from the initial strip to a more fleshed-out series of stories?
They just sort of took over, especially Buddy, while I was doing my one-man anthology Neat Stuff in the late 80s. I had more ideas for them than any of my other characters, since they were the most autobiographical, I suppose.
When I made the Hate series, I simply wanted to do more auto-bio type stories, and rather than invent a new stand-in for myself, I simply aged Buddy by four or so years.
It seems like Buddy is largely based on you, but when I talked to Dan Clowes about Buddy's girlfriends, he mentioned that you'd been dating your wife since college. Who were Lisa and Valerie based on?
They're both based on many different women I've known throughout my life. There's a wee bit of my wife Joanne in both Val and Lisa, but not nearly enough to say that either are her. The character Bunny Leeway, from the Chet and Bunny Leeway stories, is very much based on my wife.
Have you met a lot of fans who wanted you to be more like Buddy Bradley than you are?
No. People used to assume I'd be some biker type. As time goes by, that makes less and less sense to me.
Tell me about Buddy's love of yellow food. This is one of my favorite details of Buddy's personality.
My wife actually used to make fun of my "all-orange lunch" when I first met her: A carrot, an orange, and those orange-colored peanut butter and cheese flavored crackers that I'd buy from SVA's vending machines.
What was your time at SVA like? I went there too.
I only went there for a year and a half. I dropped out because I ran out of money, but I had no real intention of going back. It was OK—I met nice, interesting people and my wife, Joanne, there. Joanne was a fine-arts major when I met her. She painted and sculpted and drew and worked with stained glass. She owned a deli with her sister for eight years. Now, she colors my work, nannies for some friends, and cooks for people she likes.
I also quickly figured out that I could learn stuff a lot faster and cheaper just by befriending professional cartoonists, which I did. Plus, it was the 1970s, so certain art styles and attitudes held sway there. Abstract and conceptual art, mainly, which three generations after Duchamp had devolved into a very predictable genre—but I couldn't tell its practitioners that. They were the "real" artists! While what I did wasn't considered art at all to them.
Did you kill off the character of Stinky in Hate because you didn't like him?
Ha, no. The reason was more like, "Where do I go with this guy, and what is likely to happen to a guy like this?"
What was the reaction to Stinky's death like?
Everyone was very surprised, which surprised me. I thought I had foreshadowed his death—or some kind of unpleasant fate—rather well. Obviously, I hadn't.
What's the general reaction to your female characters? It's pretty impressive how you had Lisa cheat on Buddy with his sister's kid's dad without painting her as a bad person.
Readers had a love/hate relationship with Lisa, especially around that time. That particular incident was a symptom of her starting to panic—a full-blown personality crisis, if you will. And she was becoming such a handful for Buddy that he wouldn't have been all that devastated by it if he knew, just grossed out and fed up. She had to go off on her own and get all the stupid out of her system, which she did. There was nothing he could do to help her at that point.
Have you ever considered going backward in time, like the Hernandezes sometimes do, and telling a story of the characters of Hate in their younger days?
I have considered it, but not seriously. I'm not comfortable with the idea. But who knows, maybe one day, if it feels right.
What made you want to make a comic about the life of Margaret Sanger?
I was researching other women from her era for bio-writing purposes. I was curious as to how they avoided unwanted pregnancies. That led me to Sanger, which totally derailed my original interests. Sanger was amazing.
You never really learned how to draw, but your comics look great. Most people who try to make comics without learning to draw make garbage. How did you figure out the drawing style you have?
Well, I can draw people and things that look like what I'm drawing while looking at it/them. But that bores me, and I assume it would bore the viewer of the results as well. So I prefer to draw from my mind's eye, and I take my chances from there. I'm almost never happy with the results, though, so I have a hard time arguing with anyone who thinks my art looks awful.
Initially, I was trying to duplicate the way old cartoons look, specifically ones directed by Bob Clampett. Later on, I was also mimicking early comics drawn by Harvey Kurtzman, in his old Hey Look! one-pagers and such.
It's a very polarizing drawing style, though. Goodreads has all these rave reviews of Woman Rebel by all these woman's studies majors who love the content of the book but give it three or four instead of five stars, simply because they can't stand my art!
Check out Peter Bagge's comics every Monday on this very site.
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