Pete Bagge’s most celebrated comics have always made me cringe. I glance around the room nervously when I read them. His characters, modeled after the cartoon grotesques of Basil Wolverton and Tex Avery, are all perpetually horny, shouting cretins, spitting out racist and misogynistic epithets left and right as they wander through their (typically) nihilistic lives. They feel like Looney Tunes episodes produced for angry, young white guys.
I also feel conflicted about that cringing. Bagge is often heralded as a “legendary” figure in the alt-comics world, and here in town he’s something of a local hero as well. The early issues of his Seattle-based series Hate, hailed as the definitive “grunge” comic, perfectly captured the feeling of being a scuzzy 20-something in early ’90s Seattle (or so I’m told—I was born in 1990). First reading Buddy Does Seattle, the collection of those Seattle-based Hate issues, instead of feeling a pang of provincial pride, I shuddered. The female characters are almost universally insane, sex-crazed, and taken advantage of (more than once I asked myself “Is he raping her in this scene?”), and the protagonist, the semi-autobiographical Buddy Bradley, casually throws around the n-word throughout. Whether you want to call it satire, black humor, or both, yeesh.
Curiously, write-ups on Bagge almost never touch on this, a thread that runs through much of his work (like Apocalypse Nerd, set in the North Cascades after a nuclear bomb destroys Seattle, where gender- and ethnic-based tribes form and violently war with one another). Whether that’s an oversight induced by his vaunted reputation, or simply because his characters sometimes scream at each other for these transgressions, has always been a little unclear to me. According to Bagge himself, I am in fact not the first person to ask him about his writing choices.
“When I moved here,” Bagge, now a resident of Tacoma, tells me over the phone, “it was very left-wing and progressive in a way where if you did or said anything and didn’t check all the right boxes, they’d immediately write you off. People in Seattle hated my work, just hated it. They thought it was garish and disgusting and ugly.” With Hate’s debut in 1990, that changed—Seattleites began identifying with the depraved characters in the book like Buddy, who almost always had a pithy, sardonic critique of everything in his rolled-up flannel sleeve. The series became one of Fantagraphics’ bestselling titles (in fact, one of the bestselling alt-comics of the ’90s), and it was the first comic that gave Bagge financial security as an artist.
The work those Seattleites initially sneered at was actually Neat Stuff, published in 15 issues from 1985 to 1989, reissued as a deluxe two-book box set by Fantagraphics this week. The work didn’t earn nearly the critical and financial success of Hate, but nonetheless was invaluable in Bagge’s career: Within its 488 pages, Pete Bagge learned how to be Pete Bagge. In the first half of the series, you can see him experimenting with a number of different drawing styles—crosshatching here, no crosshatching there, thin scratchy lines turning into loose, thick ones. Similarly, Bagge spends much of the series jumping around among a number of different, unrelated characters—a mixed Bagge. There’s Junior, a young, insecure doofus who can’t land a job and has an Oedipus complex. There’s Studs Kirby, a hypermasculine conservative talk-show host. There’s the Goon on the Moon, a sort of absurdist, perverted clown man who desperately wants to get laid. The famous Bradley family who would launch Bagge to ’90s fame makes its first appearance here. Some of the later issues of Neat Stuff, which Bagge is proudest of, drop the miscellaneous approach to focus entirely on Buddy Bradley, which eventually gave Bagge the inkling to give up Neat Stuff and start the Generation X-defining Hate.
Before starting on Neat Stuff in 1984, a young Pete Bagge had just begun working with R. Crumb on Weirdo, a quarterly magazine-sized comics anthology—first as a contributor, then as an editor. Crumb is another alt-comics legend whose particular brand of satire has crossed into questionable territory. His infamous Weirdo strips “When the Niggers Take Over America” and “When the Jews Take Over America” were meant to be satirical depictions of racist White America’s worst fears come true—a joke that Crumb, a very public and passionate fan of American blues and jazz and the husband of Jewish cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, thought most people would understand. Neo-Nazis missed the joke, and in 1994, without his permission, both strips were reprinted and distributed nationally in Race & Reality, a Massachusetts-based white-power magazine, to Crumb’s dismay.
His penchant for walking that thin line seems to have rubbed off on Bagge—in Neat Stuff #2, a strip called “Generic Comics,” meant to skewer dumb, obvious gag strips in two to three panels, runs through a “Cripple Joke,” a “Homo Joke,” a “Jew Joke,” and a “Negro Joke.” “When I read my work from that time,” Bagge says, “not just from Neat Stuff, but Weirdo and elsewhere, it gives me pause where I keep thinking ‘What was wrong with me?’ Where was all of this anger and angst coming from?’ It’s just youth, you know? You’ve got all these hormones coursing though your veins, and you’re trying to get a career going… I’ve always been confused by the ‘bitter old man’ stereotype, because it’s always young men who are bitter.”
But at the same time, Bagge says, he wasn’t pulling this out of thin air. Many of Buddy Bradley’s stories were based on things that actually happened to Bagge; the rough, sexist, racist language was based on the way real people he knew talked. “The only other thing you could do is ignore it,” Bagge says, “pretend it doesn’t exist. You know, in real life, sometimes people think this way, sometimes people don’t. Sometimes people have these attitudes and feelings only sometimes, like that Avenue Q song ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.’ ”
In Neat Stuff #15, an issue dedicated entirely to Buddy Bradley, Buddy gets in the car with his weed dealer, a black man, and notices six pairs of baby booties dangling from his rear-view mirror. When Buddy sees them, the dealer says “I am the father of all six kids, each one with a different chick.” When Buddy gets to the dealer’s house, he sees that a black Polish woman, the dealer’s current girlfriend, is also incredibly pregnant. She offers Buddy some M&Ms, and proceeds to cram them down his throat as a joke. He runs out of the house as “SMASH! CRASH! BANG!” noises erupt behind him. “Sounds like he’s beating the crap out of her!” Buddy says. “Oh well, it’s not like she doesn’t deserve it, the crazy bitch!”
The episode, besides the beating part, is based on a very similar story that happened between a young Bagge and a black co-worker. The co-worker did indeed have six pairs of booties on his mirror, one for each kid, and when Bagge went to his house one day, he did meet that co-worker’s pregnant girlfriend, an 18-year-old high-school classmate of Bagge’s, who did indeed shove M&Ms down his throat.
“My acquaintance at the time,” Bagge says, “a white guy, called me up after he read the issue and said, ‘Pete! What the fuck are you trying to say about black people?’ I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ He said, ‘That scene with the baby booties and M&Ms!’ I said, ‘You think that’s my impression of every single black person in the world? Two crazy people acting crazy?’ Looking at those old Neat Stuffs, you can tell that the people who were concerned about this stuff, people trying to raise everyone’s consciousness, obviously I understood where they were coming from, but they had zero effect on what I did or didn’t draw. If it came to my head and I thought it was interesting or funny or relatable, I’d throw it in there. I didn’t self-censor. I had nothing to lose back then.”
Chet and Bunny Leeway
Feminism is a frequent point of humor in the book too—Studs Kirby, for instance, ends up sleeping with a women’s-studies major who asks to interview him about his controversial on-air remarks for her class. After also sleeping with a high-powered woman CEO, he later changes his mind about the feminist movement on-air “seeing first-hand how women’s equality has been beneficial to both women and men.” One of the more interesting character sets Bagge wrote for Neat Stuff is Chet and Bunny Leeway, a hypercritical, alienated married couple based on Bagge and his wife Joanne’s experiences living in cloistered Redmond. In one episode, Chet reluctantly agrees to go to an art opening of a friend of Bunny’s, a radical feminist art show featuring a painting of a man getting his penis cut off. Bunny and her artist friend end up getting into a fight about feminism and whether or not all men and all marriages are bad. Bunny storms off back to Chet, saying “I’ve learned that all of my girlfriends are assholes and I hate them all… plus that if I was a man, I’d be a woman-beater… that’s all most of ’em deserve, anyway…”
“I’ve been to art shows like that,” Bagge says. “I would describe myself as a feminist because I believe everyone should be treated equal under the law and everyone ought to be given equal opportunities. But I think it should give any thinking person pause when they hear that word, because it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. All great artists acknowledge nuance.”
Indeed, 24 years after that Chet and Bunny strip was published, the feminist magazine Bitch wrote a favorable review of Bagge’s 2013 Woman Rebel, a graphic biography of early birth-control advocate, Planned Parenthood founder, and sex educator Margaret Sanger. The write-up celebrated the nuanced way he portrays her—both her great ideas and triumphs and her personal shortcomings and flaws (like the lecture she once gave to the KKK).
“I can be very critical of all these people in my work and pass judgment,” Bagge says, “but you suddenly become aware of all these contrasts, including contrasts in yourself. That’s just real life.” Neat Stuff signing with Pete Bagge. Fantagraphics, 1201 S. Vale St., fantagraphics.com. Free (Book for $60), 6:30 – 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 13.