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I Like Hate...
But I Hate Peter Bagge!
...Or so I felt one Friday afternoon in December 1995 when, in typical Buddy Bradley fashion, he stood me up at Seattle's unfortunately named Happy-Go-Latte. However, I managed to contact the forgetful comic book artist the next morning, whereupon he was most apologetic, gracious, and accommodating for neglecting our engagement. We met at the infamous Fallout, Seattle's swell comic/ record/ zine outlet, and then I interrogated Señor Hate for an hour at a more conventionally-named restaurant across the street. It went well.
Steve Mandich: Hate has gone through a lot of changes in the last year, with the full color and the ads, and it's got that big UPC code on the cover. What kind of response have you gotten from that?
Peter Bagge: Oh, not too much. I ran that editorial explaining it, what a lot of people describe as "preemptive strike." [Laughs] And I think it has effectively shut people up, because what are they gonna say: "Oh, I'm getting more for the same price?" There are still people who say they're sorry there are ads, and other people could care less. Most people don't even comment on them.
Well, you seemed to defend yourself pretty well, and usually reading the letters section, people are pretty extreme about really liking it or really hating it.
Yeah. Some people who write, they really ham it up just to get into the letters section! Some perverse badge of honor. And most of the time I don't run those things that are obviously some guy just trying to be outrageous to get onto the letters page, although sometimes I do go ahead and use that if it strikes me one way or another.
Well, two things struck me. In color, in every single scene Buddy's always seen wearing that same yellow shirt. It reminds me of Gilligan or something. It surprised me, that of all things he would wear a yellow shirt.
Well, it's always been yellow on the covers. Going back to Neat Stuff, it was a yellow shirt. It had red stripes and I got rid of that just 'cause you couldn't color that. Or, we could've, but it would've been a nightmare. It would have just taken forever to color those things red.
It looks good, it just seemed like rather like a loud shirt for a guy like Buddy to be wearing! [Bagge erupts with laughter] And the other thing I thought was interesting is how on the front cover, the title Hate now has an exclamation point after it, kinda like Jeopardy! or Up With People! or Earth First!
It's loaded with irony.
That's how I interpret it. I thought maybe it was some kinda merchandizing ploy, y'know, you could put out new hats that said "Hate!"
Yeah, we could. [Laughs]
But I wonder if that's the official spelling of it now.
Uhm... No, it doesn't have an official spelling or logo. Some people prefer the old logo and if they wanna reprint it they'll ask and I say sure. And we're still selling the old Hates, they're still all in print with that logo, so it doesn't matter, either way is fine. I just think exclamation points are hilarious. It goes with my drawing style, and especially where they're grossly inappropriate, like after a word like "hate"! [Laughs] I like the design and look of teen magazines from the '60s that are really kicky and wow and loud colors and scream at you. I just like their visual appeal. Of course, they're not full of all this cynicism, they don't have a note of cynicism in 'em, at least not overtly, whereas my comics are loaded with it. And it's not like some clever ploy. I wanted a new jazzy logo with really sharp zing-zangy space-age letters, and without even thinking about it, I gave it an exclamation point. When somebody like you brings it up, it just makes me laugh. [Laughs]
And then you've got a convenient place to put the price, right in the dot of the exclamation point -- [Bagge is still guffawing] -- so it all works out really well. Anyway, what's the deal with those Zippo lighters? Selling a lot of those?
They've been selling an amazing amount. That was entirely Tom Hazelmeyer's idea. Hazelmeyer owns that record label called Amphetamine Reptile out of Minneapolis. They put out the Cows, I guess they're called, and Helmet was his most famous band. He's had his label for eight years now, at least. And he's always been a chain-smoker and big into Zippos, and in the last couple years I guess he was getting bored putting out records by these 22 year-old guitar players. Plus, by then the major labels were glomming all of the bands that in the past he would sign. I guess he saw rough times ahead, since the type of bands he's always signed now go straight to the majors. He's told me all he's left with are, just like in Dan Clowes' comic of the future, guys that tape record their grandmother clipping her toenails! [Hysterical laughter] And just to amuse himself, he started this separate line, Smoke King he calls it but it's still AmRep, just to do lighters, which he's a lot more excited about. And I don't know if he sensed something, or it's just a reflection of his own enthusiasm, but for some reason a lot of people found it newsworthy -- they got written up in Newsweek! And for something that's like 27, 28 bucks, I think he's sold, god, at least a thousand Hate lighters.
How does that make you feel, to realize somebody out there puts down $28 to get a Hate lighter?
I'm amazed because people piss and moan to me all the time about Hate costing $2.95! That always irked me. Like in an issue that's coming out of Hate, some young slacker wrote a letter saying, "It kills to read your letters section and you're plugging all this great reading material that you and your publisher's putting out, but your target audience, people like me, we can't afford that stuff, maaaan! We can't afford it!" Who's buying all the CDs over there [at Fallout]? And CDs cost fourteen bucks!
I think people just like to whine.
It's like, who the fuck you kidding, you could buy six copies of Hate for one CD! And that's who's buying CDs, it's these [whining] "poor, poor slackers." I do try very hard -- and that's part of the advertising business -- I try very hard and I always have to keep the cover price as cheap as I possibly could. It's been a tug-o'-war with me and my publisher. My publisher seems to believe that alternative comics will always be for a special audience, that there isn't a mass audience out there. If you're trying to reach a mass audience, to them that means pandering. Forget about it! Unless you're gonna pander, and you do that by doing superheroes, then forget about trying to reach a mass audience. Just charge the appropriate price under the assumption that only a select amount of people will ever buy it, that they want it for the content and they're not gonna quibble over the price. I think that that's true with certain books, especially the two people I use most often to compare myself to, because they're also published by Fantagraphics and they're two of my favorite cartoonists, Dan Clowes and Jim Woodring. Their cover prices are going up, because they want really good paper, and they use color like I do. But I've been downgrading my paper, not only because it saves Fantagraphics money and to keep the cover price low, but I think my comics are more suitable on the cheap paper! Whereas I totally understand Woodring and Clowes wanting to be on better paper, and not worrying about their cover price going up. And indeed when their price goes up, it doesn't effect sales, because their comics are like Art-with-a-capital-A. They sell a lot more original art than I do, at much higher prices. My comics sell five times as much as Jim Woodring's, but he makes five times as much money selling original art, and he charges three times as much. People do think about them as artists. And people who like them love them! Whereas I think of my comic as a commodity; I'm tryin' to entertain people! I really am very proud of what I'm doing, and think I'm doing a really good comic book, but I don't give a fuck if anybody perceives me as a true artist or a fine artiste or even an artist. I just really like doing what I'm doing. If people agree or disagree, I really couldn't give a flying fuck as long as they buy the thing! As far as keeping the cover price low, I understand that for a lot of people when they buy a comic for the first time, it's on impulse. You flick through it and, y'know, you're weighing it. You're thinking, "Should I? I dunno, it looks pretty good, my friend told me I'd like it..." And a lot of people, they'll be on the borderline. And lots of time, what makes up the decision for them is the cover price. And yeah, $2.95 is cheap, but they're gonna compare it to all the other comics. And especially now that it does have ads and it's on cheap paper, I think more than ever people are gonna be comparing it to mainstream comics, which are a buck ninety-five.
Well, I think Hate probably has a broader appeal, just because it's not as abstract as Eightball.
Yeah, I try to make it really easy to understand.
I don't wanna say "lowbrow," but it is pretty straightforward.
It's direct. Like, the Hernandez Brothers, for example, they'll change scene, like I turn the page and it's the next day, they never ever ever say "meanwhile" or "the next day." You kinda have to figure that out yourself. But I never do that, it's always like [speaking extremely slowly, as if to an idiot] "five... minutes... later..." [Laughs] "Me-e-e-e-eanwhile, at Buddy's store..."
You do a lot of other art besides Hate, album covers and so forth. I was wondering about the George Thoroughgood album that you did. Are you a big George Thoroughgood fan? How did that come together?
Forty-five hundred bucks is how that came together! [Laughs]
Say no more!
Did you buy it?!
No! I think I was in Costco, of all places, and I saw it sitting there and --
Well, do you like Jim Woodring's comics at all?
I know he does Frank and stuff, but I've never picked them up. They're too expensive! [Bagge is in hysterics] $2.95 is my limit!
There's a comic strip inside. The title song on the album is called "Get a Haircut," and this guy did a comic strip inside it, illustrating the lyrics, and Woodring inked it. And he also colored the front cover. But for some reason -- and as far as I know Woodring doesn't have a problem with Thoroughgood -- but Woodring didn't want any credit. He didn't want his name to appear anywhere on the sleeve. Uh, Thoroughgood is a comic fan. I don't know how much he likes mine in particular. He was certainly familiar with it. I never talked to him personally, but what I was told was the art director said, "Well, why don't we get-" the art director mentioned myself, or Dan Clowes, or Charles Burns. He says, "Those are three guys that are doing a lot of, y'know, alternative, groovy record cover sleeves." And he was familiar with all three of us, and he says, "Well, let's go with Peter Bagge, then." And I do know that he's a comic fan, but I don't know what he buys. $2.95 might be too expensive!
Well, I don't think I'll buy a George Thoroughgood CD for $15.99.
But I stopped doing all -- unless it's for a good friend of mine or the money is just phenomenal -- I don't do any illustration work anymore.
You probably just get a huge amount of requests all the time, I would think.
Not huge. In fact, as soon as I decided not to do any more illustration work, that's when I all of a sudden started getting lots of pretty lucrative offers that I had to turn down. But it finally dawned on me that I make good enough dough just off Hate alone that I should just focus all my energy on Hate. I don't know if it's a mistake or not, professionally speaking, not to do all this illustration work. I feel real jaded. Years ago I was begging for illustration work 'cause I didn't make much off the comic. Illustration was much more lucrative considering the time involved. And now it's amazing to me that I'm turning it all down, y'know? Although it's satisfying, too, to tell all these art directors to forget it, after all the years of them slamming their doors in my face! [Laughs]
Yeah, it must be pretty satisfying to be able to say, "Nah, forget it, that's okay."
Yeah, and they're always flabbergasted too, they're like [doofus voice] "Really? We're Details!"
So, one question about the Hate storyline I wanted to ask: Buddy moved from New Jersey to Seattle and now he's gone back to New Jersey. So does that suggest that you might be anxious to get back to New Jersey for any reason at all, or is that just where Hate's gone?
The main reason I did that is I wanted to get Buddy Bradley's family back in the storyline again, without Buddy starting a family of his own, which is still too much of a reach. I just wanted to get old folks and kids into the story instead of him just hanging out with people his own age all the time. And there was no simple easy way to get Buddy's whole entire clan out to Seattle, so I figured I had to get him back there. It is a little bit awkward, since I don't live there any more. And no, I don't intend to move back!
Have you been back to Jersey to visit?
Well, actually I grew up in Westchester County, just across the Hudson River from Jersey. The Bradleys were based on my family, largely, and the area I grew up in. There's actually next to no difference between New Jersey and Westchester County. The problem is, Westchester County is traditionally considered this upscale, upper-middle-class suburb of New York, whereas Jersey was the place everybody made fun of, more blue-collar, more polluted. And actually Jersey has very nice rich expensive parts and Westchester County has -- like, the biggest employer in my home town was a nuclear power plant, just like The Simpsons! I lived outside of Peekskill. And there were a lot of white trashers, ugly strip malls. It was no different than Jersey, but I made the Bradleys live in Jersey. I only lived in Jersey for 2-1/2 years and it was in Hoboken, which is not typical. Hoboken's more like living in Brooklyn Heights, it's right across the river and it's an urban neighborhood. I had the Bradleys live in Jersey just because of the humorous connotation. It immediately evokes suburban despair. But even though I still can't avoid or resist being site-specific, I intended to make it more like Anywheresville. And that was my intention too when I had it take place in Seattle. I like being site-specific, so when they go to a place I'll have it be a real place, so that anybody familiar with Seattle will get an extra laugh out of it. But I don't make it vital to the understanding the story so that somebody who's never been to Seattle won't get what's going on. But Seattle wasn't "Seattle" at the time I started doing Hate. I just made it one more place where young hipsters congregate. And then all of a sudden two years later, Seattle became "Seattle!" I mean, it really was supposed to be like a young hipster equivalent of Anytown, U.S.A. And all of a sudden it became the place.
So do you feel in some way responsible for making it the place?
No! No! Nirvana is entirely responsible! [Laughs] Nirvana and to some extent Sub Pop, that combination. People in the hipster-fanzine world, in those circles, already before Nevermind came out, people were already getting sick of hearing about Seattle.
Not like the average people living in trailer parks, they weren't sick of Seattle yet. And then all of a sudden the whole world got a chance to be sick of Seattle! [Laughs]
It's interesting, living here before, during and after, and just seeing how locally familiar things just all of a sudden became completely overexposed. So do you go back East much?
Well, I still have relatives that live in the Catskills, and I've gone back to Hoboken just once, unfortunately; I'd like to go back again. A lot of the time I'm tempted to just go back and rent a car and just drive around for research purposes. I have one friend I knew in Hoboken who now lives in the middle of suburban New Jersey, and I'd love to go and visit him. Actually, I've been back twice. We [Daniel Clowes and Bagge] did a tour signing in the bowels of suburban New Jersey, which was very funny. Clowes and I rented a car, we were trying to get to this place, and I made a wrong turn. All of a sudden I realized, "Oh my God, we're on the wrong highway!" We had to turn around, so I got off at the very next exit, which took us through the heart of downtown Clifton, New Jersey, which was like the smallish, oldish downtown where all the guidos are. The traffic was appalling and the place was a mess, and it was just such hell. And Clowes is just cracking up -- it's like a small town, a tiny little town of twenty thousand people, but this downtown street was just so decrepit, and the traffic was so appalling, y'know? It took us ten minutes to get from one red light to the next. And there's this guido in front of us in his Trans Am -- there's more Trans Ams in northern suburban New Jersey than the rest of the country! All these guys, they still have John Travolta haircuts. And we're behind this guy in his Trans Am, we're waiting forever behind this red light, we're going nuts, we just wanna get back on the highway. And he takes this huge 7-11 cup of cheap coffee -- I guess by the time he got half done with it was lukewarm, and he realized he was drinking mud -- and he just stuck his hand out of the window and it was like, "Splooosh!" So on this already filthy, litter-strewn street, all this brown coffee out of this Trans Am, and Clowes and I were just laughing our asses off, going, like, "This is hell! Like, Jersey is, like, so fucked! [Laughs] This is the most fucked-up place!" But it was hilarious at the same time.
I take it you like Seattle a little better than New Jersey, then?
I like Seattle better than anywhere on the planet.
So anyway, a couple questions about what it's like being a comic book artist as a profession. I gotta ask you, what's a typical mail day like for you?
These days, the bulk of what I get is either a fanzine or a self-published comic book, with a letter attached talking about themselves and their comic and a few token comments about Hate. Usually nice letters are attached to something that somebody wants plugged. If I get just a letter with nothing attached to it, it's usually some guy reaming me out for some reason. The color -- people still whine about the color! They still won't shut up about it. And then fortunately it's still inspiring people to write in and say that they like it, but the bulk of what people talk about is, "I don't like the color, I don't like that." I have a feeling that the advertising is gonna be -- people are slowly gonna start talking about that more and more, either condemning it or praising it. But I'll get, on an average, about a piece of mail a day.
But do people ever send you stuff that's really insane, or anything threatening? 'Cause it seems to me that people take -- Hate's a great comic and all -- but people take things way too seriously.
Sometimes people'll get carried away in their rhetoric, complaining about something. I think they don't even think about what they're doing. Or they think it's funny, that it'll get them on the letters page, which was true sometimes in the past. I stopped running some of the crazier letters with violent overtones, cause it was inspiring more people to do that. I don't think any of those people who are going overboard making threatening comments are serious about it. Lots of times I find out that these letters were written by people I know under a fake name! It'll be someone who kisses my ass and glad-hands me every time I see them, and then I'll find out, sometimes years later. It's like they tell me what they really think under fake names. It's horrifying! [Laughs]
So what happens when you finally meet people at signings?
They'll ask me a few token questions like, "When's Stinky coming back?" I haven't done very many signings lately. When we did the Hateball tour two years ago, again because of all the publicity it got, not all places but at a lot of the stops we got really good turnouts. Big for us. Since then I've been to some signings where literally no one has shown up. That's part of the reason I stopped doing 'em. And it is a pretty stupid thing, and most of the people I know who really like comics -- I think it's reflective of my own attitude about comics, that it's just a commodity, that it's toilet-reading -- they're not the type that [sneering] "double-bag it," y'know? So when I do signings, a lot of people just run in saying, "I don't want you to sign anything, I just wanted to tell you that I like your comics and say hi." Whereas Dan Clowes, I guess with the nature of his work, he gets the much more anal, collector-type guys who not only want him to sign a bunch of stuff, but they'll ask him really obscure, arcane questions. Like they'll say, "On page six, panel four of Eightball #3, were you copying from -- was that inspired or a reference to this science fiction illustrator who used to...?" And Dan'll be like, "Yesss!"
He's just humoring them?
No, no! Dan is that type of guy! So then the two of them would bond, they'd start talking about all this weird, arcane stuff that even I don't know about.
Seems like it would be kinda draining, though. I remember seeing you guys in San Diego, you seemed pretty exhausted, like it was a bit more of a chore than you would have liked.
By then it was. It was a lot of fun when we did this extensive, non-stop leg, there were two weeks where every day we were in a different town. And then later on it was all broken up, like we were in Portland and Seattle, and then we were down in San Diego and Los Angeles. That was literally like a month after we did this first stretch. And then it was just getting way too stretched out, and we weren't into it any more. The novelty had disappeared, and San Diego, it just sucked, for all kinds of reasons. But what was I gonna tell you, besides kvetching? Oh, one sad thing that happened with that Hateball tour is a lot of people would tell me later that they were gonna go and they were afraid to go. Or they'd show up, and just never come anywhere near us!
Like they'd be intimidated by you?
Apparently. I remember one signing, a guy came in and had a whole ton of Eightballs and he just hovered around the door, and he had to have been there to get 'em signed by Clowes, and after hovering around he just left. Or a woman coming in, saying, "This is my boyfriend's comic, and he wants to give you copies and get his Hates and Eightballs signed." And I'd say, "What's the matter, is he working?" And she'd say, "No, he's outside. He's afraid to come in." We thought this was ridiculous.
Well, I suppose if some people buy every last thing that you've ever written or drawn, then you are sorta like a celebrity to them, in their eyes anyway... They're in awe of you, and they're afraid to talk to you.
Well, it's extremely flattering, and extremely embarrassing, and --
It's probably a little unnerving too.
Yes. And it's unfortunate, and I feel like an idiot bringing it up, because I can't shake this perspective of myself of for years just being a guy that nobody gave a shit about or would be "in awe of," and like I said, it's still such a teeny microscopic percentage of the human populace, compared to how many people know who Madonna is, who know who I am. And I go about my daily business, going to stores and to my kid's school without being recognized. And even still, when I go into most comic shops I'm not recognized, because they'll know my name but not my face. So this idea of any situation anywhere of anybody going, "Ooh, aah." I mean, I always find it hard to believe, I'm really reluctant to even bring it up to you, I'm afraid this is gonna be in print and that people I know'll go, "Listen to this guy, he thinks he's such hot shit!" But that's just the point: I don't think I'm hot shit. [Laughs] That's why I'm so amazed and can't get used to or accept it. Whenever there's a problem like this, if I have some kind of communication problem or somebody's acting to me like they're not with it, it still is always the last thing that registers, like, "Is this person nervous or afraid to talk to me?"
Yeah. Or maybe they're constantly nervous and afraid.
[Laughs] Which is probably true too! They're just wrecks to begin with!
So how long do you see Hate going?
I dunno. In its present incarnation, I see myself developing another fifteen issue cycle.
I did fifteen issues of Neat Stuff, fifteen issues of the black and white Hate. And I can't foresee this present storyline going past fifteen issues again without me stretching it out, or milking it beyond what it's really worth. And it's not intentional, it just seems like it's easy for me to build this arch of interest where it reaches a certain peak, and then it unwinds or falls apart or just dissolves. It's almost like they all come together as one long story. It's inspiring for me, because it fuels the individual stories I'm working on, and it helps build up or lead into the next story. But after that I have no idea what I'm gonna do, if I'm gonna still keep working with Buddy Bradley and develop another situation.
So fifteen issues, that's probably like three years worth of work?
Yeah, now it is, so that would wrap up some time in '97. I dunno what's gonna happen after that.
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