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The comics industry cameos of Peter Bagge’s ‘Sweatshop’

by  in Comic News Comment
The comics industry cameos of Peter Bagge’s ‘Sweatshop’

You’ll be forgiven if you missed Sweatshop the first time around. Sure, it was created, written and mostly drawn by Peter Bagge, and yes, it was published by DC Comics, but not for long. It lasted just six issues in 2003 and, according to Bagge’s afterword to the new collection (published not by DC, but Fantagraphics), then-DC President Paul Levitz decided to pull the plug around the time the second issue shipped.

The unlikely pairing of DC with talent like Bagge was apparently an outgrowth of editor Joey Cavalieri’s success with the hardcover Bizarro Comics anthology, which teamed “alternative” comics creators with DC regulars. Bagge, who had written DC’s poorly received nine-issue Yeah!, met with Cavalieri and decided on a pretty perfect premise for a comedic comic book. (Yeah!, by the way, was drawn by Gilbert Hernandez and was also collected by Fantagraphics rather than DC.)

Sweatshop was set in the office of newspaper cartoonist Mel Bowling, who had reached the age and level of success where he couldn’t care less about the actual strip, which was basically being kept alive by its reputation alone. Minor details like writing, drawing and lettering were left up to a team of assistants, each of whom represented a particular type of comics creator and comics personality. There was gag writer Elliot, a politically active cartoonist whose own work was a Boondocks-style strip, but about 10 times more politically strident than Aaron McGruder’s (the final panel of each installment ends with a message like “Fight Racial Profiling!” or “Support the Special Olympics!”); penciler Alfred, a wannabe superhero artist with an old-fashioned style; inker Nick, a bitter and anti-social misfit who expresses himself through acidic parodies of others’ work; and Carrie, who makes auotobiographical comics in her spare time. Keeping the peace between cantankerous, old-fashioned, extremely conservative Bowling and his younger employees is Mel’s sister and office manager Millie.

Bagge and Cavalieiri assembled their own “sweatshop” to help Bagge put out a 22-page comic on a monthly basis, and one couldn’t ask for a more talented (and, again, unlikely) group of artists: While Bagge wrote every issue and drew most of the book, he was ably assisted by Stephen DeStefano, Bill Wray, Johnny Ryan and Stephanie Gladden, most of whom usually worked in a Bagge-like style (with the exception of Wray, who tended to draw the personal strips of the Sweatshop gang, adapting his style in a remarkably flexible way).

Throughout the short run, real comics industry figures pop up to rub shoulders with Bagge and company’s fictional characters, which proves to be one of the many fun aspects of the book. While real cartoonists are name-dropped and discussed throughout, these are the celebrity cameos; were this an actual sitcom, they’d probably have played themselves, Extras-style.

1.) Patrick McDonnell: In the first story, Mel Bowling is nominated for a Ham Fisher Award, apparently the comic strip world’s highest honor. The bad news is that his arch-rival Wayne Goodman is also up for the award, and he usually wins. This year, he may even have more of an edge, as he had one of the hamsters in his lame strip Gerry Gerbil come out as gay, receiving tons of media attention.

At the Hammy Awards ceremony, just as the winner is about to be announced and both men get to their feet to accept, they’re shocked to hear that it actually goes to “Patrick McDonnell, the creator of ‘Mutts’!”

As you can see in the page above, Bowling and Goodman don’t take it well, but McDonnell takes their savage assault with remarkably good humor.

2.) Joey Cavalieri: When Millie takes pity on Alfred, she agrees to help him escape from under the thumb of her tyrannical brother and achieve his dreams of becoming a superhero comics creator. First stop? A meeting with DC editor Joey Cavalieri, in order to try to sell him on The Peerless Penciler.

3.) Charles Burns: The next stop? The convention circuit, where Alfred finds his art style is too old-fashioned for modern tastes, as readers seem to prefer manga-inspired art. While working at his table, he meets a fellow artist and all-around nice guy, “C. Burns,” whose book is called Black Hole.

Burns’ art has a … powerful effect on Alfred.

4.) Ivan Brunetti: At the Corpus Christi Comics Convention, Mel appears as a guest of honor, and he takes his assistants along with him. Alfred stands in line for a professional review of his portfolio by a cartoonist he’s unfamiliar with, Ivan Brunetti.

Before Alfred can reach the front of the line, however, Brunetti snaps, and is taken ranting and raving from the convention hall, strapped to a gurney in a straightjacket. Straightjacket or no, that’s some very useful advice Brunetti offers.

5.) Neil Gaiman: Another attendee at the convention, Neil Gaiman is giving a reading to which Carrie drags Nick. While she gushes over Gaiman (“Isn’t he dreamy? He’s like a rock star …”), Nick wishes aloud someone would set Gaiman’s pants on fire.

And wouldn’t you know it, but before the con is over, someone does. Gaiman receives the most panel time of any of the series guest stars, although most of those panels involve him running around in the background with his pants on fire, screaming “GAAAAAAH!”

Like I said, you’d be forgiven for missing Sweatshop the first time around, but I’m not sure you’ll have such a good excuse this time. And if you’re still not convinced, you can read a nine-page preview of the book at Fantagraphics’ website.

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