While best known as the creator of “Hate,” there’s a lot to love about Peter Bagge. The acclaimed indie cartoonist made his first ever visit to the world famous CBR Yacht at Comic-Con International in San Diego where he sat down with Jonah Weiland to discuss his career, his political views, and his numerous projects including his Marvel one-shots and his next biographical comic.
The conversation begins by going back to some of Bagge’s earliest days in the comic book industry, specifically his tenure as editor of “Weirdo” and working with Robert Crumb, the man who made him want to get into comics in the first place. Bagge also discusses his political view, and whether or not being a Libertarian has caused him any problems or to lose out on certain opportunities.
On his early days in comics, working with R. Crumb as editor of “Weirdo”:
Peter Bagge: Robert Crumb is the main reason I became a cartoonist — especially the comic books where he drew everything. It was all him from cover to cover. That was very unique. For that reason alone, I realized that’s what I wanted to do; use a comic book as a blank canvas. I always heard odd stories about him.
People always told me he was weird, [a] strange man. I had never met him when he asked me to take over as the Managing Editor of “Weirdo.” We were going to do it all through the mail. I had written to him, but never even spoken to him on the phone. When I mentioned that to a handful of people who did know him personally, they all said, “Oh my god, he’s a notorious flake, he’s going to let you down, this is going to be a disaster.” And he was anything but. He was fantastic. He was really nice to me, very dependable, always gave me the best advice.
He gave me his opinion, but I wanted it. I wanted him to be as involved as possible. I liked working with him. He was great to work with, he was never unreasonable, never said anything that offended me or insulted me.
On being upfront about his Libertarian politics, and whether or not that’s hurt his career at all:
I was never shy about describing myself as a Libertarian, and I never meant to write about that specifically until a Libertarian magazine [Reason] asked me to do comics for them. Even still, the point — both where I’m coming from and where the magazine is coming from — it was never to sell or push a certain ideology, they just assumed that if I covered a certain topic, that that would come across. And it doesn’t always completely. It’s not like me and the editors of the magazine agree on everything.
As far as it ever hurting me — career-wise, not that I’m aware of. But it’s interesting how, especially once Obama was elected, people asked me that constantly. Are you losing work because of your politics? Which made me paranoid. [Laughs] But there’s no evidence of it.
I can’t name names offhand, but it’s pretty easy to pick up a lot of artists’ politics looking at their work. For one thing, all cartoonists are artists. And almost all cartoonists, they’ll live in some urban area, most likely a left-leaning urban area — Brooklyn, Seattle, Portland. For those reasons alone, the default position would be leftist, progressive. That’s a very safe assumption to make about any cartoonist. Socially, I’m very liberal. That’s another thing, too — people wonder how I can stand living in Seattle. I love living in Seattle! I get along with all my neighbors and all my friends. Whereas I’d be miserable if I was out in the boonies. I don’t own a gun and I don’t want to. I’m not a rough and ready type of guy. I don’t hunt, I don’t want to. I like to go to cocktail parties and sip wine.
For the second part of the conversation, Bagge discusses injecting his work with a “humanist” outlook, where that point of view came from and why “none of us are that unique.” To that same effect, the cartoonist explains how he views critics in general, and the best way he knows to manage criticism.
On whether he sees his work as having a “humanist” outlook:
This is something [Robert Crumb] very much encouraged me to do: Don’t worry about making a fool of yourself, or being a laughing stock. Just be honest. People particularly like when you’re honest about your own failings. My work is rarely autobiographical, it’s mainly only my Reason work, for the most part, that I actually draw myself. Everything else is fictionalized, but of course Buddy Bradley in “Hate” is a thinly disguised stand-in for myself. It was early on where I’d think about certain stories, events in my life, and I figured, even if I have this fictional character doing and saying these things, people would safely assume that I was speaking from first-hand experience.
I do remember talking to Crumb about that, and he said, “You’ve got to do it. That’s when you’ve got to do it.” He always compared it to jumping into a pool of water. It might be really cold, it seems a little scary at first, but once you’re in, you find out the water’s fine. Otherwise, you’d regret it. Otherwise, you missed out on swimming in a swimming pool. [Laughs] And he couldn’t be more correct. It’s always those stories — not even so much the stories, but those particular elements in the story, the things that made me nervous — those always got the best response, because other people had done it. None of us are that unique. Any foolish thing I had ever done, said or thought that I’m ashamed of, if I put it out there in writing, it’s going to be cathartic. And it was. Those things always prove to be cathartic to the reader. They always go, “Yes, exactly. I did that.”
On whether or not he, as an artist, is sensitive to his critics:
The worst criticism is somebody who’s being harsh and also didn’t get it. They’re drawing things from your work that certainly wasn’t your intention, but also is the last thing you wanted somebody to pick up on. That also is unavoidable, because people have different experiences, and they always bring different things to it. That is what drives any artist crazy — having people misinterpret your work negatively.
That’s a very awkward balance — to be sensitive so you continue to be a receptive artist, but also not want to jump off a roof the next time a review comes out.
While best known for his original works, Bagge dipped his toes into the Marvel Comics waters in 2002 for the first time with “Megalomaniacal Spider-Man,” a story that was both Bagge’s best-selling issue ever and, as he tells it, the worst-selling Spider-Man comic ever. Bagge discusses how working for a mainstream publisher helped grow his audience and how there were originally supposed to be more Marvel one-shots on his resume.
On whether his Marvel work translated into new fans.
Anecdotally, just being at comic conventions and having people come up and they’ll tell me, “The very first comic I ever read by you was your Spider-Man comic.” And then later on the [“Incorrigible] Hulk” comic, which I did right after the Spider-Man comic but it didn’t see print for ten years. Better late than never.
On the original plan for his Marvel work:
Originally the plan was to do one every year because Marvel had a plan to release a Marvel movie every year which they’ve been doing ever since. And the idea was I was gonna do my own take on each one and just be part of the many titles that are trying to exploit the release of the movies. And that was the case of my first one with the “Spider-Man” movie. A very interesting thing about that Spider-Man comic — and this should tell you a lot about how it was received and whether it attracted new fans for myself. One, it was by far the best-selling comic book I had ever made. It outsold any “Hate” comic book I had ever done. And two, it is the all-time worst-selling Spider-Man comic ever. [Laughs] It sold like 55,000, which for Spider-Man is very, very low. But for an alternative cartoonist like myself, that’s fantastic! [Laughs]
Following on the heels of his first graphic biography, “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story,” Peter Bagge tells CBR TV about “Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story,” which tells the life story of the acclaimed author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in comic book form and is scheduled for release in 2017 from Drawn & Quarterly. Bagge explains why he picked Hurston as his second subject to focus on and what kind of pressure he puts on himself when telling stories about historical figures.
On whether autobiographical comics freak him out more than the personal stories contained in “Hate”:
I am very nervous about getting it right. I’m terrified of winging it. It’s something that I learned the hard way working with “Reason” magazine; the editors there are real sticklers for accuracy. They never let me make stuff up just to make my point. [Laughs] Unlike a lot of journalists these days.
Just trying to get it right [makes me nervous]. That more than anything else is what makes, not just my “Reason” work but also this biographical work, what makes it so laborious. I could rely almost solo on, both with Margaret Sanger and with Zora Neale Hurston, both had written autobiographies. If I wanted to be totally lazy I would just rely on that. But then you read other work on them, biographies about them, and you find out that they lied a lot about themselves. [Laughs] And then you have to pretty much gamble on what is the truth on these certain events.
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