This month the world was lucky enough to see two publications by the elusive Peter Bagge: Other Lives and the Hate Annual (#8). How much did these two books enrich the world, in a literary sense, and a human one?
Before Whitney Houston was famous for being on a reality show and epically flushing her life, she was famous for singing about the greatest love of all being inside of her, and how she'd learned to depend on herself, and have her dignity, and above all else, we had to teach children to learn that it's easy to learn to love yourself. (Apparently this is what happened. Don't ask me, since I wasn't a fan, but damn... you couldn't turn on a radio or a tv without hearing her sing this. I feel like I've been brainwashed, and I'm not sure if her subsequent life choices have mitigated the intensity of her message, or intensified it...)
Maybe Peter Bagge never heard this, or all of our lives would be completely different. We wouldn't have his surreal, amusing, dysfunctional creations, and we'd be poorer for it. With affection and tenacity, Bagge has followed the gradual evolution of Buddy Bradley and his family for years. The comic might be called Hate, and it might be filled with the kind of people that prove how completely unlikeable humans can be, but the common thread that binds them is their love for each other.
Years ago, when his character - Buddy - married a woman (his ex girlfriend's friend) who he seemed to have only dated out of some kind of misguided pity or self-loathing, I was horrified. However, over the years there's been a kind of pathetic, childish friendship and mutual acceptance which might have otherwise been impossible. With her wide, disturbed eyes, Lisa sees all. Buddy never hides his inability to succeed or move on from her, because she's in the same boat. The world is confusing and hostile (or at best, indifferent) to them. While Buddy could have continued to strive for more, and to become more than the sum of his parts, if he hadn't moved back in to the town he grew up in, there is a kind of deep appreciation of what he truly is in that choice. The ways in which Buddy Bradley and his family have sabotaged their own and each others lives has forced them to care about each other, accept each others frailties and failings.
Under other circumstances, people grow up and, at some point perhaps, experience some small success. Unlike Buddy, they might capitalize upon this, try to continue to succeed and continue to grow and change, to move outside of the limited scope of their upbringing. This might express itself as a more interesting career than their parents, more financial success, or a better home. Buddy took a different route, less about making decisions, and more about accepting the limited options that he began to be confronted with, and found out that even making no decision is a decision. With indolence came a home back with his family, a wife he didn't really like, friends who he acknowledged as idiots when he left home the first time, and jobs that can't really satisfy or stretch. It's a life, and one most people would be similarly okay with, because that's just how life goes sometimes, especially if you don't try too hard.
How much does anyone really love themselves? Despite it being the "greatest love of all", it might also be the most tenuous and confusing. Only we get to really see ourselves without illusion, only we know all of the stupid/horrible/pointless things that we've thought, even if we don't do most of them, and knowing all of that, how can we really love ourselves? It's a problem most people wrestle with, very much on a back-burner situation. It's not as if we sit around, consciously thinking about why and how we don't really like ourselves (let alone love), but it's there, in the background, a familiar doubt. No one is impervious to doubt and fear, which is why we're always growing and striving to grow. It's not terribly fun, but an awareness of the kind of tension created by self-doubt like Buddy's can be a way to create forward momentum. It's his own denial of it and blind acceptance of his failings that holds him back, and makes him (ironically) such a lovable character.
The Hate Annual that came out this week was a great continuation of the Buddy Bradley legacy. He and Lisa's adorable, ridiculous, hopeless life is excellent entertainment for us. The years of surreal, ill-fated experiments in life have resulted in a rich, funny, sweet montage. Less of a cautionary tale, and more of a hysterical series of accidents leading to one big, slapstick experiment in life. It's got the whimsical silliness and social commentary of Vonnegut, combined with the ludicrous elasticity of Bagge's abstracted humans, and it works. The love comes through, for his dysfunctional parents, his vile siblings, and even his pathetic relationship. There's so much love and care expressed by everyone, even at their most horrible moments. Even in the mocking and denigration, there's love and familiarity, the kind you only get from family.
(Caveat: While the Hate universe also has it's share of excellent, funny short stories, it's the strong, long-term story that keeps me coming back for more. While they're a great bonus, the meat of this animal definitely lies in the Bradley family.)
A week after this elusive Hate Annual came out, the rather epic looking hardcover; Other Lives came out. I've got to be honest here, I was a lot more excited about the brand, spanking-new, glossy, hardcover book than I was about the flimsy ongoing comic book, but how much does a cover indicate?
It's got the same excellent (if you like it) Bagge art that we are used to. Expressive and just about abstract enough to drive home that these people are caricatures, and this time, it's in a rather appealing black and white (something that I generally prefer, as it allows the line and story to really come through.) However, the writing is of a slightly different tone, there is a bleak, unrelenting quality to this short story.
Unlike the Bradley's this is a book about characters who are new to us. From the start, it is clear that whatever small success the main character has had, is a source of guilt for him. He is self-denigrating in public, aggressively disagreeing about his level of success, expressing deep guilt about it. His nightmares are of his father's even more vehement ancestral hatred than his own, and his grandfather's non-pc anger at the way his aristocratic life was taken away from him. He seems unable to reconcile his childhood excitement with his adult shame, and uses this as (yet another) excuse to hate himself.
Vlad, or rather; Vader, (in one conversation his own exasperation eloquently implies the horrible balance he's struggling with, between denial of his own history and identity, and a brief time of geeky confidence, exuberance and humor), is absolutely tortured by guilt, and uses food, then borderline alcoholism to try and escape himself. Ultimately he cannot, and in his lack of sensitivity and desire to surround himself with painful reminders of his own perceived inadequacy, he risks everything and loses. The ending of the story is about the worst outcome possible (outside of outright death) and it's almost amusing, except that it's all been so damn inevitable as to be almost painful to watch.
Despite it's odd little attempts at gallows humor, Other Lives is unrelentingly bleak. Unlike Hate, there is no bright spark of fun and joy in amongst the feces of these people's lives. They hold out no hope for true happiness, it's all about the instant gratification possible only in a virtual life.
Every single character is unpleasant, self-denigrating, unable to cope with reality, or pathetic (or all four). Certainly none of them are emotionally healthy. Torn apart, miserable, wracked with guilt, shame and regret. Who are these people, outside of these terrible emotions? Almost no one really, and it's brutal to read, almost no fun. Unlike Buddy, we haven't had years to see these people grow and develop through all of the ups and downs in life. Without that history and connection, it's hard to see why we would care about these sad people. Unlike the Bradley's, their connections to other people are only negative, an expression of some need or want, and while these characters might not have started out that way, we have no indication otherwise.
There is actually an upside to Other Lives. Compared to everyone in it, my life is amazing and I have a functional level of self-esteem. It's small comfort, but it's something. Personally, I'm happy that Hate Annual came out in the same week, because while I might enjoy the beautiful binding and great printing quality of Other Lives, the annual has bags more love of the human race in it, and personally, I need more of that in my life.