Peter Bagge has been at the comics game long enough that he could probably retire into a rewarding (but poor-paying) career as Seattle's elder comics statesman. But Bagge keeps plugging away on different projects—I'd put his recent Margaret Sanger biography Woman Rebel up there with the best work of his career—and he's so prolific that we often don't have a chance to just lean back and appreciate the craft in his work and the arc of his career. It's become apparent, thankfully, that Bagge is not going to stop being so productive anytime soon. So what you've got to do, as a fan, is make the time to really appreciate him. And so far as that goes, there's no time like the present.
Last week, Fantagraphics published a new book by Bagge called Sweatshop. Hardcore Bagge fans will remember that Sweatshop was first published as a monthly series by DC Comics starting back in 2003. It ran for only six issues before it was canceled. Fans of the autobiographical bent of Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories might be a little uncomfortable with Sweatshop, because it leans more toward the broad comedy of a sitcom, but once you accept that this is more tall tale than memoir, you'll learn to appreciate its many pleasures.
Sweatshop is the story of a handful of young cartoonists working for Mel Bowling, a wealthy comic strip creator. They work in obscurity, ghost-writing and -drawing his Freddy Ferret strip while dreaming of fame and fortune, or the closest possible cartooning equivalent thereof. Bagge uses the setting to mock the comics world—fanboys, memoir comics, and cartooning auteurs all get mocked with steady regularity—and adapt some of the more heinous stories he's heard about the cheap, grumpy, terrible men who helped make the comics industry into what it is today. It's basically an episodic comedy where the characters bounce off each other in different ways, only to revert back to the norm by the end of the story.
Things get meta pretty quickly. As Bagge writes about an old cartoonist who underpays kids to do his work for him, he hands over Sweatshop's art responsibilities to a lineup of talented cartoonists including Johnny Ryan, Stephen DeStefano, Stephanie Gladden, and Bill Wray. Each of the artists does their own impersonation of Bagge's artwork, but they bring their own spin to it. Bagge's not exploiting the artists, he's collaborating with them and tailoring stories to their unique strengths, rather than simply wedging their distinct styles into a cookie-cutter corporate comics framework. In practice, Bagge's Sweatshop is the exact opposite of Bowling's sweatshop.