The curve of the human spine as drawn by Peter Bagge may not correspond to the arc of the moral universe, but it does bend toward a certain kind of justice. Earlier this year, Fantagraphics published a deluxe, two-volume box of Neat Stuff, the 1985 to 1988 comic book in which Bagge developed his signature style and voice, as well as inventing characters he would follow into his follow-up title, the better known and justly celebrated Hate.
Along with Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and a few others, Bagge was an essential mover in the evolution of comics from the somewhat shameful fixation of a cloistered, antisocial superminority to the weirdly acceptable semi-mainstream entertainment they represent today. A lot has happened since Neat Stuff, but when Bagge looks back at the old strips it collects, he says the main question that comes to mind is "What the heck was wrong with me?"
Does the book strike him as crude? Crass? Juvenile?
"Just so pissed off," he said. "So angry. I always found it curious that people always use that term 'bitter old man'—like old men have cornered the market on bitterness. Nobody is more bitter than a young man. And who knows where that comes from? It's kinda like when you're young, you're struggling, but you really don't know yet if you're gonna achieve what you want to achieve. And you know the odds are stacked against you. And you know you've gotta work really hard. And your worst fear is that you're gonna work really hard and still not achieve what you want to achieve. You know? And it makes you furious. That's what I really pick up when I read some of these old Neat Stuff strips. Its like, 'Where is all this angst and anger coming from?' Because I don't relate anymore."
It's worth taking a moment to consider just how bleak the cultural landscape was in 1985, especially if you had a hunger for something weird and lacked access to a major city.
"There was mainstream culture and there was alternative culture, and there was nothing in between," Bagge recalled. "There was like an ocean. Everything that Fantagraphics was doing—we couldn't even begin to explain to the average person what we were trying to do."
Little by little, interesting artifacts began to infiltrate the collective consciousness, but for the most part, the underground represented by the likes of Fantagraphics remained underground.
"Certain things started to build a bridge, where people who were totally in the mainstream started becoming more curious," Bagge said. "Nirvana was one of those. And a handful of movies, indie movies like Blue Velvet that made people curious. But prior to that, they just didn't even pretend to be curious. It's funny: The 1970s was like the hangover of the 1960s, and then the 1980s... What was that? I forget how square it was!"
It doesn't seem too wild a leap to suggest that the squareness has returned, and not always from the predictable sources. Bagge related his bemused contempt for Seattle Weekly's piece about the Neat Stuff collection, which evinced shock at the book's salty irreverence about portraying racist and sexist characters, ideas, and language.
On reflection, Bagge's comedic sensibility is stridently at odds with the culture of performed "woke"-ness, and the white-people-calling-white-people-white element of social media—to say nothing of the similarly tone-deaf nullity of white nationalism that functions as its counterpart and foil. I wondered whether he thinks there is still an audience capable of perceiving the shades of irony, self-incrimination, and humanism that exist in his work.
"Most people do get it," he said. "They do get the nuance. And the humor. Humor is a sign of intelligence. It means you're capable of abstract thought. It means that you hold an object and you can guess what's on the other side of it. It's like going to a funeral—you look in a corner, you always see someone giggling. It's not that they're happy the guy is dead. But you know, they're finding humor in this otherwise horrific situation. You really wonder about the people who don't get that. I can't tell if it's... are they literally stupid or are they copping an attitude to empower themselves? It never seems to totally go away. It's like Camille Paglia said, again speaking of the cultural wars going on in the 1980s and '90s: She said there was a war between the sex-positive and the sex-negative feminists, and in the grand scheme of things, the sex-positive feminists won, but the sex-negative feminists all got tenured professorships."
Reactionary attitudes to his work are not a new phenomenon. When Bagge and his wife, Joanne, moved to Seattle in the early 1980s, he said, "We met a lot of artists, and we were actively trying to create an artist and/or cartoonist community like we had back in New York. But it was like a city of hermits. And we were trying really hard to host parties, constantly getting everybody together. And everybody was eager to take part in it. They got along with me, personally. But almost every single Seattle artist gave me shit about what I was doing. It was 'politically incorrect,' or if they didn't want to call it that, the word I kept getting was 'puerile.' That it was infantile. Like I was dragging comics down into the gutter."
I mean, in a way, they were right. Neat Stuff is puerile as fuck. Infantile, too. It's also punishingly intelligent and brutally hilarious. It makes you laugh so hard, you physically ache. And in giving way to Bagge's subsequent work, it also forms the genesis of a style of work that both celebrates and transcends the medium's lowly origins. Comics didn't need anyone to drag them into the gutter—the gutter is where they came from and where they did some of their best stuff.
Not to say they can't also be highfalutin—Bagge's Fantagraphics counterparts proved that much, and his later work bore them out. But to look at the outrageous burlesque of Bagge's lines, to read the uproarious absurdity of his stories and dialogue, is to recognize the totally disposable, utterly indispensable soul of comics elevated to an art gutter that shames most any pedestal you care to name.
But too much looking back makes Bagge wary.
"I keep thinking of a quote by Pete Townshend," he said. "Somebody was interviewing him, and they said, 'Pete Townshend, rock legend.' Townshend says, 'Please don't call me a rock legend.' And they ask, 'Why not?' He says, 'That simply means that nobody buys your records anymore.'"
It's a fair point. But I related a more apt Townshend quote, this one after Rolling Stone magazine made one too many references to the old guitar wizard's genius in the past tense.
"Am," Townshend corrected the journalist. "Not was. I am a fucking genius."