Music defined the punk and grunge eras, but comics played an essential role, too. Cartoonist Peter Bagge, an early fan of and contributor to Punk magazine, was living in NYC in punk’s heyday but relocated to Seattle just as that city was getting grunge-ified. He captured it all through his popular, long-running comic book HATE, which charted the hilarious and hapless misadventures of slacker extraordinaire Buddy Bradley. The Complete HATE has just been published by Fantagraphics, a 3-volume boxed set that includes every issue, plus new introductions, unpublished sketches, strips and other ephemera. Eric Davidson spoke with Bagge for PKM.
In the 1990s, if you lived in the dingy, pre-gentrified area outside a downtown or off campus, made just enough money to pay rent and buy records and beer (not necessarily in that order), and had a delusional musician friend or at least two crazy exes, HATE comics, created by Peter Bagge, read like a personal biography. The low-rent, musician-tangential Seattle setting of the beloved 1990s comic book soon unwittingly connected it to the burgeoning grunge scene, and by proxy the whole notion of Generation X. HATE was the comic for a subset of a whole generation, as vital to grab on the way home from class as the new Sub Pop 7-inch. Peter Bagge lived some of his own music scene shenanigans before even getting to Seattle.
Born and raised in New York City, Bagge found himself stumbling around the Lower East Side at the end of the ‘70s, chummng up with Punk magazine co-founder, John Holmstrom, and even creating some strips for Punk that never happened because the mag went belly-up. After a couple more years of developing his comics style, Bagge moved to Seattle where he found himself at the dawn of an exploding music and comics nexus. The venerated underground comics imprint, Fantagraphics, picked up his Neat Stuff series, from which Buddy Bradley and his HATE gang of losers soon spun off. Bagge even played in a band, the jangly pop act Action Suits.
HATE was the comic for a subset of a whole generation, as vital to grab on the way home from class as the new Sub Pop 7-inch.
But while us fans all figured Bagge must be a flanneled, Tad gig-going ever-sophomore, he was already married and frankly not much into new music. HATE wasn’t just an accidental zeitgeist rider, but a deeply developed and hilarious voyage of an archetypal, end-of-the-century American 20-something just figuring out what to do next. The next thing to do for HATE’s main character, Buddy Bradley, was to move back to New Jersey and settle down-ish. His tales remained funny as hell, if increasingly weighted with that annoying albatross, adulthood. And as often happens with comics fans, change wasn’t always welcome. Bagge ended the comic by 1998, though he did continue to revive it for some annuals until 2011.
After various reprints and collections through the years. Fantagraphics have finally and gorgeously gathered every issue of HATE, plus some new introductions, unreleased sketches and strips, and other ephemera into a hefty, three-volume hardcover set, The Complete HATE, housed in a sturdy, mantelpiece-ready box. We caught up with Bagge, still in Seattle and still drawing.
PKM: In The Complete HATE, there’s the family photo of you with your brothers and dad. It had me wondering how important their visages were to your drawing style.
Peter Bagge: Are you saying my family look like comic book characters?! Ha ha. Well, my dad was very much a model for Pops Bradley. My siblings also influenced my stories, though none of them were the direct inspiration for any individual character.
PKM: What were some comics that first inspired you?
Peter Bagge: First it was newspaper strips, especially Peanuts. Later it was Mad and National Lampoon, and animated cartoons, especially Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1940s. But the biggest influence were early underground comics, especially the work of Robert Crumb.
PKM: What was your family’s reaction once you started making your comics more focused on Buddy, and by extension, his family?
Peter Bagge: They didn’t react much at all! My parents didn’t read them, but my siblings recognized certain events. They had very little to say about it, though. Me and my siblings all got along, save for the occasional spat, and that’s still the case. Ours was an eccentric and dysfunctional household though, which makes us hard to generalize about or compare to other families. Like all parents, mine wanted me to pursue a stable, respectable career, and comics back then were neither. That said, they never objected to me pursuing a comics career either.
PKM: You grew up in New York City. Can you tell me an early story of catching a punk show at CBGB?
Peter Bagge: I grew up in the suburbs of New York, but moved to the city in early ’77. I never went to CBGB. I never really wanted to. It wasn’t my kind of place. I preferred more “new wavey” venues, like Irving Plaza or the Mudd Club. I just remember not hating the Mudd Club as much as most people claimed to and liking it a tad better than most venues. But I can’t stress enough what a non-club going person I was in general. They really weren’t for me. I usually was disappointed by live shows, and saw way too many overly hyped bands that I got talked into seeing, like the Feelies or the Slits. One band that I was pleasantly surprised by was Lance Loud’s band, the Mumps. They were really good! I saw some bands perform as opening acts that later got big, like Squeeze. And Queen – I saw them open for Mott the Hoople! We went to a lot of parties and hung out at bars, and all the cartoonists I knew were very social as well. But to be honest, I never was much of a live music person. I prefer playing records at home!
Peter Bagge: I loved that mag. A mutual friend told me to show my work to Holmstrom, so I did. It was as simple as that. When I first met John at the Punk office, I remember some wasted-looking punk poser asshole being there who started giving me shit as soon as I walked in the door. He stopped once he saw John liked my comics. I don’t know who he was or why he was there. He certainly wasn’t working! It was people like him that made me avoid places like CBGB – all those leather jacket-wearing dipshits with huge chips on their shoulders!
PKM: So what was it that drew you to that scene, as I assume there were other art and music scenes you could have gravitated towards?
Peter Bagge: Punk and New Wave music meant different things to different people, but Punk magazine emphasized the more cartoony, irreverent aspects of the music that I really liked. Not surprising, since the magazine was mostly staffed by cartoonists! They went out of business before publishing my work. John picked one or two existing strips to use for the next issue. He called me to tell me to pick them up when it turned out he couldn’t use them, though he ran a few Studs Kirby strips in a later special edition of the magazine. He liked my Studs Kirby character a lot, and ran Studs strips regularly in STOP magazine later on. Holmstrom used to work closely with a cartoonist/art director named Bruce Carleton. Both were pretty no-nonsense guys who knew what they wanted. Bruce later worked for Screw magazine, and I got a lot of work through him there.
I didn’t really work with Legs, though I knew him and would see him around. He was a bit out of control back then, though he was always entertaining. I used to run into him at art openings, though he was only there for the free wine. I once asked him what he thought of the art on display, and he said, “What art?” He wasn’t joking either!
Punk and New Wave music meant different things to different people, but Punk magazine emphasized the more cartoony, irreverent aspects of the music that I really liked.
PKM: You’ve mentioned that by the early-‘80s, the comics world was somewhat moribund. Was a search for a more active comics scene one of your impetuses for moving out west?
Peter Bagge: New York City was actually full of young cartoonists who were inspired by the underground comics that came before us. I left a burgeoning scene when I moved out west!
PKM: Who were some fave New York comic artists from then?
Peter Bagge: Many are still my faves! Kaz, Patrick MacDonnell, and Drew Friedman, plus the artists I used to work with a lot: Holmstrom, Carleton, Ken Weiner, JD King, David Coulson. Too many to list!
PKM: How did you end up in Seattle?
Peter Bagge: My wife and I wanted to buy a house, and that wasn’t going to happen in New York. So when she had an opportunity to start a business with her sister in Seattle, we jumped at the chance. No regrets!
PKM: You had some social experience in a fairly important, historical music scene in NYC. Though it seems, via the HATE storyline and other things I’ve read about you, that by the time you got to Seattle, it’s not like you were all swept up in the grunge scene and some big music fanatic.
Peter Bagge: Yeah, like I said, I wasn’t a big live music fan. When I’d see a show it was usually at someone else’s urging. But the only illustration work I’d find in Seattle was for music publications and venues, as well as record labels. This brought me into contact with people in the local music scene, but I was always on the periphery. And keep in mind, I was entering my 30s, married, about to have a kid, and was working my ass off 24/7. Who has time for music shows in that situation! As for grunge itself, I liked some of the bands more than others, but that music in general wasn’t to my taste. I have more of a pop sensibility.
PKM: Agreed about the grunge thing. I liked the Dwarves, the Fluid, Supersuckers, the more fast-paced stuff. The Fastbacks too.
New York City was actually full of young cartoonists who were inspired by the underground comics that came before us. I left a burgeoning scene when I moved out west!
PKM: What were the basic differences between the bubbling up scene there and what you experienced in NYC?
Peter Bagge: It was a bit like deja vu. But it made sense in that Manhattan was actually a cheap place to live in the 1970s, and Seattle was dirt cheap in the ‘80s. And that made it easy for creative types to indulge themselves and pursue their passions, while simultaneously being surrounded by people with similar sensibilities.
PKM: What was the situation like for you, as far as finding comics work in Seattle?
Peter Bagge: What work I found there was very poor paying, and I knew that would be the case. So I just focused all my efforts on my own comics. I was working on WEIRDO magazine by then. Robert Crumb just asked me to take over as managing editor back in 1983 or so. There was no office, just him and me working on it from our respective homes. And I had a deal with Fantagraphics to start a comic of my own, Neat Stuff. So I had my hands full, labor-wise.
PKM: Is that where you met Daniel Clowes?
Peter Bagge: I met him in NYC once, though we barely talked. We started corresponding after we both had our own solo comics with Fantagraphics.
PKM: Despite having done some album and poster art, Daniel Clowes wasn’t into the new music scene at the time either, right?
Peter Bagge: I imagine he felt the same as I did about it. When we’d talk about music it was usually about acts that pre-dated our births!
PKM: Do you have a memory of going to a band show with Clowes?
Peter Bagge: Yes, ages ago. We got roped into something. We both hated it and left. Dan also was once subjected to a performance by my own band, The Action Suits. We never sounded worse!
“Visualize Ballard”-The Action Suits:
PKM: How long was Action Suits a band?
Peter Bagge: It was just some friends, mostly other cartoonists, who were goofing around at the house they all shared. I was their drummer for a couple of year-long stints. We rarely played out. We made some records that I was quite proud of, though.
PKM: Tell me about the 1993 “Hateball” tour you did with Clowes? That tour seems like some kind of apex for that comics era.
Peter Bagge: We mainly have funny memories of staying in dive hotels or crashing on filthy couches. I remember opening the blinds of one hotel room only to see the exterior wall of the next building two feet away! Though we did stay in some nice places too, so it wasn’t that rough.
PKM: From the perspective of a HATE fan living in a college town at the time who worked in a record store, coffee shop, and was in a band – the slacker trifecta! – to me and my pals, HATE often read like documentary. We assumed you must’ve been just like Buddy – smoking cigs, empty fridge, living with fuck-up roommates, gossipy apartment parties, and scamming just enough cash to cover rent. But you were already a married dad…
Peter Bagge: Yes, HATE was more like nostalgia for me by the time I started it, since that type of life was largely behind me. I even considered having it take place in 1980 rather than 1990, but that would’ve been too complicated to pull off. Buddy was always a bit rougher around the edges than I was, though. I rarely smoke, for one thing, and I prefer wine to beer.
PKM: Still, HATE is kind of a crucial snapshot of what Seattle was like in that student bohemia sideworld right before the whole grunge thing hit.
Peter Bagge: Yes, before and after that all hit. But HATE wasn’t really about grunge at all. It was a factor in one storyline, and that was it. I’m not embarrassed by the fact that my comic is so heavily associated with the grunge scene, and I can see how it makes for an easy shorthand description of it. So I’ll passively go along with that association, though it really is quite inaccurate.
PKM: Can you give us a classic, grumpy townie story of when you noticed the gentrification and influx of out-of-towners in Seattle?
Peter Bagge: From the moment I moved to Seattle, the natives were complaining about outsiders driving up rents. That kind or talk always annoyed the hell out of me, though. Everybody is from somewhere else! And why are newcomers always worse than the natives? When I moved here, it was the opposite: newcomers were the ones big on preserving the environment, while the natives were busy dumping their old refrigerators into ravines.
PKM: Do you think the local bands in general were cool with Seattle becoming this kind of go-to place for the music industry, as it might help them get signed? Or did they find it annoying?
Peter Bagge: It depended. This was a very provincial town when I arrived here, and many people were extremely uncomfortable with all the fame and attention. It wasn’t evenly spread either, which created a lot of resentment. The handful of people who did make it big had targets on their backs. They had good reason to be paranoid!
PKM: I’ve gotta ask who might’ve been the inspiration for Stinky and his band.
Peter Bagge: The feather duster bit I got from Gail Coulson, lead singer of Tragic Mulatto. I also was inspited by a female-fronted local band called Sick and Wrong. Both bands were deliberately obscene, shameless and provocative. I found them entertaining for those reasons alone!
Sick and Wrong -Live at Second Time Around
PKM: You note that a goodly portion of your HATE fandom didn’t take to the idea of Buddy growing up and moving back east, somewhat settling down, etc. It must’ve seemed obvious to you that the story would go along that way, but did you have any second thoughts; or did Fantagraphics ever try to nudge you back to keeping Buddy broke and bumming around Seattle?
Peter Bagge: First, Fantagraphics has never urged me to do anything, story-wise, They’re very indulgent in that regard. And I think the dwindling sales of the later HATEs had a lot to do with my readership “aging out” of buying comics altogeher. That said, the idea of keeping Buddy a 20-something stuck in a timewarp would’ve been pathetic. Anyone who ever suggested that wasn’t thinking about what that actually would have looked like!
PKM: There were HATE film and TV developmental deals that have come and gone over the years, including a HATE cartoon plan. Did any come close to fruition?
Peter Bagge: It bubbles up from time to time, and I’ve had about six development deals, re: Buddy Bradley through the years. I suppose each development deal counts as “coming close,” but so far no cigar.
PKM: How did it feel to dig around and look at some of the rare old sketches and other memorabilia that have been included in The Complete HATE set?
Peter Bagge: It made me nostalgic for when life was more visceral than digital, mainly. Not that those days were better, but they sure were different! It also made me wonder whatever happened to people I knew from those days, and how so many of them are gone.
PKM: Was there a notion to do a book tour for this set, before all the COVID shit happened?
Peter Bagge: Of course! A mixed blessing, I suppose, since I’m getting too old for all that relentless travelling. And promoting from home seems to work just as well.
PKM: What are you currently working on?
Peter Bagge: Mostly working on short biographical pieces for Reason magazine. The research alone eats up a lot of my time, though I enjoy it.