For cartoonist, a living on the edge

June 10, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Hate has been very good to Peter Bagge.

It hasn't brought him fame and fortune (at least not yet), but he does earn a pretty good living at it, and he certainly has his fans. In fact, there are tens of thousands around the globe who look to Bagge -- who will be in Baltimore tomorrow for a signing at Atomic Books -- for a steady dose of the stuff.

Of course, that may be because the "Hate" Bagge peddles isn't an emotion, but a comic book. Specifically, it's the saga of proto-slacker Buddy Bradley and his pseudo-Bohemian coterie of social misfits. There's Lisa, Buddy's girlfriend-by-default, who collects scratched copies of the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack and comes across as a total maniac; Stinky, an erstwhile scam artist and would-be rock singer who has known Buddy since they were both teen hooligans in New Jersey; Valerie, a class-denying refugee from suburbia and Buddy's ex-girlfriend; and George, the 'zine publisher, junk-TV aficionado and resident conspiracy theorist.

All are in their 20s, going nowhere, and taking their time about it. So how is it that "Hate" is one of the most successful titles in the alterna-comics underworld? Sometimes, even Bagge is puzzled.

"Last night I was at a cartoonists' party," Bagge says, over the phone from his Seattle studio, "and a friend said that he sent some copies of 'Hate' to his old college roommate, because his old roommate was so much like Buddy Bradley.

"A week later he got a phone call from the guy going, 'Yeah, Buddy Bradley! He's my god, he's my role model. Buddy Bradley represents everything that I stand for.'

"My friend said, 'But Buddy Bradley stands for nothing.'

"And the guy went, 'Exactly.' "

Bagge laughs, happy to have hit the mark. Buddy, he explains, "is not a classic bohemian type, because he doesn't have any ideals. He's not interested in smashing the state. He doesn't adhere to the mainly left-wing politics that most people in the arts and in bohemian subcultures almost uniformly adhere to.

"So in the world that a guy like Buddy would inhabit -- a downtown area or in a college town -- he'll come across as like some radical right-winger. Of course, as soon as he goes back to his parents' house, it'll be the opposite. He'll be the freak. He's the commie there."

Needless to say, Buddy's cranky nonconformity is one of the most loveable things about "Hate."

Given Bagge's background, it's easy to assume that Buddy is at least partly autobiographical. Like Buddy, Bagge grew up in New Jersey, kicked around the low-rent Bohemia of New York, and ended up relocating to the even-lower-rent slacker scene in Seattle.

But there are differences. For one thing, Buddy is 24, while his creator is 36; for another, Bagge hasn't been a boho in years.

"When I tell people that Buddy Bradley in the 'Hate' stories is based on my life from 10, 15 years ago, they say, 'Well, what happened that's so different?' And I would have to say it's simply the amount of money I'm making," says Bagge, who is not only married, but a homeowner and parent. "I have friends who are a lot older than me who still live the life of Buddy Bradley, but it mainly has to do with the fact that they're still living hand-to-mouth."

Bagge, on the other hand, does pretty well for himself. Although "Hate" is hardly a best-seller on the order of the Batman, Spiderman or Wolverine comics, its 25,000-copy press run makes it a giant on the alterna-comics scene. Add in the fact that Bagge's back-catalog -- reprints from his first comic, "Neat Stuff," is a consistent seller -- and what you're left with is a surprisingly comfortable living.

"I never expected to make as much money as I am now doing an underground comic book," he says. "I knew once I got into it that the chances [of making money] were really slim. Almost all underground cartoonists either have day jobs or do something else to pay the rent. I had always known that there was only a small handful comic artists that made their living -- just a living, not even a good living -- off of their comic book."

So what's Bagge's secret? Obviously, some of it has to do with his characters, particularly Buddy and Lisa. Some, too, has to do with Bagge's riotously funny story lines, like the "Leonard and the Love Gods" saga, a dead-on but affectionate send-up of the Seattle grunge scene (it can be found in the latest "Hate" anthology, "Buddy the Dreamer").

But Bagge's biggest advantage is his way with women -- women readers, that is. Fully half his fans are female, a figure that would be unthinkable in the Spandex-clad world of superheroes. "And it always has been, even back when I was doing 'Neat Stuff,' " he says.

"Since I have this grotesque drawing style and there's an aggressive edge to my humor, I always figured that my work would not appeal to females, by and large. But it has. When I go somewhere in public, half the people who come up to me and half the people who write to me are women. Which is amazing, since only about 15 percent of the people who bother to venture into a comic shop are female."

Women who love "Hate" -- next on Donahue.

BAGGE IT

What: Book signing by "Hate " author Peter Bagge

When : 6 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Atomic Books, 229 W. Read St.

Call: (4110) 728-5490

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