In this second part of our MoCCA spotlight panel, we discuss the genesis of Bagge’s DC Comics Gilbert Hernandez collaboration, Yeah, being at the accidental center of a cultural zeitgeist, and the birth of “grunge pencils.”
I know you don’t spend as much of your time drawing Buddy as you used to.
But you still have to decide what you’d like to spend your time drawing, panel after panel. I that how portraying him as the Popeye character came about?
Yeah. I still have ideas for him and Lisa. I always have ideas for them. But what I also told myself is that I never want to just do the same character forever. You’re fortune if you wind up doing something that’s popular. It’s rare for a cartoonist to land on something that’s popular enough that you could do it forever. Maybe I’m projecting, but I always felt sorry for daily strip cartoonists, who—you think up the Lockhorns, and you have to do the Lockhorns forever. They must always be on the verge of suicide.
You feel bad for the team of writers and artists that they’ve employed to draw it for them.
Right, right. And even though it’s always just assumed that Bill Griffith must be so sick of Zippy. I don’t think he is, but I keep thinking that, if I was him, I would be.
But he’s done a pretty good job of keeping it different, from week to week.
Yes he has. I hope he’s not sick of it. But what happened was, I did Hate for 10 years, almost exclusively through the 90s. And then I started getting—I guess because of the success of Hate—all kinds of very strange and lucrative job offers that I just couldn’t resist taking advantage of, so I stop doing Hate on a regular basis. But I still, like I said, try to have one come out every year, if I can, just keep the character alive and get an idea out on paper. Again, all of this other stuff was either too financially good a deal to turn down or too bizarre.
Let’s start with the bizarre.
The first was DC Comics gave me the chance to write a monthly comic for them and pretty much it could be whatever I wanted. My daughter by then, in 1999, was eight, nine years old, and she was a girly girl and hated to way my comics looked and was like, “do a comic for girls.” So it was very much me writing something that would entertain her, so me and my editor, Shelly Bond, came up with Yeah, and again, the whole time I couldn’t believe they were agreeing to publish it, and then, once I saw the sales figures, I’m sure they couldn’t believe either that they let me do this ridiculous comic.
How long did that run for?
And that was a collaborative effort, right?
Yeah. They insisted that it was monthly. I don’t know anybody personally who can do a monthly comic all by him or herself. So, I managed to convince Gilbert Hernandez to draw if, because I knew that he would capture that sort of Dan DeCarlo 60s or 70s Archie look. Since I’m ripping off Josie and the Pussycats, it may as well look like it. And actually, I didn’t convince him to do it. Gilbert didn’t want to do it. And then I mentioned the whole thing to his wife. And his wife was very aware of the fact that he needed the money.
So, she forced him to do it. And I think Gilbert hates it. He never talks about it.
Isn’t there a collection coming out?
It’s out. It’s on the Fantagraphic table. It just came out. It’s brand new. The first time I saw it was on sale yesterday. They’ve got a big pile there.
So buy it and if you ever see Gilbert at a show, make sure—
That he signs it, yes. Part of the reason did bad was that DC was hoping that, since Gilbert and I both had a fanbase with Hate and Love & Rockets, that the people who bought those would also buy this. They asked what Hate and Love & Rockets sell. They sold between 15,000 and 30,000 copies an issue, back then. DC was doing so badly at the time, that they would be thrilled if it was selling just as much as we were selling with Fantagraphics. They were like, “that’s great,” and we were like, “really?”
And it didn’t. It didn’t sell as well as Hate and Love & Rockets, and part of the reason was that our fans hated Yeah, because it was squeaky clean and it was rated G. In fact, I insisted that it was Comics Code-approved. I had this very perverse test for myself where I wanted to see, with all of my scripts—because you submit your scripts to the Comic Code Authority, and no one knows who they are. I always figured that it was a chimpanzee that lives in a shack somewhere.
Nobody knows who it is. It doesn’t even exist anymore. It probably stopped existing for years. I wanted to submit the script to them, and see, with every script, I could write every script without ever getting censored—and I did.
Well, you were writing it for your daughter.
Yes, yeah. And I didn’t want any irony. So our fans would say, “so this is rated G,” but kept looking for double-entendres, and little wink-wink references, but there was none of that, so it drove them nuts. But I’m really happy with it. It’s a wacky, goofy comic, but when I reread it for the first time, I still thought it was pretty funny.
Other strange things—again, that comedian I was talking about, Dana Gould, around this time, the very late 90s, there was, as I’m sure you all know, the dot com boom, followed by the dot com bust. You would not believe the money that was being thrown around, especially in Hollywood. I had no idea—I went to the San Diego Comic Con, and people were making me the most lucrative offers.
In terms of you being able to commercialize your work, to me the most definitive example I’ve seen is, a couple of years ago, I was at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and there was a big grunge exhibit with pieces of Kurt Cobain’s clothing, and then, nestled in the bottom, there was a set of pencils.
Drawn by Peter Bagge.
Yeah, there was a company called Pentech—I think they still exist in Jersey. Somehow they decided to put out a collector’s series of creator-designed pencils. And you’d pick a theme. So, of course Drew Friedman did ugly faces pencils, and another guy did monster pencils. All the good ideas were taken.
And then I decided to do punk rock pencils, but Gary Panter already did them. He called them “stagedive pencils.”
So I was like, “I might as well be completely lame and do grunge pencils, since I was embarrassingly already the grunge cartoonists, so I did it. Everybody loved it and thought it was funny at the time.
Just the fact that grunge pencils existed?
Yeah. If I sold a set, back in the 90s at a comic convention, they would sell like crazy. Now, for some reason, I can’t give them away. I don’t know why. I don’t bring them to conventions anymore.
You weren’t really a fan of the music at the time?
I didn’t hate it, but no, I wasn’t a fan. Some of it like, but most of it I thought was horrible. My favorite band was—I liked Nirvana okay, but most of what they did I wasn’t crazy about—there was a band called Tad. I thought Tad was better than Nirvana. But Tad was 400lbs. He didn’t have much marquee value.
He wasn’t blond and blue-eyed.
Did you embrace it as soon as you realized that you could become a definitive grunge artist?
It was fortuitous and embarrassing—I started doing Hate, and when the first issue of Hate came out, there was no such thing as the phrase slacker, generation X, grunge music. Those words didn’t exist, and then, a year later, everyone was talking about it in the mainstream media. They were all talking about it.
Yeah, buying grunge pencils, and also, my comic, I set in Seattle, because that’s where I lived, and I wanted to give it a sense of place, but to me, Seattle was just another city. Buddy could have moved anywhere, and it just happened to be Seattle. But then, all of the sudden, Seattle became SEATTLE, partially because of the Grunge business. And then my comics became very, very linked with that. It was in the next couple of years. And then people naturally assumed, if they weren’t already familiar with the comic, that I was jumping on this bandwagon and exploiting it, which I wasn’t.
It was always very much a double-edged sword. I was able to exploit it, to some degree, but also, it was embarrassing to some degree.
Even if the word “slacker” wasn’t being used that widely, it was pretty appropriate for Buddy’s character.
Yeah, it was. I guess “slacker came from that movie that…
Yeah, that Linklater movie, which I guess came out in the very late 80s, and then people started using it who had never seen or heard of the movie.
And plaid shirts and cigarette smoking…
[Continued in part three]