These are my transcriptions of some of what Pete Bagge had to say when I spoke to him for my Stranger piece on Seattle comics last month. We spoke on February 17.
In general, I asked for thoughts on how healthy the local comics creator ‘scene’ is, and I specifically asked for comparisons to a decade ago and at the beginning of the nineties.
Pete is a personable fellow who has very strong, often idiosyncratic opinions. While I think these opinions may reflect a joy in contrariness, I not been able to get Pete to concur with that view. Of course.
I was in a terrible hurry to get the transcriptions done and thus, regrettably, this is neither a complete transcript, nor does it include my questions or prompting. I will summarize my input in bold and preface Pete’s quotes with PB:.
Pete tells me he moved here (to Seattle) 20 years ago. When he first moved here there was a small handful of cartoonists.
PB: I just was following my wife, you know, so typical of cartoonists, to move where their wives and girlfriends are.
How many waxings and wanings have there been in Seattle over that time?
PB: There was one great big waxing, and that started to happen around 1990. It partly had to do with – you know people were moving here cartoonists were moving here for the same reason that all kinds of people – all kinds of artists and musicians were moving here. It was still relatively cheap and it had all the amenities of a larger city, a more expensive city. It just seemed like a great place. And then the grunge phenomenon really put the town on the map and then all of a sudden it became the place for young people to be.
And also I would imagine Fantagraphics moving here around 1989, 1990, and which coincided with them pretty much becoming the preeminent alternative publisher.
Then about five years later, starting in the mid-late nineties, and on, particularly a lot of young people who moved here around that time all one by one started moving away. Of course, since they did move away, I couldn’t ask them all if they had some shared reason. There might have been some disappointment. I don’t know what it was that they were hoping for, that somebody promised them a rose garden or something, but… Because it is sort of interesting how so many people just moved away shortly afterwards. I would understand it if it’s because Seattle suddenly got way too expensive, but most of them wound up, when I think about it, in New York or Los Angeles; but there’s just also more career opportunities in those two towns too.
How aware are you of new arrivals?
PB: I barely leave the house, so I don’t go – don’t either get invited to or go to many, or any cartoonist related things. Once in a blue moon I’ll see someone like Jim Woodring and the folks at Fantagraphics but that’s pretty much it. So if there’s some folks that are brand new I’m only vaguely aware of their work at best. I rarely even go to comics shops.
It’s so maddening – when I do go to a comics shop I can’t even find the stuff that I’m looking for, that I know is out. I’ve just completely given up on them.
What’s your interest in and awareness of the big manga wave and the move to emphasize graphic novels as a publication format as publishers respond to increasing bookstore sales numbers and declining comics shop sales?
PB: As long as someone is willing to buy something that’s in the comic book format that is always going to be my first choice. I just prefer it, for whatever reason. It’s my favorite format by far, to just do a traditional comic book, whether it’s in color or black and white. I really don’t care for graphic novels as a format, and of course I’ve had my work collected in that form ad a lot of the story lines that I’ve done they work as a graphic novel when you string them all together.
But even something like Ghost World, I preferred reading it as it came out in installments, in Eightball. It’s just a more cozy format.
Can you compare the current Seattle comics scene with the Portland scene?
PB: “I couldn’t – among much younger artists, I just really couldn’t… I’m just not familiar with them.
The bulk of what makes up alternative comics these days… there’s plenty of people who are very capable, sometimes excellent draftsmen. This could just simply be a generational bias on my part, but with just a handful of exceptions, while a lot of them are quite capable artists and cartoonists, it’s just not for me. I just don’t get much out of it. The stories are way too dragged out, they’re way too ‘navel-gazy’ and they’re just full of self-importance, and it’s just not my idea of entertainment! It’s not the kind of stuff I search out.
One of the many things I liked about what fell under the umbrella of alternative comics in the eighties is that it encompassed an incredibly wide variety of styles and approaches and formats. That’s what I liked better about alternative comics than what used to be considered underground.
Undergrounds did have, with a few exceptions, except for like the better artists, you know, it’s just about hippies and fucking and smoking pot and stuff like that.
And then [in the eighties – ed.] you just wound up with everything! It was a really wide variety. Everybody was coming from a thousand different directions, and even all of my favorite cartoonists from that period, especially when you look at their earliest work – style, format, story telling – their whole approach in many ways were radically different from each other.
As the nineties wore on, this certain sensibility developed, where it was like an unspoken consensus of what constitutes a good alternative comic. And it’s always the kind of stuff that’s most likely to – whatever anybody says, what they’re hoping and praying for is a great writeup in the [New York] Times, or the New Yorker, or the Village Voice, so it’s always something that’s gonna appeal to college-educated white people who are very self-conscious about reading comics so they wanna make sure that the comic they read looks and feels like a quote-unquote smart comic.
As you can tell, my temperature’s boiling when I think about this (laughs) and it’s not because I think all of this stuff is inherently bad, you know, I always have to make that distinction. It’s not like I think that approach stinks or it’s no good. But that seems to be all there is and the few things that don’t fall under that purview either they get ignored or they get viciously attacked as pieces of shit.
[Pete’s speech sped up noticeably in the paragraph where he names the publications. I understood him to be clearly describing the senibility associated with some of the non-Fantagraphics indie publishers, and because of the media and sales success of Craig Thompsons’s ‘Blankets,’ suspected that Pete mght ave that title in mind, paritally. So a question sprung to mind.].
I recently interviewed Craig Thompson, down in Portland, and he said something that I think you might find interesting. He told me that he thinks ‘Comics are an inherently working-class medium.’ What do you think of that idea?
PB: Working class. Well, yeah, it was a mass medium, for better or worse, and um, it was just comics, first and foremost. It was just a form of entertainment. Most people didn’t think of it as art or didn’t care if was art or good art or not. They liked it first, and maybe just a handful of people would think ‘this is good art.’
So you’re concerned about an evolution away from a working-class market for the medium?
PB: Well, yeah. Definitely. For a number of reasons. One, if no-one’s taking it seriously, you can fly under the radar, and it’s much looser – you can do whatever you want. And again if someone wants to do something of great importance and it’s very serious, that would be fine, but something like that wasn’t the only thing that really counted as good, as a good comic.
To me the epitome of – it does get short shrift, and what I love, is Johnny Ryan’s comics. I think he’s a riot. And again, it’s not like I think everybody should be doing what Johnny Ryan does. In fact, I’m very glad that they don’t. But I just think he’s really great at what he does, and it’s just as good and very often better than the best of the more high-falutin’ stuff.
So yeah, it’s kind of like – in a word, it’s almost inevitable. It’s not like somebody’s doing anything wrong, or it’s this evil conspiracy. But it seems like once an art form – after it’s been around for a while, it then actually starts to die. It starts to lose its’ popular appeal. Then that’s when it starts – the two other art forms that I think of in particular that this happened to is poetry and jazz music.
As it starts to fade, in as far as it being a popular mass medium, the only people who are interested in working in it are people who love it as an art form first – and that would include myself – as opposed to people who just wanna make a quick buck, because it is no longer a way to make a quick buck. Well, for the most part it isn’t.
So then, the only people who are really keeping the medium alive are people who love the form first; they love it as an art form and that’s really for the most part that matters more than anything else. Because of that then it starts to take on – the fact that it is an art, regardless of where you’re coming from, then it takes on a very separate meaning.
But then of course the only people who at that point are noticing it are educated intellectual types. It’s like the parallels between what’s happening with comics and what happened with jazz after world war two are – it’s like, uncanny. I mean the exact same thing happened. But then, like in jazz, by the late fifties what for the most part…
So the only jazz that quote-unquote counted was music that I hate. I always hated it. And it sounds like blasphemy to put down people like Charlie Parker and Coltrane and people like that – I don’t take anything away from them that they were innovative and incredibly talented. But I fucking hate their music, and I’m not the only one because their music never sold.