Saturday, January 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#24: The Buddy Bradley Stories, in Hate! and elesewhere

by Peter Bagge

I'm always fascinated by artists who become the victims of their own success. When an artist's audience is made up of people who subscribe to the fallacious folk ethic or its progeny this victimhood can play itself out as tragedy (especially if the artist also subscribes to this kind of ethos, as in the case of Kurt Cobain) or as an opportunity for a triumphant rebirth (as Greil Marcus chronicles in his Bob Dylan book Invisible Republic).

Like the overly earnest hero of Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, who reads literary criticism instead of literature because he thinks it's more useful to know what the important people think about a book than it is to actual think about it yourself, indie scenesters are usually more concerned with the conversations going on around the latest totems of hipness than they are of coming to terms with actual cultural artifacts (the academic version of this phenomenon was illsutrated for me by a former cinema studies colleague who explained he wasn't really interested in movies as much as he was in the idea of film).

To a certain extent, RAW, an anthology of vital comic strips, was eaten up by RAW, the sterile concept of comix as art. There's a similar dilemma facing Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories: the early issues of Hate! captured so perfectly the milieu of grunge-era Seattle and, in Buddy, depicted so thoroughly the uber-slacker of the early 1990s, that the full range and scope of Bagge's achievement is usually ignored. Hate!'s reputation as the funniest satire of this cultural moment is certainly deserved, but it obscures the fact that it is also the greatest bildungsroman in comics.

The Buddy Bradley stories are one of the few works of comics art that can rightly be called Dickensian (although more in line with the early, comic, episodic Dickens of The Pickwick Papers than his later melodramas): they are a catalogue of social stereotypes brought to life by Bagge's limpidly exaggerated big-foot style and the generosity of his imagination.

The characters in Hate! come to life in the same way as the characters in Carl Barks' Duck comics or E.C. Segar's Thimble Theater: we know enough about them to visualize what they would do in any number of hypothetical situations, yet they are at the same time capable of surprising us with the kind of inconsistencies that, paradoxically, define their character.

Bagge was criticized for the supposedly deficient cross-hatching of the early, black-and-white issues of Hate!. Later, when he switched to color, readers complained that they missed the cross-hatching, and that the change in format was an attempt to "sell-out" and reach a bigger audience. These criticisms point to the underlying psychology of the indie-scenester: they have a pathological need not only to prove that they are more knowledgeable than the uninitiated but they must also show that they know better than the artist himself. They cultivate and trade opinions not for the sake of discussion or debate, but to one-up each other in escalating displays of hipness. The echoing of these empty opinions throughout their incestuous scene and beyond leads to the phenomenon known as backlash.

Bagge's response to this backlash was, fittingly for the best satirist in comics since Harvey Kurtzman, to make fun of it, to expose the scenester for the poseur he is. But Bagge extends even to the frauds and hypocrites something that is not quite dignity, but closer to the internal integrity of holding their place in the world the best way they know how. And when they give up their place, as with Stinky's ambiguous suicide or when "Pop" Bradley's ticker finally gives out, the comic evokes the sense of loss that can only come out of a long narrative, carefully built and expertly shaded.

For these reasons, Peter Bagge's story Buddy Bradley is among the few comics that can be called a graphic novel, without doing damage to the term itself. But whatever you call it, Hate!, with its stories of daydreaming losers and compromised ambitions, redeemed in the end sometimes by the narrowest of margins, is both the funniest and saddest comic of the 1990s, and, for me, sums up, better than any other work of art, that fast-receding decade.

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