Friday, June 06, 2008

Big Bag O' Bagge: Neat Stuff!

I’ve been a fan of Peter Bagge for over twenty years now, and consider him my hands-down favorite cartoonist. I also think he’s criminally underrated, a situation I’ll try to remedy in my own small way here at Again With the Comics. This will be the first of a series of articles looking at the works of Peter Bagge, starting with Neat Stuff, followed by a look at Hate, and continuing on to later creations Sweatshop, Yeah! and Apocalypse Nerd.

My school years consisted of a sheltered Catholic school education through grade 8, followed by one year at a downtown parochial High School, followed by a transfer to a closer, cheaper public school after the folks divorced. I don’t remember much about St. Mary’s, but had I not been attending high school downtown in 1985, I might well have missed out on a strange new magazine called Neat Stuff, and the wonderful, twisted mind of Peter Bagge. Every week after school, my friend Mike and I would head down to Mile High to see what was new, and I would spend what meager allowance I had on the new Marvels and DCs. I was well aware of independents, too, and my collection harbored what First, Eclipse, and Pacific comics I could afford. As I recall, Fantagraphics had just started publishing comics at the time, and Love and Rockets had only recently made a splash.

But then I found this strange black and white comic/magazine with a crazily-drawn, broadly grinning cartoon character on the cover, surrounded by, well, neat stuff, and I opened it up. The crudeness and immaturity of that first issue cannot be overstated, but there were enough bits that made me grin or laugh out loud that I had to buy it.

Then the second issue came, and the third, and hey, this Bagge guy is shaping up to something, isn’t he?

Page from "Studs Kirby Gets Drunk by Himself"

Well, at least I thought so. Bagge’s sometimes grotesque, bug-eyed, rubbery-limbed style has proven to be a turn-off to many readers, especially in a market that was even then increasingly leaning toward grit, “realism”, and homogeneity. There was little room for or tolerance of humor in the comics market, and Bagge’s frenetic, flailing cartooning was a hard sell. I love it, myself. I pushed it on Mike -who liked it well enough, and who caught the Bagge bug eventually- but I think he was nonplussed at first. My father read them as they came out, but then he read most of my books. There was no buzz whatsoever in the extant fan press, and so I assumed that the supply of “Neat Stuff” goodness may end at any time.

The book was populated with a rotating cast of goofy, dim-witted characters: Junior, a moms-basement-dwelling loser, Girly-Girl and Chuckie Boy, and the Leeways, a pair of yuppie hating yuppies, shared pages with the Bradleys, a quarreling family. Over time, it became obvious that the Bradleys, and the eldest son Buddy in particular, were the books most popular characters.

The Bradleys sort-of make their debut in Neat Stuff #1. I'm certain I've seen earlier versions of the characters in some old magazine.

Bagge's storytelling and characterization were vastly improving with each successive issue, and by the time of the solo Buddy stories his cartooning had greatly improved, taking on a much more controlled and polished look. Neat Stuff #9 was a solo Buddy Bradley story, all about how his desire to be one of the cool (older) record store gang, and his journey to the upstate hippie house of Jay the junkie. #12 was an all-Bradleys issue, focusing on the broad comedy of the dysfunctional clan, done at about the same time the Simpsons were breaking out, so dysfunction hadn’t been done to death yet. Neat Stuff #15 brought us the last issue of that series and a sea change for Buddy. In “Buddy the Weasel”, we got to see Buddy his rock bottom. Out of high school, jobless and aimless, Buddy fled home with stolen cash hoping to crash with a friend. After being turned down by even lowlife pal Leonard “Stinky” Brown, buddy ended up sleeping on a toxic beach, with no idea what his next move would be.

Page from "Buddy the Weasel"

His next move would turn out to be to his own book. Bagge was ready for a change, moving Buddy to an acclaimed 30-issue run of HATE.
(...continued soon...)


joe bloke said...

my only real exposure to peter bagge was in an old british monthly called BLAST! in which they ran the Bradleys. great stuff. i met him at a signing, and got him to sign the whole run for me ( also got a pretty cool daffy duck sketch off him, which i, in a moment of love-struck buffoonery gave to the girl i was mooning over at the time - what a maroon! ). a gentleman and a scholar, is mr. bagge. great post.

BTW: my icon rocks. brian said so.

Brian Doan said...

Fantastic! I love HATE, and really need to track down those NEAT STUFFs you mention. I totally agree that Bagge is underrated, and I can't wait to see the next post in this series.