For decades, Peter Bagge has reigned as Seattle’s mightiest cartoonist. He’s a high-functioning artist, which is to say that his work is strong in just about any way an artist’s work can be measured: he’s prolific, he’s stylistically fascinating, his comics are easy to read and well-written, he has a unique viewpoint, and his work has deepened over time. Though he’s been publishing work for over three decades now, Bagge’s best work — a biography of Margaret Sanger titled Woman Rebel — was published in late 2013, and there’s no sign that he’s slowing down in terms of output and quality. And in fact, it’s easy to misremember Bagge as an artist that was born fully formed. He’s been so consistent for so long that you might believe he’s always been this good.
It’s not strictly true. While Bagge has always possessed plenty of raw talent, even he had to start somewhere. This month, Fantagraphics is publishing The Complete Neat Stuff, a handsome two-volume collection of all 15 issues of Bagge’s early Neat Stuff comics. Neat Stuff was created by Bagge as “a one-man anthology of sorts,” a way for him to work on multiple characters and different types of stories all at once.
The 15 comics collected in this volume were originally published from 1985 to 1988, and they contain the first real appearance of Bagge’s signature character, Buddy Bradley, who would go on to star in Bagge’s longest-running series, Hate. Perhaps more importantly, though, they document Bagge’s transition from the promising boy cartoonist who won early praise from Robert Crumb to a leading comics artist of his generation. It’s a portrait of a cartoonist in his adolescence.
As an object, The Complete Neat Stuff is simply gorgeous. It’s large and heavy, with clean angles and bright, beautiful, gigantic portraits of Bagge’s characters on the book covers and the slipcase. The paper is thick and the reproduction of Bagge’s original art is unbelievably sharp. it’s almost weird to see the art on those original pulpy pages treated with such care and consideration, given what is basically the comics equivalent of a movie being remastered and cleaned up for a deluxe Blu-Ray reissue. (It must be noted, though, that the very first sentence of The Complete Neat Stuff has an error in it. Bagge’s introduction begins, “I was living in Hoboken, NJ in late 1983 when Robert Crumb to serve as the managing editor of his underground comics anthology, Weirdo — an offer I eagerly accepted.” Those missing words — presumably “asked me” — are a minor mistake so far as typos go, but they’re an uncomfortable start to what is supposed to be a comprehensive volume. It’s like watching a diva stumble on the hem of her gown as she walks across the stage to begin her showstopping aria.)
Seattle publisher Fantagraphics Books has for many years been collecting the definitive editions of many classic cartoonists, from Charles Schulz to Walt Kelly, and to see Bagge’s earliest Fantagraphics work receive this kind of care feels like a generational shift of sorts. Between The Complete Neat Stuff and last year’s The Complete Eightball, Fantagraphics has finally gotten around to archiving the early works of Fantagraphics artists, thereby completing the publishers’ journey from angry young press to elder statesmen of the American comics scene.
So enough about the cover. How’s the book? Speaking as someone who read and loved back issues of Neat Stuff just a couple years after their original publication, I was surprised by how rough some of the early issues are. Early stories are suffused with the gay panic and “ironic” racism of late-80s alternative culture — enough to make modern audiences wince with discomfort every few pages. (And some of the references have dramatically changed over time: one character in issue four watches TV and exclaims, “What a good man that Bill Cosby is!” It’s supposed to be a joke about the superficiality of celebrity culture but the years have turned it into an uglier punchline than even young Bagge could have anticipated.) Some of the earliest art is overwrought and, at times, downright ugly. And the in-your-face punk-rock angry young man vibe of the first few issues of Neat Stuff seems more like bratty overindulgence.
The very first story in Neat Stuff features recurring character Girly Girl, a riff on obnoxious-adorable comics characters like Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy. When we first see her, people are running away from Girly Girl in a blind panic. She’s carrying a possum carcass around with her — “I thought it might be worth a couple o’ laffs,” she explains to the narrator, and then she shows off “a huge, festering sore on my abdomen! Ain’t it a scream!” A “knee-jerk liberal” shows up and offers to help Girly Girl become a functioning member of society, but Girly Girl smacks him in the head with a baseball bat. Then she goes downtown and makes fun of people, causing mischief until someone gets hurt because of her bratty actions. Girly Girl then seems to feel sorry for what she did, at which point the narrator, who identifies as Girly Girl’s “biggest fan,” announces “I don’t think you’re funny anymore!” His gigantic foot, swathed in Keds, falls from the sky and crushes Girly Girl to jelly, with a giant “SPLAT!” sound effect.
A lot of the early Neat Stuff comics are like that: asshole main characters doing asshole things to people for no good reason until they feel kind of bad about it, at which point the universe turns on them. In a way, Bagge is repeatedly telling the story of punk culture: the punk’s need to be cool and aloof and derisive of “normal” people until the slightest crack forms in the façade, at which point the punk is labeled a sellout and cast away into mainstream culture. The posing, and the discomfort with posing, is what these early few issues of Neat Stuff are all about. It’s probably no coincidence that Bagge was a young cartoonist who enjoyed the praise of Robert Crumb at the time: that kind of pressure on a young artist — Crumb himself called Bagge "The R. Crumb of the 80s!!" — must have felt almost oppressive. When the reigning king of alternative comics declares you a talent to watch out for, you probably have to spend the next five years living in mortal terror of making a wrong move.
Fortunately, Bagge’s persistence helps him shake off those jitters fairly quickly. The genius of Neat Stuff’s anthology format is that it demanded Bagge to keep moving, to explore many different ideas from many different angles. By the end of the first volume of The Complete Neat Stuff, Bagge has expanded his range and grown into the earliest version of the cartoonist’s cartoonist that he is today. The wordless comic “Moon Monsters Meet Here Mondays” features recurring Bagge character The Goon on the Moon’s slapstick search for peace and quiet, parodying religion and commercial culture. Other silent strips follow in the next few pages as Bagge explores the many avenues of communication available to comics artists. His experiments with the rhythm and range of the comics form make the second volume of The Complete Neat Stuff a much more interesting collection than the first.
Bagge is at his best in these early stories when he’s mocking the stereotypical angry white American male. Over the course of Neat Stuff, his character Studs Kirby goes from a schlub to a talk radio host (“Welcome back listeners. We’ve been talking with Professor George T. Muckleshoot, author of the highly acclaimed treatise ‘The French, and Why We Hate Them’”) who is still, to be honest, a schlub. And Junior is an adult momma’s boy who can’t hold down a job, and is wrestling mightily with adulthood on multiple levels. Later in the book, Junior’s tormented sexuality is played out in a series of one-page gag comics in which he draws a naked woman in a fit of horniness and repeatedly is drawn to and repelled by his own creation. Bagge plays the strip out as a comment on art versus commerce, but there’s something much creepier playing out underneath the surface. (Junior stabs himself in the hand with a fork when he sees his mother’s cleavage.)
In the end, the star of The Complete Neat Stuff is Buddy Bradley, Bagge’s semiautobiographical avatar. Buddy’s first appearance in Neat Stuff finds him at a record store, turning away from the vacuum of late-80s pop music and toward early 1960s alternative rock. It’s a moment that would change Buddy forever, sending him toward the edges of the culture — in his most recent appearances, Buddy sells pop cultural ephemera and unwanted junk for a living. By the end of Neat Stuff, Buddy has blown up his own life and is taking steps toward moving from New Jersey to Seattle, which is where we pick him up at the beginning of Bagge’s Hate comic.
So what changes over the course of The Complete Neat Stuff? How does Bagge transform from that first aimless Girly Girl comic where the reader murders the main character for no real reason to the more nuanced satire of the Bradley comics? For Bagge, it seems to be a matter of perspective. The humor in Bagge’s best comics never feels forced, or cruel. It’s almost journalism: observational, not particularly opinionated for or against any character. Bagge doesn’t insert himself into the narrative; he just tells us what happens.
As we learn in this collection, Bagge’s precarious position as a storyteller didn’t come naturally. He had to learn how to tell a story, and he did his learning in public. Watching him enter into The Complete Neat Stuff as a bratty kid with potential on one end and emerge on the other as one of the most unique cartooning voices of his generation is a genuine wonder. His talent noticeably grows on every single page of these two books, but in the end —as with any magic trick — even though we watched him every step of the way, we have no idea how he did it.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant