Thursday, July 2, 2009

Peter Bagge: The Modern-Day Mencken?

Rob reviews the new collection of Peter Bagge's strips from REASON magazine: EVERYBODY IS STUPID EXCEPT FOR ME AND OTHER ASTUTE OBSERVATIONS (Fantagraphics).

Peter Bagge rose to fame in the 80s and 90s by creating HATE, the classic slacker comic that uncannily anticipated trend after trend in music and youth culture. It's still as funny as ever, primarily because the cultural touchstones were always less important than its cast of characters, led by Bagge stand-in Buddy Bradley. Bagge always said that Buddy was him, minus about ten years. So while Bagge was getting married and starting a family, Buddy was still single and dealing with weird roommates, crazy girlfriends and "working" for a living. Nowadays, Buddy is married and has a kid--though his life is far from normal. Bagge has always been a prolific writer apart from HATE, and his more personal strips revealed that he's really a big ol' square. He loves the Beach Boys, hates live rock shows, admires Britney Spears & the Spice Girls and hates hipsters.

Bagge is also a libertarian and has been crafting strips about free speech and limited government issues for a decade. Given that that decade was during the GW Bush administration, one that saw both out-of-control spending and increasing limits on personal liberties, Bagge certainly had a lot of material to work with. Libertarians tend to hammer home the same themes, often in a less-than-practical or humane manner, but Bagge for the most part manages to stay an engaged (if partisan) observer when he goes on his field reports. That's really what separates these pieces from the random ravings of a political blog: Bagge actually goes to political conventions, gun shows, protests, "swingers" conventions and rides on Amtrak. He talks to people, seeks to understand their points of view (even when he finds them horrifying) and isn't a blind devotee (as the strip where he comes to grips with libertarian star Ron Paul's past racist statements).

While Bagge makes no pretense of ever being a neutral observer, his best strips are those that put the people he talks to front and center rather than his own opinions. The weakest long piece in the book is "'Real' 'Art'", which is one long gripefest about modern art and his own experience in art school couched in some rhetoric about funding such programs. On the other hand, his campaign trail pieces, the articles about hypocrisy with regard to the wars on drugs and sex, and funding boondoggles like light rail & sports stadiums are all on point.. Perhaps the most even-handed and thought-provoking piece in the book was "Bums", wherein Bagge not only provides a lot of information about the reasons people become homeless but also interviews a number of the chronically homeless. Throughout the book, Bagge makes even the dryest of subjects palatable with his hyper-exaggerated line, rubbery figures with looping arms & legs and just-plain-funny drawings.

When Bagge does get really personal, as opposed to biased, that produced a number of great strips as well. "Malls" actually persuasively argues in favor of big shopping malls as places for people who aren't hipsters to spend time, like teenaged girls (who won't get hassled as much), the elderly, the infirm, etc. He also notes that pedestrian-oriented downtown shopping often features hassles with parking and the homeless, and is happy that malls threw him out as a teenager, as "keeping out the riff-raff is what makes malls worth going to!" The bluntly-titled "Amtrak Sucks" makes loaded but persuasive arguments about why Amtrak is a waste of time and money. As someone who frequently endured trains that were 12 hours late and for prices that seemed astonishingly high for the level of service performed, I found myself nodding along to Bagge's hyperbole.

Overall, the longer pieces are fairer and funnier than the shorter strips, which use strawman arguments and are generally a bit more unfair. I like that he was quite willing to take shots at the left as well as the right--though honestly, the Bush era gave him many more targets. The title of this book is quite revealing: Bagge savages his targets not out of partisan fervor, but rather because he finds them stupid, hypocritical and small. Like H.L. Mencken, Bagge favors a scorched-earth satirical attack, tearing down arguments by ridicule as much as reason. Unlike Mencken, Bagge's work is more playful and less likely to attempt to install himself as a know-it-all (even if he thinks he does) because of his nebbishy self-portrayal. Bagge is anything but an intrepid reporter, crumbling under the rhetorical styles of politicians or getting freaked out by weirdos. He admits to getting even with mean-spirited cartoons later, with their bite perhaps inversely proportionate to how meek and mild he was with his subjects in person. Admitting this out loud goes a long way to putting the reader squarely in his corner even if one doesn't quite agree with his beliefs.

It's rare to see a cartoonist branch out into this kind of second act of a career with this much flourish and skill. No one would have ever thought of Bagge as a political cartoonist or cartoonist/journalist before he started publishing with REASON, yet his work here demands a reader's attention every bit as much as the more famous editorial cartoonists in America. While Bagge is no Joe Sacco, it's still exciting to see a cartoonist put that much time and effort into crafting a piece around a subject that is meaningful to them. Best of all, Bagge is still funny. One may find some of the laughs unfair or even shooting fish in a barrel, but his total commitment to entertainment supercedes his political agenda, and this is a very good thing for both his hardcore fans and new readers alike.

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