Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Buddy Loves Jersey and Misery Loves Comedy

Here's another reprint of a column originally written for  This article was written in 2007.

It's a bit odd for me to review the new Peter Bagge and Ivan Brunetti collections that Fantagraphics recently released, because I've read the original issues that they collect more times than I can possibly recall. Both artists have been on my top-five list for well over a decade, even with their output being somewhat sporadic during this period. Both have become hugely influential in very different respects, while their new material continues to be as strong as ever. Anyone who loves comics, and humor in particular, owes it to themselves to take a look at this work. Most humorous comics might elicit a smile or a chuckle or two from me, but Brunetti & Bagge are the rare artists whose work kills me, again and again.

Like all great humorists, both artists reveal something of the truth of human existence with their works. Both artists produce work that is sometimes excruciatingly uncomfortable to read because of its brutal honesty. Both create comics that cross the lines of decency and erase taboos, but are never crude for crudity's sake. There are no cheap laughs in these comics. Their artistic styles are quite different: Bagge favors an expressionistic, over-the-top style that reflects the frantic nature of his characters. Brunetti, at this stage of his career, demonstrated his astounding virtuosity in switching from style to style depending on what the story or gag required. Bagge's Buddy Bradley character, as he describes it, is a version of himself about ten years younger. The character is just different enough to put him through some truly absurd paces. Brunetti's comics either feature rants starring himself, or are over-the-top screamingly funny & horrible gags done in the style of newspaper strips. The worldviews and philosophies of the two artists are completely different, but both tell the truth as they see it.

That truth is bleak. Brunetti's Schizo era can best be described as an existential howl, nothing less than an attack on all of humanity's worthlessness. The target he saves most of his vitriol for is himself. Brunetti's recent material has gone away from this sort of relentless assault, and it's quite understandable. As exhausting as it can be to read his extended treatises, it must have been even more draining to write & draw them. Some of the pages have a manic quality to them, as text overwhelms image and dominates the page. In some respects, his nihilistic gag strips are a more succinct way of expressing his rage, hatred and despair. His creating the most awful and despicable scenarios imaginable for gags and punchlines is an expression of his understanding of humanity as almost entirely worthless, debased and banal--and the artist himself is no exception. I often find myself laughing in spite of myself, thinking "This is so awful!" but still being slain by the darkness of Brunetti's humor and his incredible skill both as an artist and humorist.

The bulk of the first three issues of Schizo is taken up by his "Self-Caricature", which details his musings after waking up (late) for work and what happens upon his arrival. The first issue sets the scene with his general disgust towards the world and himself; there's one memorable page where he pictures "The world as it is today", wherein he's surrounded by murderers, pedophiles, rapists, the hopeless and the victims, begging "Please lobotomize me!" He lies in bed musing upon his fantasy where "I'm Jim Jones, and planet Earth is my Jonestown" and then realizes that he's late for work. Brunetti then moves into a more stripped-down, cartoony style for his gag work, with strips like "Drink My Piss, Motherfucker", "Pontiff In My Pants", "Pardon My Sodomy, Son" and the unforgettable "The Nun With Two Dicks". This is Brunetti's deepest exploration of his id, unfiltered, and attached to a gag structure that makes each strip detonate on the page. These strips are Brunetti at his best: brutal and brilliant.
As adept as Brunetti is at lashing out at the world, he's even better at self-immolation. The story "I Like Girls", drawn in the most realistic style I've seen from Brunetti (before or since), details his obsession with various types of women as he's waiting for his wife at an art fair--including his crush on a mutual friend of theirs. That self-flagellation continues in the second issue of Schizo, which focuses on suicide. "Turn Your Eyes Inside and Dig The Vacuum" continues the self "Self-Caricature" serial and veers into an almost manic direction. As he debates suicide as a defensible position with himself, he then has an extended debate with Jesus Christ. One page of the debate is one panel, filled almost entirely with one huge word balloon. By way of contrast, there's also a page where we see dozens of Ivans in hell, killing, torturing and/or sodomizing each other. The French artist Killoffer did an entire graphic novel years later revolving around this sort of image, but it's still a stunner. He gives a page over to his then-wife to describe what it's like living with Ivan, and then does an amazing page of strips mimicking the style of classic strips starring him and his wife. My favorite is one where he's Sluggo and his wife is Nancy, who chides him by asking "Doesn't anything make you happy?" only to recoil when he's cheered by a nearby nuclear explosion.

Another amazing feature from the second issue was the fantastic letter column. Virtually every important cartoonist of the day wrote in, including R.Crumb ("Lighten up, dude"), Chris Ware ("Maybe I wasn't such a bad guy after all"), Mary Fleener ("I enjoy the fact that there is a decapitation or stab wound on almost every page--now that's Big Entertainment for your Comics Dollar"), and David Mazzucchelli ("I suspect that anyone who lists his favorite toy as 'Hello Kitty' can't be totally bitter"). It goes on from there, but it was obvious that his initial impact was huge within the art-comics world.
The third issue has the last-released part of "Self-Caricature", titled "Work Equals Degradation". Told in a 4 by 4 panel grid on every page, the regimentation and claustrophobia on the page reflects those feelings evinced by arriving at work and having to deal with the rest of the world. This strip represents his late-90's peak in his old, highly-detailed but still cartoony style. While not sacrificing an ounce of the bile and bite of his earlier stories, he's able to structure his rants into a more coherent, and ultimately more effective, storytelling style. As he negotiates his day and talks to his coworkers, his inner voice is still as devastating as ever--even moreso, given his mild-mannered demeanor. He concludes the issue with perhaps the peak of his gag work during this era: 4 strips featuring the characters Diaper Dyke and Captain Boyfuck, with the jokes exactly what you think they might be, only much funnier. Brunetti's knack for subverting traditional gag-strip situations with the darkest premises and characters he can imagine is a key to what makes his jokes work.
Those that already own Schizo 1-3 will still find a wealth of other material, culled from the many other places Brunetti's appeared over the years. I consider myself to be something of a Brunetti completist, but even I found a few strips here and there that I'd never seen before. Most of them are the sort of "horrible, horrible cartoons" that we later saw in his books HEE! and HAW!, but drawn in his older style. A section devoted to his work in color was especially enjoyable, with strips like "Who's Your e-bay Nemesis?", a surprisingly hopeful bit called "The Dancing Queen" and three pages about James Thurber as highlights.

About the only negative thing I can say regarding Brunetti's career is that he spawned a wave of imitators, few of whom understand the intelligence and despair behind the gross-out cartoons. All they saw in Brunetti's work was the over-the-top transgressiveness of its humor, and they seized on this shock value to produce work that ranged from mean-spirited to utterly worthless. This, of course, was not Brunetti's fault, but it's not a surprise to see how different his new material is from his old comics, especially in Schizo1-2. Brunetti has written and spoken about how a lot of work that he did in the past was tied directly into depression, to the point where he became paralyzed and unable to draw for a long time. As a reader, it made me uncomfortable to see others treat the "Ivan" of these comics like any other character, relishing his pain. But the pain expressed in these comics isn't shtick, it's real. The last thing Brunetti the artist wanted from these comics was for the reader to feel sorry for him (since he deflates himself constantly), but it's impossible for me to read these stories and not feel the artist's humanity. While his new material explores a lot of the same territory, it's filtered through a very different kind of artistic lens, one that gives both author and reader a bit of room to breathe. Brunetti himself is understandably ambivalent about his comics from this era, but it's a great day for comics that this material has been collected at last and made available for a wider audience.

Peter Bagge's Hate was one of the most popular and best selling alt-comics series, and I consider it the comic that best defined its decade. The first Hate collection, Buddy Does Seattle, features Buddy Bradley living in Seattle in the early 90's, at precisely the same time it became the cultural capital of the United States and a symbol of the "slacker" generation. Hate was both the embodiment of this era and a critique, but there were many readers who saw themselves in the cynical, loud-mouthed and brutally honest Buddy. When Buddy decides to go back to his parents' place in New Jersey with his crazy girlfriend Lisa, a lot of readers were horrified. Replacing the hipness of Seattle with the mundane quality of suburban New Jersey was not what a lot of people wanted to see in this series. The fact that Hate was now in color and had someone else inking it led to cries of "sell-out", but it's not like Bagge toned down the content in any way. If anything, the series became even crazier and darker, but in a way that was perhaps much more uncomfortable for some of its readership. Instead of keeping Buddy eternally young and squaring off against hipsters (sort of like a Bizarro Archie), Bagge made Buddy deal with the perils of suburbia: babysitting his sister's brats, dealing with his insane alcoholic brother, tolerating sleazy neighbors and trying to find a way to make money without actually working too hard. In other words, dealing with actually becoming a real adult, a topic that's pleasant for no one.

Buddy starts a collectibles business with his old friend Jay, who promptly spends much of their profits on drugs and strippers. "Uncle Buddy" is a grueling story featuring Buddy having to babysit his niece and nephew--monsters both. It concludes with Buddy wondering how much a vasectomy costs. "I've Got Three Moms!" shows Buddy dealing with his girlfriend, his mother and his sister--and that despite his protests, he actually comes around to enjoy domestication. Things start to deteriorate with the ever-unstable Lisa, to the point where Buddy declares his love to a married friend of his in the middle of a toy convention (and is naturally shot down). When he snaps at Jay afterwards and he's asked what his problem is, he replies "Nothin', 'cept for the fact that my life's a total joke, is all..." Jay replies, "That, and the fact that you're a total asshole." Buddy puts his head on the table and mutters, "...yeah ...that too..."

Bagge keeps upping the ante in story after story. Lisa going to see a shrink is perhaps the highlight of the whole collection, culminating in a joint session where Buddy eviscerates the therapist for blatantly manipulating Lisa into buying into her agenda. As dysfunctional as that relationship was, when Lisa walked out on Buddy he started to spiral downward in a truly impressive fashion. He set about alienating all of his friends and family, including his business partner, to retreat into almost total isolation. The return of Leonard "Stinky" Brown was just the harbinger of the insanity that was to follow in the second half of the book. And unlike Seattle, where Stinky's shenanigans were merely ridiculous, New Jersey took him down a much darker path. His exit from the series, depicted in a very straightforward fashion, remains one of the more stunning moments I've seen depicted in a comic. It was so senseless and (seemingly) random, yet fit perfectly into the trajectory of Stinky's life.

Stinky's ultimate fate was fitting for one of the few characters in the book who, in his own way, was a hopeless romantic. The inveterate cynic Buddy was always his opposite, but Bagge depicts Buddy as being just as pathetic when he starts hanging around AOL chat rooms, going on blind dates and hanging around other losers. When Buddy has a chance to get back together with Lisa, he not only jumps at it but decides to marry her on the spot when she reveals that she's pregnant with his child. The way he talked Lisa into keeping the baby and marrying him was classic Buddy. When she said that any kid they'd have would be fucked-up, Buddy simply replied, "So there'll be one more fucked-up person in the world! Who's gonna even notice?" It's a happy ending of sorts for Buddy, as he abandons his cynicism to pursue "the American dream". The truth is that Buddy never quite figures out what he wanted in life; his misanthropy is cancelled out by his fear of loneliness. There was always a part of him that wanted to be able to buy into middle-American culture, but he knew that he could never really stomach it. At the same time, his hatred of pretension in all its forms (and utter lack of creative expression on his own part) meant that he could never really live as a hipster. Either way, Buddy knew he was going to live a lie; he simply chose the lie that disgusted him less, and pursued it wholeheartedly.

Bagge's rubbery, manic art is a perfect match for the outsized personalities of his characters. His slightly expressionistic style allows him to do things like have a page where Buddy's head swells to ten times its normal size with anger. And no one depicts the ridiculousness of sex like Bagge--he combines a graphic depiction with flailing limbs, exaggerated poses and bulging eyeballs. It's a pleasure just looking at a Bagge page, because the often grim events depicted in his story always take an absurd turn with the way he draws them.

Any comics fan who is a fan of humorists needs to snap up both of these volumes, as well as the first volume of Hate and Schizo #4. Anyone interested in cartooning, humor, storytelling and total investment in one's art owes it to themselves to read them. Even if neither artist's work speaks to the reader personally (and there is a huge serving of cynicism & nihilism dished up), their sheer devotion to the craft of making comics is inspiring. It's inspiring to me as a critic, and it's certainly influenced a generation of artists. These are comics that work on so many levels: as craft, as humor, as commentary, and as the most personal of expressions.

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