The ’90s were a fantastic era for fans of the indie comic book: Independent publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly were churning out classics like Love And Rockets by the Los Bros. Hernandez, Dan Clowes’ Eightball, Joe Matt’s Peepshow, and Seth’s Palookaville. These books had much more irregular schedules than the monthlies of the superhero genre, resulting in sporadic print treasures of the highest quality. But I don’t think any book cracked me up as consistently as Peter Bagge’s Hate, featuring the saga of slacker icon Buddy Bradley as he forever tried (and usually failed) to do the right thing as he was seemingly surrounded by assholes.
Comics fans had met the Bradleys—Buddy, his parents, his older sister Babs, and his younger brother Butch—in earlier Fantagraphics books like Bagge’s Neat Stuff. In spring 1990, Bagge spun Buddy off into his own series. Now a twentysomething in Seattle, he worked in a bookstore, roomed with poser Stinky and introvert George Hamilton, and hung around with his fashionista girlfriend, Valerie. Eventually Buddy and Valerie broke up and he took up with her lost-girl roommate Lisa, who was possibly even more of a mess than he was.
What made Buddy so entertaining was his tendency to bitch about literally everything: He was an old man (like his dad, Pops Bradley) in a young, flannel-clad body. Publishers Weekly described Buddy as “perhaps the most honestly portrayed everyman the medium has ever seen, an antihero whose utter obnoxiousness, ‘who cares’ attitude and disdain for everyone and everything around him make him as believable as any comics character can be.”
This abject, relatable honesty played well against the unreality of Bagge’s exaggerated, bizarre illustration style. Bagge said he “always wanted to capture that sense of movement and exaggeration in a static format. In retrospect this sounds like a futile thing to attempt, but I think I wound up pulling it off better than I ever thought I would.” Bagge’s zany creations reflected his predilections for Robert Crumb and 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons, which made them almost impossible to look away from.
When Hate first hit the comic-book store shelves, the term “Generation X” had yet to take hold of the nation, and Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind was a few months away. Rather quickly, though, Hate became established as the quintessential twentysomething “slacker” comic. Buddy initially dismisses the idea of managing a grunge band in a classic Buddy rant: “Because there’s at least a million other guys just like me who fancy themselves as the utmost authorities on pop music, and the last thing the world needs is one more self-proclaimed expert trying to make a buck in the so-called ‘music business.’” But his eventual management of a band with Stinky offered an opportunity for Bagge to snarkily comment on his city’s exploding music scene. Most of the band members are named Kurt; Stinky worships local legend Tad and follows him from club to club. Even Seattle’s heroin culture made appearances: The grunge band practices songs like “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Heroin” (Buddy calls it “the worst kind of music ever invented in the history of the world”), and Valerie yells at junkies at her dinner party to wait to shoot up until after dessert. As Buddy railed against scenesters, hipsters, and anything he decried as posing (which encompassed a lot), the very crowd he was railing against embraced the title.
In 1994, with sales of Hate riding high enough for Bragge to finally make “a five-figure income,” as he told Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth in his Comics Journal interview, the cartoonist made a few unexpected choices: He moved Buddy and Lisa from Seattle to New Jersey, and he switched the title from black-and-white to color (adding an inker, Jim Blanchard). These decisions were related, as Bragge stated that the move from Seattle scenesterville into domestic New Jersey would have been too depressing without the added boost of color. He told Groth, “I’m not pandering to anybody. If I was, I wouldn’t have had Buddy leave Seattle. There was no groundswell of popular opinion saying I ought to switch to color. I did it because I wanted to.” So Buddy switched his flannel for a bright yellow shirt, Bagge’s letters column exploded mildly, and the Bradleys’ domestic saga returned in full force.
In Hate #16, released in October 1994, Buddy and Lisa move in with his parents. He eventually starts a collectible shop with his junkie friend Jay. In New Jersey, the most cultural argument Buddy comes across consists of the classic Chevy versus Ford debate, or whether an item in his collectible shop is “mint.” This huge shift, which changed the setting, background, and cast of the entire title, moved Hate from a slacker commentary to a sympathetic family drama and made it a bonafide classic.
While Buddy would still go off on yuppies and popular culture (when a dinner date offers him U2 tickets, he vomits almost immediately), the addition of his family transitioned Hate from satirical to human. In New Jersey, Buddy tries to bond with Babs’ kids, aid his now-alcoholic brother, and assist his family with the rapidly failing Pops Bradley. It was a brilliant step by Bagge, as the scenester stuff could resonate with only a few, but family problems are universal. Fortunately, the Bradleys continued their long entertaining streak: Mom Bradley boxes the ears of a shoplifter at Buddy’s store, Pops Bradley constantly spouts his platitudes from the easy chair he never strays from, and Babs’ kids drive everyone crazy. The Bradleys were still argumentative, but in their usual over-the-top, side-splitting way: In Hate #21, for example, a backyard family barbecue turns into an all-out war of the sexes, complete with painted boundary line.
Meanwhile, Buddy’s Jersey friends are possibly worse off than his Seattle ones: Jimmy Foley has a police record with a drug charge, Butch a dishonorable discharge from the Army, and Stinky shows up with a gun he calls Suzi The Uzi. Hate issues, which Bagge always packaged nicely into a sitcom-like style (he has had various offers to turn Hate into a TV show over the years, none of which have panned out yet), jumped from dealing with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll to matters of actual life and death. Pops and Stinky die in unspeakably absurd accidents, Butch and Lisa both go off the deep end, and Buddy Bradley grows up into the most stable force in this Jersey sea of chaos. Bagge’s absurdist humor made even these extreme situations relatable for his young audience, most of whom were charting their own paths into adulthood.
Buddy’s successful efforts to run his own business proved what Bagge had known all along: Buddy was no slacker. He took his time finding his way in his twenties, like most do, but he found it eventually. As a Seattle band manager, he was the only one who made sure the band turned a profit; as a small business owner in New Jersey, he stayed with his parents and saved his money until he built up his savings again. Having alienated his ragged bunch of hipster pals, he reconnected, to a degree, with his immediate family (he babysits Babs’ kids, and eventually lets Butch work in his shop). Bagge said of Buddy:
“It was never his intention just to sit around and do nothing. But at the same time, his own hangups would hold him back, and he’s got a bit of an attitude problem. That’s what makes him amusing. But he’s never been a total loser, and in fact, at the end of Hate, the last five issues of the color Hates, he almost ruthlessly erases all the real slackers from his life… because these guys weren’t maturing at all and weren’t very smart. The things that they were coming up with to ‘get rich,’ or to occupy their time, were either absurd or criminal. So yeah, he wound up one after the other, just eliminating all of them from his life. That’s hardly a ‘slacker’ thing to do.”
The initial run of Hate wrapped up with issue #30 in 1997 (the series ends with Lisa telling Buddy she’s pregnant, and they decide to get married). Bagge switched to a less-frequent schedule of the Hate Annual, and has just released Buddy Buys A Dump (Fantagraphics), a collection of his later Hate works. Buddy now resembles an exaggerated adult version of Popeye, while Lisa tries to fight the domesticity that comes with being a mom by playing in a band in a strip club. In addition to his comics work, Bagge is a frequent columnist for Reason.com, using his strips to make statements on subjects like teacher unionization and the current state of Detroit. Last year he released the acclaimed graphic biography Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn And Quarterly). Unlike Buddy Bradley, the cartoonist remains in Seattle with his wife and child. And while Hate remains the intact chronicle of what it meant to be a twentysomething in the grunge era, Bagge’s captivating artwork and humor ensure that the title is relevant for any age and time.