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Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff paved the way for Hate—and the ’90s alt-comics boom

Peter Bagge's Neat Stuff
Peter Bagge's Neat Stuff

Toward the end of the 1980s, Peter Bagge was editing the underground comix anthology Weirdo and working on his own series Neat Stuff—and still only making what he estimates today to be “a four-figure income.” Worried about his future, Bagge had a conversation with cartoonist Robert Crumb about working hard and getting nowhere. Crumb told him to be patient, saying, “Everybody lives off of the sweat of their youth.”

A quarter-century later, Bagge is doing just that. He’s still an active and vital artist, producing graphic novels like Other Lives and Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, along with cartoon essays about libertarianism for Reason. But now in his late 50s, Bagge admits that he’s slowed down, and is glad that people are still buying the comics he produced at a fevered pace in the ’80s and ’90s. The latest repackaging of his older work has just been released by his longtime publisher Fantagraphics: a two-volume slipcased hardcover collection of all 15 issues of Neat Stuff, the series he once couldn’t make a living off of.

Like a lot of comics fans who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, I first discovered Bagge via Hate—his ongoing saga of opinionated slacker Buddy Bradley. I started buying that comic with its first issue, then went back and picked up Neat Stuff, both by getting the back issues and grabbing Fantagraphics’ trade paperback collections. Hate became a phenomenon in the ’90s, pulled into the fringes of the mainstream during the rise of alternative rock, indie cinema, and The Simpsons. But what Bagge did with Neat Stuff a few years earlier was in some ways even more meaningful, because he was doing it in a decade when there was no clear market for that kind of work.

When I spoke with Bagge by phone recently, he said much the same: The ’80s were an odd time to be an artist who liked to draw weird comics. “The undergrounds were actually a commercial phenomenon until around 1973,” Bagge explained. “And I was inspired by the people from that generation that were still around, like R. Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, Bill Griffith, Robert Armstrong—I loved ‘Mickey Rat’—and Kim Deitch. And then in the ’80s you had this boom in mini-comics, plus what Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly were doing with Raw, and it suddenly became a very exciting time. Everyone had radically different approaches, and drastically different drawing styles. There was Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Gary Panter, Matt Groening, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Chester Brown. What we all had in common was a vision in our heads that had to come out, and that none of us had any idea that we could ever make any money off of this.”

Neat Stuff debuted in 1985, and came out roughly three times a year until it folded in 1989. Like Weirdo, the Hernandez brothers’ Love And Rockets, Dan Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, and a handful of other adult-oriented comics at the time, Neat Stuff was magazine-sized—mainly because Fantagraphics and similar companies, “Didn’t want the stuff that they published to be racked alongside She-Hulk,” according to Bagge. He wasn’t a fan of the format, but he took advantage of the space to experiment.

“I was figuring out what type of stories I liked to tell,” he said, “And what kind of comics I was good at. I was learning how to draw.” Bagge was honing the style he’s known for: the oversized faces, rubbery limbs, and cluttered backgrounds. And while he was learning, he was generating characters: Junior, Girly Girl, Studs Kirby, the Leeways, the Bradleys, and more.

Typically, Bagge started each Neat Stuff issue by writing and drawing the longest story he had in mind—which, as the series went on, would get longer and longer, and would occasionally take up the entire issue. With whatever space was left he’d fill the pages with shorter stories and “pure nonsense… an excuse to draw wacky people.” But even with the weirder material in Neat Stuff, like the grotesque kiddie-comic parody Girly Girl or the moody, abstract Junior, the work grew more refined over the course of the series’ five years.

Neat Stuff

Bagge said that the nervous introvert Junior and the right-wing talk-radio loudmouth Studs Kirby were the first two characters he invented when he started drawing comics in the late ’70s. They represented both poles of his personality at the time: one meekly terrified of the world outside, and the other angrily ranting about it. I suggested that given the state of talk radio and TV discourse since the ’80s, that maybe he abandoned Studs Kirby too soon, but he said that he started moving away from the character during the heyday of Morton Downey Jr. “He was way more of a caricature than my own comics character. What’s the point of satirizing these people when they’re satirizing themselves?”

But while Neat Stuff was providing Bagge with an outlet for goofiness and bile, it was also allowing him to hone his storytelling skills. Some of his least exaggerated material involves the young married couple Chet and Bunny Leeway, who were a loosely autobiographical version of himself and his wife Joanne. At the time that Bagge started Neat Stuff he and his wife were living in the suburbs of Seattle—in Redmond, now the home of Microsoft—which he described as “a real culture shock, since I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, which was more blue collar and ethnic.” The Leeways stories describe a lot of the tension within Bagge at the time, as someone who had an outsider’s perspective on American culture but also openly enjoyed some of its benefits—and very much wanted to make a decent wage from his work.

It’s that nuance that would gradually come to define the comics in Neat Stuff, and then would reach full maturity in Hate, where Buddy Bradley would reveal himself in every issue as a man of contradictions: restless, yet craving comfort; and sometimes shrewd, sometimes impulsive. Bagge said, “The approach to art that’s always appealed to me is art that on the surface looks garish, silly, even lightweight, but there turns out to be substance behind it. It’s kind of yin-yang thing. There’s a heavy dose of reality at the base of the story.”

For Bagge, the real turning point for him with Neat Stuff was the ninth issue, which was taken up entirely by one 30-page piece, “Hippy House”—an early Buddy Bradley adventure in which he starts gravitating away from his high school friends and hanging out with a local weirdo who likes the same kind of ’60s rock that Buddy does. In the story, Buddy is both completely obnoxious and painfully relatable. He represents everyone’s worst teenage self, at once awkward and cocksure, but he’s also striving throughout to figure out who he wants to be when his school years end. “I was revealing certain things about myself in that story that I was a bit self-conscious of,” Bagge admitted.

The risk paid off—though it took a few years. “Based on reader responses, I started leaning in that direction,” Bagge said. “I had a bottomless pit of story ideas for Buddy, because his life most closely paralleled mine. Buddy Bradley is always basically me 10 years earlier. I think about where my head was at back then, then I start drawing.”

In 1990, Bagge abandoned the Leeways, Studs Kirby, and the rest and carried Buddy Bradley with him to Hate. “Each issue of Neat Stuff had been selling a little bit better,” he said. “The trajectory was good, but too slow for my taste. I thought to myself, ‘I gotta do something drastic.’” He ditched his old title, which sounded too much like a kids’ comic (and which American Greetings had swiped for a line of snarky greeting cards); and he shrunk back down to comic book size. Bagge is convinced that the magazine-format-equals-mature-content business plan of the ’80s was a mistake, since a lot of comics shops never bothered to invest in magazine racks. And he may be right about that. Hate and Daniel Clowes’ comic-book-sized series Eightball both debuted around the same time and would go on to sell phenomenally well throughout the ’90s.

“It’s the perfect format for me,” Bagge said. With Hate, he told self-contained Buddy Bradley stories in each issue, which over time developed into longer arcs, similar to a TV show. In an ideal world—where he had the energy and the market—he’d still be releasing 30 or so pages into comics shops every four months. “But it doesn’t make economic sense,” he lamented.

Instead, Bagge has followed along with many of his ’90s peers and is working on books, short pieces for other publications, and illustrations. He’s also found a good revenue stream on the convention circuit, where he sells Bagge ephemera (like old posters and record-sleeves that he drew on assignment) and original art to a fanbase that he finds is getting “more and more generous all the time.” He compared it to the life of a veteran musician, still drawing royalties off his hit records—in his case, Fantagraphics’ best-selling Buddy Bradley collections—and making enough money from live appearances that producing new material is almost optional.

When I asked Bagge if he could’ve envisioned his spiky, punky Neat Stuff comics one day getting the hardcover boxed-set treatment, he laughed. “Oh, I envisioned it. I was confident enough back then to think it warranted it.”

In retrospect, this was a dumb question on my part. What was always great about Neat Stuff—and what makes those comics so exciting to read even today—is that they had the look of something disposable, but with a sneaky level of ambition and depth. One panel at a time, Bagge pulls readers into the lives of the Leeways or the Bradley family, taking what seems like tossed-off humor pieces and gradually revealing an uncanny understanding of human nature and the realities of modern American life. It’s no coincidence that Simpsons creator Matt Groening provided a quote for the cover of the first Bradleys book collection back in 1989. He recognized in Neat Stuff a kindred spirit: another 1980s cultural refugee who could draw thick lines on a page and then fill them with wit, personality, and soul.

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