I was never a huge Peter Bagge fan. But he usually delivered a good, solid read. Bagge is an excellent storyteller. And has a real knack for creating well-rounded and nuanced characters that go beyond stereotypes and cliches. And the way he develops his characters panel-by-panel really pulls you into the story. (I picked this one up and before I knew it I was all the way to page 15.)
Bagge also has a zany and even outrageous sense of humor. And can sometimes deliver real belly laughs (the ultimate achievement for a cartoonist for my tastes). And he had one great shtick he used over and over that worked pretty much every time he went to the well, where his characters would suddenly explode with exaggerated emotion. Anger, rage, exhilleration, excitement, jealousy, and — most of all — frustration and exasperation. The characters would be having seemingly normal and civilized discourses only to suddenly burst into raging Incredible Hulks. And it really captured the primal feelings that are usually buzzing just beneath the polite surface of civilized human life. As well as the vicarious thrill of seeing these pent-up feelings suddenly being released.
And Bagge totally nailed the reality of the suburban angst scene, and was even a bit ahead of his times with his portrayal (Matt Groening “borrowed” more than a little of Bagge’s Bradley family with his Simpsons family).
One of the really impressive aspects to Bagge’s cartoon characters is the way readers often reacted like, “I know people JUST like those characters!” Or even “I’M just like those characters!”
If there’s a weakness to Bagge’s work it may be the perpetually adolescent tone. Bagge’s worldview is often that of a clever high school outsider, perpetually snearing at the jocks and the cheerleaders. Or of a cartoon Holden Caulfield exposing the “phoniness” of the adults. (As Norman Mailer famously put it: “Salinger was the greatest mind to never leave prep school.)
And Bagge’s work is overly steeped in pop culture references, which can get a bit suffocating. It’s as if his characters are primarily defined by the movies, TV shows, rock stars, and video games that they like. Rarely does Bagge delve very deeply into the more existential issues of the meaning of life and religion or philosophy. Though to be fair, most of the Bagge comics I’ve read were from when he was in his 20s and 30s (I stopped reading comics around 1996). So its possible his world view matured as he aged and started grappling with the “sense of one’s mortality” issues that generally deepens as we get closer to death.
This graphic novel — OTHER LIVES — is from 2010. So it’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed since I last read him. And published by DC Comics, to my surprise. So Peter Bagge has obviously moved beyond his underground/alternative origins.