Monday, July 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

Underground comics icon Bagge

// Talks life in Tacoma, new Zora Neale Hurston biography

Popular underground comic artist Peter Bagge is probably best known for “Hate.” The series - first published by Seattle's Fantagraphics Books in 1990 – follows the adventures of Buddy Bradley, basically an avatar of Bagge, lampooning hipster culture during the grunge era along the way. 
Much has changed since then: Bagge and his wife recently moved from Seattle to Tacoma; and much of his creative energy these days is spent paying homage to notable women who rebelled against social norms of the early 20th Century. He'll sign copies of “Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story,” his biography of the influential author and folklorist, at 4 p.m., April 1 at King's Books, 218 St. Helens Ave. The event is free; for further details.
Recently, Tacoma Weekly met up with Bagge to talk about Hurston, his passion for Libertarianism and what lured him down Interstate-5 in the first place.
Tacoma Weekly: So indie comics legend Peter Bagge, now living in Tacoma.
Peter Bagge: That's right.
TW: What brought you down here?
Bagge: If you'd asked me five years ago if I ever intended to leave Seattle, the answer would be no. I thought I was gonna live there forever, but it was getting' more and more expensive, the traffic was a nightmare, and we lived in Ballard. There were a lot of things happening in our neighborhood that we didn't like: Tons of homeless people; not to paint them all with a broad brush, but some of them the bike-stealing ones were just getting to be too much.
Then our daughter moved out for good, and we didn't need a house that big. We thought if we sold this place and bought something smaller in Tacoma we'd be completely out of debt. So that's exactly what we did.
We really didn't know much about Tacoma. We just came down and checked it out. My wife was more reluctant just because she's a total foodie. Then she saw the Met Market. (He laughs.)
TW: There's actually a mini restaurant renaissance going on right now.
Bagge: That's just it. She was like, “I'll probably never find a great restaurant in Tacoma.” We've actually found some great places. Everything's new to us, but so far the batting average is pretty good.
TW: Maybe I shouldn't promote that since prices are getting high here, too. If you're reading this, the food is terrible. Tacoma's awful!
Bagge: The other thing, too, is I meet people from South or East Tacoma. They ask me, “Where'd you move to?” I tell 'em Proctor, and they always make this face. “You mean Seattle Jr.?”
When I go to the farmer's market in Proctor (I think) “Did all of Ballard move down here?”  A lot of people did exactly what we did, people who are retired or semi-retired. They wanted a nicer house for half the price.
TW: It’s been a while since I read “Hate,” and I’m not sure what percentage of that stuff is based on true events. But Buddy moves back to New Jersey at one point. Did that happened?
Bagge: My stock answer to that is one-third of what happens to Buddy Bradley happened to me. One third is stuff that happened to friends of mine, and the other third is stuff that I completely made up.
The only reason I had Buddy Bradley go back east is I wanted to get his family back in the story. I got sick of writing about twenty-somethings all the time. It was turning into a hipster Archie comic.
TW: It’s changed a bit now, but 10, 15 years ago you wouldn’t think of a cartoonist tackling some of the things you have, like a biography of Zora Neale Hurston. How do you choose your projects?
Bagge: Both as a writer and a reader, I’ve gotten bored with fiction. Real life is much more interesting. I started doing comic book reporting, first for Details Magazine, then for some web sites. Now going on 15 years - more than that - I’ve been writing comics for Reason magazine.
So finally, for Reason magazine I did a 12-page biographical comic about this woman from Hurston’s era named Isabel Paterson. By then, I thought I was ready to do something book length. I approached this publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, (that is) based in Canada.
TW: (Pointing to “Fire!!”) About this?
Bagge: That’s my second biographical (work.) The first one was about (writer and birth control activist) Margaret Sanger. They totally agreed with me that it would be nice to do a series of biographies and to keep it within a theme.
The theme is very independent-thinking women (who were) active during those years between the two world wars. For a lot of reasons, I became very interested in that era and was particularly drawn to and curious about these women I kept reading about who lived very independent, creative lives. This was a full generation before the women’s rights movement of the ‘60s, and they lived their lives in a way that most people today think women weren’t allowed to live. They just granted themselves bottomless agency to do whatever they wanted. (He laughs heartily.)
TW: Before starting this particular volume, how much did you know about Zora Neale Hurston? And what drew you to her in particular?
Bagge: Easily 30 years ago, I remember reading her most famous book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” It wasn’t typical of what I might read, so I can’t remember how I wound up reading it. Clearly, somebody recommended it to me; but I read it, not really expecting anything, and loved it. I remember really struggling with the dialect for three or four pages and thinking, “Am I gonna make it through this book?” Once you catch on to the rhythm it’s a piece of cake, at least for some people.
Then I couldn’t wait to read her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road,” which is probably her second most famous book. Her life is very different from mine: her background, her race, her gender. But there’s something about her world view that I responded to. So it wasn’t so surprising when I read even more about her and by her that she shared a political worldview that’s similar to mine, which now you’d call Libertarianism. That germ didn’t really exist back then, but I think that’s the best way to describe her.
TW: Were there other things that surprised you or that you especially related to as you researched her life?
Bagge: There was more than just her political opinions; it was her worldview. She very much believed in human autonomy and human independence, and letting people find their own way. I don’t know that she ever used the term, but she believed in spontaneous order; that you don’t need a whole bunch of laws, you don’t need an all-powerful state. Trust people to figure out the best way to get things done, and they’ll do it. That pretty much was reflected in almost everything that she did.
TW: In the foreword you address making some choices, about not writing in dialect and not depicting some of her more eccentric tendencies.
Bagge: In scenes that are in her hometown of Eatonville, (Florida) I included people speaking in a southern dialect just because it would be absurd if they didn’t. But I was really afraid to make it up - to fake southern, “Hurstonesque” dialogue - ‘cause it’s gonna sound awful.
It was a terrifying thing writing it and putting words in her mouth. I didn’t want to plagiarize her too blatantly. A lot of what I have her saying are things that she actually said or what her characters said, but I didn’t want to totally rip her off. At the same time, she had such a unique voice, especially the stuff written in that dialect. It’s specific to a place and to a people.
TW: You said this is part of a series you’re writing. Do you have your next one picked out?
Bagge: The next one is about a woman from the exact same era. Her name is Rose Wilder Lane. She’s best known as the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote “Little House on the Prairie.” Recent research has revealed that Rose Wilder Lane pretty much co-wrote all those “Little House” books with her mom. It was understood between the two of them that her mother would get the credit … but it was totally a collaboration.
Most of her stuff is out of print now, but in the ‘20s and ‘30s she was a very successful novelist, short story writer, essayist. What brought me to her, like Hurston, was her politics. During World War 2, she wrote a book spelling out her political beliefs and her economic and world philosophy. The book was called “The Discovery of Freedom.” It pretty much defined Libertarianism. In fact, she coined that term.
TW: A lot of Libertarians like Ayn Rand. So maybe she’s the “deep album cut” of influential Libertarian authors.
Bagge: (He chuckles.) It’s unfortunate to me that everybody knows of Ayn Rand because I have very mixed feelings about her. ... She’d be furious if you called her a Libertarian. She named her philosophy “objectivism.” But when you read about what objectivism is, it basically means you agree with Ayn Rand about everything, including what kind of music you like. She’d say you can’t be an objectivist and like rock n’ roll. That’s just impossible.
TW: What’s the typical starting point for you, and from there how does your process generally play out?
Bagge: I would read what was widely considered the most definitive biography about the particular subject, or the most comprehensive, at least. With Hurston, it was a biography called “Wrapped in Rainbows” by Valerie Boyd. ... Then I’ll start reading everything that that person wrote, even if I read it before, like “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
Sooner or later, I reach a saturation point. For all the words I’m reading, not much new is bubbling up. So it’s like, “I’ve gotta make some money. I better start drawing.” (He chuckles.)  I’ll outline a script, and I even use a scriptwriter’s format, like Final Draft. From that, I do a rough (treatment with) ballpoint pen on typewriter paper. Then I get down to the refined art. But yep, three years to squeeze out 72 pages.