Written by Ross Webster
Ross Webster: Those readers who know you mostly for Hate, Neat Stuff and the Buddy Bradley saga might be surprised to hear about your new project which is Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story, but actually this is by no means your first foray into historical or biographical comics. Can you please give a brief sum up of your history with that?
Peter Bagge: Sure, well I started doing biographical comics fifteen, almost twenty years ago. It started when Apocalypse Nerd, which is a graphic novel, it was originally a miniseries and in the back of each issue I would do these short comics about the Founding Fathers - which I called Founding Fathers Funnies. They have since then been collected into their own book. So that was the beginning of my doing biographical stories - and the approach I took with those, as well as everything else I have done since, is to be historically accurate. You know, I’m not making things up. It’s not historical fiction. But also emphasizing the things I find both interesting and funny. What I pretty much like to try and do is write about people that (for the most part) I admire, but also have enough personality to them that I can draw humor from them. Like when I would read a biography about say John Adams, while I admire him for the most part I’d also be laughing my head off. And these biographers were not trying to make me laugh. It’s just that John Adams was such a crybaby (LAUGH) while at the same time, you know he did rather brave things, it was just such a confusing mix of personality traits which I try to capture in writing about him. And then later on I did a twelve page biographical strip about a friend and peer of Rose Wilder Lane, a woman named Isabel Patterson and I did that for Reason Magazine. So once I was working that long - doing a piece as long as twelve pages - I pretty much felt like I was ready to do a full-length, a book length biographical comic.
So I approached Drawn & Quarterly about the idea of at least trying one and if it did okay making a series of them. And so the first full-length book I did was about Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate. The next one I did was about the American writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston and now this third one (and probably the last one, 'cause it’s torture) is on Rose Wilder Lane - who was in her time a very successful writer and a political activist of sorts. She went from being (in her younger days) extremely left-wing, going back all the way to the Eugene Debs era. She was a socialist, borderline communist and then especially after she traveled through Eastern Europe around the time the Soviets were taking over. Just seeing what that looks like in real life - it radicalized her in the opposite direction. But even though Rose Wilder Lane is credited - for one thing - with coming up with the term libertarianism and her philosophy mostly defines what most people think of as the American Libertarian movement. She actually was an anarchist. Though she knew that anarchism wouldn’t work in reality as people are still assholes. (LAUGH). She just hated government; all forms of government so that would be the safest way to describe her, as an anarchist.
RW: And although Lane and Patterson were very influential in the creation of the Libertarian movement, they’ve been by-and-large overshadowed by folks like Ayn Rand. Do you have any idea why that might be?
PB: Well first of all, just in case the listener or whoever’s going to read this doesn’t know, Rose Wilder Lane is the daughter of Laura Ingells Wilder and she also had a very heavy hand in writing the Little House books, although she didn't want credit for it. Well at least not during her lifetime. Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Patterson, and Ayn Rand all got to know each other quite well during WWII. There’s that old saying that “war is the health of the state” and they saw... Even though they were by no means sympathetic towards the Nazi regime or Imperial Japan. And of course they believed that once we were attacked in Pearl Harbor we had to fight the war, we had no choice. They also saw how WWII was - even more than during the Depression, WWII was empowering the United States in that it was turning us into an empire and an imperialistic empire and they worried that there would be no coming back from it, and there hasn’t been any coming back from it. And they were very aware of that and they wanted other Americans to be aware of that, so all three of them in their own ways, wanted to write about it. So in the same year (1944) they all wrote books very much espousing this particular viewpoint that they all shared - which became known as the libertarian philosophy of minimizing the power of the state.
With Rose Lane and Patterson, they both wrote these polemics. Isabel Patterson, she wrote a book called God and the Machine and Rose Lane wrote a book called The Discovery Of Freedom, and those two books are very similar. They both more or less cover the history of Western Civilization and showed how there’s been this back-and-forth, push-and-pull between totalitarian regimes and when the powers that be would pull back and at those times that’s when men and women would flourish and take great leaps forward. The problem with those two books is that they were polemics. They were political philosophy books which generally don’t sell and neither of those books sold well. Lane’s book was published by some obscure publisher, he made only 2000 copies of it and in her lifetime it was never reprinted. She wanted to rewrite it, never did. However Ayn Rand, she chose to make her point in fiction form with her book The Fountainhead, which became a monster bestseller and continues to sell massive amounts, one of the bestselling books of all time, it was turned into a movie almost immediately. So that is why the other two are overshadowed.
Curiously though, until that point Ayn Rand was the obscure one. She was writing treatments for Hollywood. I think she had one other novel that did not sell well at all, while Isabel Patterson and Rose Lane (especially Rose Lane) were bestselling authors. Throughout the 1920s and 30s Rose Lane was the highest paid female author probably in the world, certainly in the United States.
PB: I know, it’s so strange that nobody knows her now but her own novels sold phenomenally well. And Isabel Patterson also sold well in the same era. Patterson was probably best known as the book reviewer for the New York Herald.
RW: One of the things I like is that your iconic style, the cartoony “Hate” style seems to work very well in portraying a good “warts and all” look at Lane. I find that by-and-large the majority of bio comics that I read, they usually fail to capture their subject in an interesting way artistically at least.*
PB: It’s interesting that you brought that up because the biggest and most common criticism that I get for my books (especially these three books I did for Drawn & Quarterly) is that people can’t stand my drawing style because it is irreverent. That’s intentional. And to people who admire the subject matter, they want reverence, so they want it to be drawn - at the very least - in a more realistic style and not so cartoony. A lot of people automatically assume that I’m making fun of the subject matter which is absurd. You know I don’t spend three years writing about somebody just to make fun of them. Except though like you said it captures their more human moments. All three were human beings and they had their faults and shortcomings and made mistakes and I want to show that. That makes them relatable.
Like you said to me, my drawing style is best when capturing that. But you know, the drawing style is my personality so my personality is really coming through. For people who are trying to be reverent, it’s like the author/artist either doesn’t have much of a personality or they’re suppressing it. They’re worried about getting in the way of their subject matter - which is impossible. I read recently that somebody said that “every book ever written is an autobiography” and in a sense I think that’s absolutely true.
RW: For all three of these books you did a copious amount of research. Was that mostly you or did you have research assistants?
PB: Oh, that’d be nice! (LAUGH) I couldn’t even afford myself! (LAUGH) It would be like a solid year of reading everything I could get my hands on both about these women and everything written by these women. Even though Hurston and Lane who were first and foremost authors, Margaret Sanger herself wrote a lot of books - in her lifetime she wrote seven books. Nonfiction of course. So I’ve read everything they’ve written that I could find. And especially with Sanger there were a lot of books written about her. Actually to this day there is only one book biography about Rose Wilder Lane but there are tons about her mother. And to read about her mother is to read a lot about Rose Lane. When I did Credo the spotlight is on Rose Wilder Lane and I tried the best that I could to minimize writing, drawing about or referencing her mother and that was pretty much impossible, her mother is like in half the book. They were sort of attached at the hip. They’re like... There’s a character from a cartoon where Porky Pig tries to find the Dodo (I think it was from that cartoon) where there’s this monster that had one pair of legs and it split off into two separate torsos and they’re just punching each other and beating each other up - that was Rose and her mother (LAUGH).
Yes, it was a lot of research and I would stop researching when I’d reach the point where I felt like I was re-reading the same material; I wasn’t getting anything new. And also - this was especially true of Sanger - there’s a lot of utter bullshit written about her. Entire books that are just lies from cover-to-cover. And again it was all an attempt to demonize her and Planned Parenthood, which she was the founder of. But even more recently there are people who have problems with Rose Lane’s politics, but they also grew up loving the Little House books. One author wrote an entire book basically about her mother but just as much about Rose Lane and these other women who have written articles for like, The New Yorker and places like that where it seems like they’re trying their best to separate Lane from her mother. They still want to put the mom on a pedestal because they love her books so much, but they’re trying to reconcile that with Lane’s politics because all these women are very leftist/progressive types. And in doing so, they all thoroughly demonized Lane, they made a big deal about her.
They just literally called her “crazy.” And she did have…If that diagnosis existed in her lifetime, she definitely would have been diagnosed as being bipolar. But it’s something that she struggled with, and when I would read these women dissing Rose Wilder Lane they felt perfectly comfortable describing her as quote-un-quote “crazy,” because they didn’t like her politics - they did want to demonize her. But, can you imagine talking about anybody else who suffered from bipolar disorder and dismissing all their opinions? Just for that reason? It’s like “Well I don’t have to listen to you" or "Even if I agree with you, you’re crazy so everybody should ignore you! Don’t bother uttering opinions because you’re crazy!”
RW: I think too often we ask “how someone can believe in such and such?!” when instead we should ask “Who is this person and how did they come to believe what they believe?”
PB: Right, exactly! (LAUGH) Go to the source, if you really wanted to know! That’s the other thing too, at the first half of Lane’s life, she was a very hard left progressive type, but she was still quote-un-quote “crazy” then! You know, the “crazy” factor always seems to come in later in life, when her mood swings became much more subdued. She was no longer emotionally all over the map in her older age.
RW: What was the most attractive aspect of Lane, Hurston and Sanger to make you write these books?
PB: Well, probably the most consistent thing about all three women is how much they all fought and pushed for human autonomy and human freedom. Freedom for everybody, to live the way you want and that’s what they all did. All three of them were utterly fearless. Or nobody is without fear, but they never let fear stop them from doing exactly what they wanted to do. They never got in their own way, if you know what I mean. And they didn’t dwell on it, none of these three women had a victim mentality. I mean they were all by default feminists, and if you asked them they’d all say “yeah sure, I’m a feminist, of course.” The lived the lives that all feminists feel women should lead. You know, pretty much just doing exactly what you want to do, pursue your goals. But they didn’t wear that on their sleeves. They didn’t whine, they just did. It was all doing with all three of them, they were hard chargers and they were always moving forward and didn’t let anybody distract them.
Words didn’t hurt them. I mean they didn’t like being criticized but - especially Hurston - rarely took criticism very hard. For example with Hurston, her contemporaries really criticized her very heavily and very cruelly for her choice to write a lot of her fiction in a heavy Southern Black dialect. They thought that was like choosing to be a Stepin Fechit** or something like that. And she hated that criticism, it would really upset her if a good friend of hers, someone that she admired was telling her not to write that way but it never stopped her. She even had books rejected, entire books rejected where the publisher would say “if you get rid of all this Southern Black dialect, we’ll publish it.” So here she walked away from deals when she needed money and most of her life she was broke. She walked away from book deals simply because she refused to get rid of the dialect. And now that’s what she’s praised for because she saw it, now everybody sees the beauty of it. This poetry she was trying to capture that she heard in her youth. And now everybody recognizes that, but at the time it just made everybody self-conscious. They thought that only White racists would get a kick out of it, and only then for a laugh.
RW: I guess we already kind of answered that now, but what do you want your readers to take away from Credo and the other two?
PB: Well, pretty much what I was just saying. Like with these three women too, when I would read about them and researching it, they made everybody alive today seem like such ninnies and cowards, and that’s including myself. And I like to think that like them I am a man who does what he wants to do and says what he wants to say, but even they make me feel like a coward. So I like to think that their lives and their attitudes would embolden everybody. You know, don’t self-censor. Like of course I’m referring to social media and how people communicate on it, and how people respond to it. You know call it this policing which turns into self policing.
People still haven’t reached a point where you could put that in its proper place, where you could ignore it. Where if somebody goes on Twitter and says “ Person A is a sexist and a racist,” and all of a sudden everybody’s running for cover instead of either asking the person making that claim “why do you say that? Show me evidence.” Or simply just ignoring that person. We have to learn to ignore these bomb throwers. You know, they’re just throwing bombs just to get attention and to vent and take out their frustrations out on a stranger, without thinking of the consequences - but right now the consequences can be horrible. People have a legitimate reason to be fearful. We haven’t reached that point yet but that’s what everyone has to do, we have to not self-censor and be so afraid. And especially do this if you’re an artist or a writer or an activist, politically involved don’t let the naysayers prevent you from doing what you want to do.
RW: Ok, just a few more little things. What are you working on next?
PB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure (LAUGH). I have a verbal agreement with a publisher to do a memoir about my late brother, which is something I’ve been considering doing ever since he died, which was over twenty years ago. But I’m still afraid to do it for the same reason I haven’t done it for twenty odd years, it hits a little too close to home. Other than that, I’m going to be doing a lot more work for Reason Magazine, who I’ve been working with for almost twenty years, but while I was doing these biographies, my output with Reason has really slowed down. But I’m going to start doing more. In fact, I’m going to start doing short four-page biographies from them. I might make that a semi-regular thing.
RW: And then of course, there is a new history book about Robert Crumb’s Weirdo Magazine.
PB: Oh right, The Book Of Weirdo. Which again for your readers who might not know, all through the 80s there was an underground comic anthology called Weirdo and it was founded by R. Crumb and Crumb was involved in every issue, did the covers, did a feature. But for a while, for about three years, I was the managing editor for Weirdo. Which umm, was quite the learning experience, right? (LAUGH). And since Weirdo stopped existing around 1990, it’s largely been forgotten but a comics journalist named Sean B. Cooke, he suddenly became obsessed with Weirdo. And so it’s a brand new book out now, it’s this big 300 page book. It’s about the magazine and there’s long interviews with me and Robert Crumb and his wife, Ailene Crumb, who was the last managing editor. He also managed to track down just about every living contributor and talk to them about it.
RW: And then last but not least, any chance we’ll catch up on Buddy in the near future?
PB: Well, I wanted to keep the character alive after Hate ended, so I would put out once a year - I’d put out something called Hate Annual and I’d always have a short Buddy Bradley story in there. Not just to keep the character alive, but I still had a lot of story ideas for him, like tons of ideas. But as he got older, interest in him amongst the readers really diminished. A lot of former Hate fans didn’t even know Hate Annual was coming out (LAUGH). While I was doing it, people kept saying “when are you going to do Hate again?” It’s like “I am! I am doing it!” So I was like “this is ridiculous, nobody’s paying attention.” So I retired him. And if I get inspired, I guess I’ll do another Buddy Bradley story, but now it just doesn’t seem like it’s worth it.
* Noted other exceptions being Ho Che Anderson, Kate Beaton, Nick Bertozzi, Box Brown, Chester Brown, Larry Gonick, Shigeru Mizuki, Ed Piskor, and Noah van Sciver.
** Stepin Fechit was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, a prominent Black American vaudevillian performer during the 1930s and the first Black actor billed in Hollywood films. Overtime though, his main comic persona billed as the “Laziest Man in the World,” would increasingly become associated with negative stereotypes. Some future Black American critics and film scholars would view Lincoln Perry more kindly, arguing that the Fechit persona was a kind of trickster character of African American folklore.