by Peter Bagge
Reviewed by David Kennedy-Logan
At 51 years old, Peter Bagge is becoming an elder statesman of the comics medium. A member of the generation of artists who came of age in the 1970s under the influence of genre-defining and boundary-pushing artists and publishers such as Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Kurtzman, he rubs shoulders (at least figuratively) with Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Tony Millionaire, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and many other brilliant weirdos.
Reading his newest book, Apocalypse Nerd, a collection of the six-issue miniseries of the same name (which does not, unfortunately, contain any of the hilarious Founding Fathers Funnies comics that appeared in the individual issues as they were released), one gets the distinct sense that perhaps becoming an elder statesman isn't sitting so well with Bagge, and that aging and mortality are weighing heavily on his mind. One of the biggest differences in Apocalypse Nerd compared to his previous work is that there's a lot of death in it. Hell, there's a lot of murder in it.
The intriguing but somewhat loopy premise: Kim Jong-Il nukes Seattle while nebbishy software engineer Perry and his outdoorsman buddy Gordo are at a weekend cabin getaway. Perry and Gordo are immediately thrust into a Darwinian struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world, or at least a post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest -- although in Bagge's hands this "futuristic nightmare world" is rendered very cartoonishly, feeling like a Mad Max movie as directed by Kevin Smith (think Clerks Beyond Thunderdome).
As Perry and Gordo try to survive, they are sucked into a downward moral spiral that begins with unfortunate mishaps and selfishness, but ends with outright evil, cruelty, and depravity. Along the way, Bagge throws his characters into a host of uncomfortable situations, allowing him to hold forth in typical fashion on everything from family values and gender politics to hippies and explosive diarrhea.
To a one, these themes are familiar territory for Bagge. His series Hate was one of the great indie/underground comics of the 1990s, a searing portrayal of disaffected Generation X-ers that established Bagge as a major voice in comics. Following his previous projects, Martini Baton and Neat Stuff, Hate is where Bagge hit his stride. Widely held to be one of the best satires -- in any medium, not just comics -- of Seattle's grunge culture at the peak of its popularity, it cemented the artist's place in comics history.
In the pages of Hate, the artist refined his particular recipe for side-splitting misanthropy: one heaping scoop of hilariously hyperkinetic, expressionistic artwork -- nobody but nobody draws an angry or drunken (or angry drunken) freak-out as well as Bagge -- another scoop of bitterly sardonic humor, and a sprinkling of surprisingly sophisticated and nuanced insights into human nature and relationships. Most of the time the dominant flavors of this dish were darkly funny and extremely un-PC.
Bagge took Hate off the menu as a regular item about ten years ago (although it still appears every once in a while in the form of the increasingly inaccurately titled Hate Annual). Since then, he has tackled an impressive variety of projects, including forays into online political journalism for Suck.com and Reason magazine. He also briefly wrote and drew a kids' comic called Yeah! as well as a parody of Spider-Man. While these endeavors have all borne the inimitable stamp of Peter Bagge, they haven't necessarily captured the artist at his quintessential best.
So, in this light, how does Apocalypse Nerd compare? For Bagge fans, it's a breath of fresh air. The over-caffeinated hipster dialogue and fantastically crazed artwork of Hate has been turned down just a notch, and transformed into something a little more sedate and a little more serious. As much as there is a heart and soul in the narrative, it is represented by Perry, Bagge's Everyman. Utterly unequipped to handle life under the extreme circumstances he finds himself in, Perry proceeds to have a mental and emotional breakdown. Of course Bagge, staying true to form, plays the mental and emotional breakdown mostly for laughs. Mostly.
The humor this time around rings slightly different. Instead of the biting sarcasm and ironic detachment that comprise the emotional palette of Hate, Apocalypse Nerd is infused with a subtle tone of relatively genuine malaise, fear, and regret. There's also a certain resigned sadness here. After all, by coming apart at the seams, Perry is only doing what any of us would do if we faced imminent annihilation. Aging, it seems, has mellowed Bagge, and perhaps engaged him in a more subtle and philosophical reckoning on life and death.
This is not to say he has lost his abrasive edge -- plenty of people will find Apocalypse Nerd abrasive -- but the edge has softened a bit. Even his artwork seems less jagged and explosive, more fluid and gentle, punctuated by the watercolor splash pages that introduce each chapter.
All of that notwithstanding, Bagge seems incapable of drawing in a style that doesn't induce laughter, even if what he's drawing is someone getting shot in the head. You can't read more than a page or two without laughing out loud. Normally, that wouldn't be an issue, especially for someone who makes comics for a living, but there is a serious parable buried in this story, perhaps about war or about humanity's destructive impulses in general. It's hard to pin down exactly because the lighthearted goofiness of the delivery is sometimes at cross-purposes with the overall message. The book also ends quite abruptly, leaving that parable implied and open to interpretation.
The most important thing about Apocalypse Nerd, however, is that it finds a highly talented, honest, and dedicated artist coming up with new things to say and new ways to say them after a good thirty years on the job. That's impressive for any artist, and an achievement that keeps Bagge in the front rank of comic-book visionaries.