by Derek Royal
Peter Bagge is a keen cultural observer, tapping into the social and political trajectories of the times. Works such as Apocalypse Nerd (2008), Other Lives (2010), and Reset (2013) explore our relationships with, and growing suspicions of, technology, while the comics collected in Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me (2009) and even Bat Boy: The Weekly World News Comic Strips (2011) lay bare the absurdities and hypocrisies embedded in our socio-political system. Even his overt historically based comics, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (2013) and the as-yet-uncollected “Founding Father Funnies,” highlight a contemporary concern over past events. In light of all this, it might be easy to overlook the Buddy Bradley stories as “light” fun without much critical punch. After all, Buddy and his coterie — his girlfriend-turned-wife, Lisa, and their son, Harold the Third; his morally dubious friends, Leonard “Stinky” Brown, Jay Spano, and Jake “the Snake”; his dysfunctional family, including the rebellious sister, Babs, and his gun-nut brother, Butch — are the stuff of comedy, the alternative comics equivalent to the sitcoms Seinfeld or Arrested Development. Except these could be considered sitcomics.
Yet it’s worth remembering that the stories of Buddy Bradley began as social commentary, exploring disaffected youth culture in the 1980s — in the pages of Neat Stuff (1985-1989) — and later the grunge- and slacker-infected 1990s in Bagge’s seminal series, Hate (1990-1998). Now we have Buddy’s latest adventures in Buddy Buys a Dump (Fantagraphics), collecting for the first time all of the stories first appearing in Hate Annual, which ran for nine issues between 2000 to 2011. Since Bagge ended the original Hate series, we’ve had glimpses into Buddy’s life after getting married and having a son, although at times those narrative installments have been sporadic. (Bagge discusses the problems of maintaining Hate Annual‘s schedule in an interview from last November.) The stories from those nine Hate Annual issues are now presented in “graphic novel” form, along with a brand new twenty-page comic that wraps up Buddy’s latest adventures…or at least gives them a (temporary?) sense of closure.
The stories in Buddy Buys a Dump are, much like the earlier ones, extremely funny and often outrageous, but they nonetheless possess a kind of social critique that characterizes most of Bagge’s work. Whereas in the 1990s Buddy was a poster boy for the slacker generation, here he represents many of the struggles and disenchantments found in the post-Clinton, recession-ridden world. A struggling economy has him bouncing around from one occupational scheme to another, including selling collectables on eBay, starting an aquabus service for the Newark harbor, driving a delivery truck for a UPS-like company, and buying a junk shop in a seedy neighborhood. Even the neurotic Lisa Levenworth-Bradley functions as a post-grunge figure. Torn between rock ‘n’ roll and Martha Stewart, Lisa embodies the cultural vicissitudes of a contemporary woman, yearning for creative self-definition — at one point she becomes part of a band performing at the local strip club — while at the same time lured by promises of purpose within the domestic sphere. She functions as a mother not only to baby Harold — whose weird baby sounds hilariously punctuate the first half of the book — but also to the man-child, Buddy.
One of the highlights of Buddy Buys a Dump, and an important turning point for the character, occurs in the fifth story, “Fuddy Duddy Buddy.” Having suffered a deep scratch on his right eye due to a precariously perched Spawn action figure in his collectibles shop, Buddy begins wearing an eye patch. This leads him to developing a “new look,” including a shaved head, a yachtsman’s cap, and a corncob pipe. (I remember first seeing the cover of Hate Annual #5, featuring Buddy-as-Popeye, and wondering, “What the hell is going on here?”) This takes place right before he decides to become a junkyard proprietor, a business move that eventually leads him into the scrap metal business and makes him even more of a cultural pariah. Identity struggles are obviously at play here (as they are with Lisa and her attempted creative outlets), but Buddy’s choices further alienate him from a milieu he didn’t much like to begin with. As Peter Bagge explained to me back in November, Buddy gets pushed “farther and farther on the edges of American society” where he will eventually become invisible: “Scrap metal yards are those kinds of places your mind doesn’t even register when you walk or drive past them. They’re almost willfully unappealing, visually. They’re invisible, and yet they’re right there. It struck me as a perfect business for a cynic and misanthrope like Buddy.”
Buddy’s increasingly peripheral status is complemented by the nefarious antics that surround him: Jake steals from the delivery truck he drives, Jay constantly rips off Buddy’s scam ideas, Lisa’s cousin Leroy dodges accusations of being a sex offender, and the gun-obsessed Butch (along with Jay) plans an underground living facility in Buddy’s junkyard where he can prepare for the impending “race war.” This latter is particularly telling, in that it captures the marginalized, paranoid, and even victimized mentality of today’s tea party movement in its most extreme manifestations. If you’re looking for an metaphor for our current political times — complete with its Sarah Palins, Sheldon Adelsons, Sean Hannities, and Wayne LaPierres — what better setting that a junkyard specializing in scrap?
This is the third volume in the “Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from ‘Hate’ Comics” series — the first two being Buddy Does Seattle and Buddy Does Jersey — and as he did with the previous two, Bagge brings this current work to a tangible wrap up through a shift in locale or status. Whereas the first volume ended with Buddy’s move from Seattle back to New Jersey, and the second with Buddy’s decision to get married to a pregnant Lisa, this latest volume reaches an end point with equally significant moves. I won’t give away any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that in the final story, Buddy undergoes both an identity change and a geographical shift. Indeed, the title of the very last story, “Fuck It,” not only sums up Buddy’s growing aggravations, but it could easily stand as Bagge’s own tongue-in-cheek attempt to bring closure to his perennial misfit. It’s a fitting way to leave us with Buddy as he drives off into the horizon in the book’s final panel. We’re not entirely clear where his next adventures will take him, nor do we have any hint that he will ever return.
Get your daily dose of Buddy Bradley, as well as other great nutrients from Peter Bagge: