Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sweatshop by Peter Bagge and others

This is not a limited series. I know: I was surprised, too. But Peter Bagge's afterword, which explains the history of Sweatshop, makes it clear that it was intended to be ongoing, and that he would have been happy to keep it running for a much longer time.

That didn't happen: Sweatshop got a six-issue run from DC in 2003, when that company was in one its periodic throes of trying to broaden its range, which was followed by the inevitable and equally periodic pullback to its core competency of grimacing people in spandex punching each other repeatedly.

Sweatshop is not about spandex, or punching. It does have its share of grimacing, and other extreme facial expressions, because we are talking about Peter Bagge here. But, otherwise, it doesn't look much like a good fit for DC. Our central character is Mel Bowling, a comics creator on the far side of middle age. He's the credited creator of the syndicated strip Freddy Ferret -- though it's really put together by his oddball crew of young, underpaid assistants -- and a lazy, narcissistic golf-playing blowhard.

(The set-up is not unlike some manga about manga-making -- Bagge doesn't mention any inspirations, or Japanese comics at all, in his afterword, but it's at the very least a striking case of parallel development.)

Reading the first issue, I thought it would feature Bagge's art on stories about the whole team and his fellow artists (Stephen Destefano, Bill Wray, Stephanie Gladden, Jim Blanchard, and Johnny Ryan also contribute art to these stories) each picking up from the POV of one of the assistants. That would have been neat, and more formally interesting, but it's not the way the series ended up going: the feint in that direction was apparently a scene-setting one-off for that first issue. Instead, there's mostly a lead story for each issue drawn by Bagge, and then additional stories drawn by one or more of the others, in the style of old humor comics.

The stories are all about that crew in Bowling's studio -- worrying about the "Hammie" awards, planning and going to the big Comic-Con, dealing with a new writer joining the team, and various career and personal issues for all of them. It's not quite as zany and slapstick as Bagge got in the '80s and '90s, but these are broad characters who do crazy things: it's a lot like a sitcom on the page.

Sweatshop is funny, and probably even funnier the more you know about strip comics: I suspect Bagge buried jokes and references I didn't get among the ones I did see and laugh at. Some readers may find the changing art styles distracting, though they all are in the same tradition -- Bagge's rubber-hose arms and googly eyes are probably the most extreme, cartoony style here, with the others giving a (sometimes only very slightly) more restrained version of the same look. What can I say? It's a funny collection of stories about comics and comics people, and a decade has only dated it slightly. (A contemporary version would definitely have at least one issue full of webcomic jokes.)

1 comment:

mike weber/fairportfan said...

SOunds rather like Mel Lazarus's novel "The Boss is Crazy Too" that featured a setup that sounded remarkably like the Marvel Bullpen at a company run by a publisher named Fulton A Fineman...

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