Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #235: Apocalypse Nerd by Peter Bagge

A friend of mine is fond of saying "everything's worse with libertarians" -- it's cruel and reductive, and definitely not true universally. But there's a certain kind of libertarian, particularly here on the Internet, who does make everything worse. (There are similar Troskyites, too, but libertarians infest the Net the way roaches do a dirty kitchen, scurrying out of all corners at the slightest attractive morsel.) They shove everything into a few pre-defined rhetorical boxes, and then spread their hands as if they've proved something -- and they're at their very worst when it comes to extreme situations and lifeboat rules.

Peter Bagge doesn't have a pleasant, positive view of humanity in the best of times -- maybe that's why he is a libertarian, actually -- and that has imbued all of his comics work from the beginning: even his best characters are self-loathing neurotic wrecks, and the worst are full-on psychotic assholes. When they're firmly embedded in a functioning society, that works just fine -- we can see their foibles and flaws against the standard backdrop of normal expectations. But let them loose away from civilization, and all of the wheels come off quickly, in a very messy way.

That's why Apocalypse Nerd sat on my shelf for a long time, despite the fact that I've liked Bagge's work for a long time -- sure, Hate more than anything else, since Bagge did excellent work for a long stretch there in the '90s. This is his explicitly libertarian book, the one where the North Koreans nuke Seattle and the two standard Bagge protagonists -- too-effete, too-civilized man of intellect and his mulleted outdoorsy, law-breaking he-man friend -- make their way through the chaos afterwards, out in the North Cascades. Like all such Bagge duos, they spend most of their time yelling at each other, as they try to find a safe and secure place to be after the end of the world. And the people they run into are mostly as bad as they are, if not worse.

There's libertarianism deep in the DNA of this book, so deep it can't be reasoned out: it's a book where people immediately start fighting and stealing and killing the minute anything bad happens, because they're Peter Bagge characters in a Peter Bagge world. They are all atomized, individual, separate, and only the heavy hand of society and its laws kept them in line at all. So Apocalypse Nerd is the Bagge story where all those wheels come off on page five, and Bagge still has a long, long spiral to go down from there.

(The very end of the book -- the last six pages -- perhaps aim in a different direction, and could be read as making a case for civilization. But at the end of a hundred-plus pages going the other way, it read to me more like Bagge just needed an ending, and irony was a dependable way of crafting one.)

Now, Bagge started work on Apocalypse Nerd in 2003, and published it between early 2005 and late 2007. So he was clearly working in the war-panic era, when the fictional destruction of a city evoked 9/11 and shadowy evil foreign terrorists. The idea of a single event flattening an entire American city, killing many and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, was still fiction.

But while Apocalypse Nerd was still coming out -- the late summer of 2005 -- something not too different did happen to an American city. And for all of the bungling and malfeasance and horrible decisions and rotten management of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it didn't devolve into a Baggean libertarian free-for all: like most disaster situations, the people on the ground mostly tried to help each other and survive and get back to normal.

So Apocalypse Nerd read even more like a cartoon to me than it was supposed to: Bagge's people are notably worse than actual humans in the real world. Sometimes, that makes them enjoyable to read about. But, this time, it was just sad to see how badly they could screw up everything.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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