The Magazine Reader

A Cartoonist Who's Quick On the Draw

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Finally, Peter Bagge made the cover of Reason magazine, but he looks dreadful. His bloodshot eyes are bugging out, his face is dripping with nervous sweat and he's gritting his teeth in naked fear. The fact that he's holding a smoking bazooka does not seem to have eased his chronic anxiety about life in these United States.

But it's all his own fault. Bagge drew this cover picture himself. Reason's resident "cartoon journalist" is an honest man, so he caricatured himself with the same comic brutality that he uses when drawing politicians, panhandlers, avant-garde artists, Christian rockers and his favorite target, self-righteous liberals.

Reason is a libertarian magazine and Bagge is a libertarian cartoonist, always eager to satirize the war on drugs or gun control laws or other governmental restrictions on personal freedom. But he doesn't just sit around drawing cartoons. He goes out and covers events like a reporter, jotting down quotes and sketching in his notebook. Then he turns his observations into multi-page comic-strip essays that are funny and smart and surprisingly nuanced.

"I call it cartoon journalism," Bagge, 49, said in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. "I don't know what else to call it."

Over the past six years, Bagge has covered political campaigns, protest marches and, in one hilarious piece, a very earnest convention of polygamists, swingers, sadomasochists and transsexuals, where a panel discussion on legal issues inspired a rather dumpy woman to ask this question: "If I adopt my live-in lovers, would I be violating incest laws?"

Bagge's drawing of that scene shows him falling out of his chair in astonishment.

Bagge's titles are almost as much fun as his drawings. His piece on the hypocrisy of baby boomers was titled "Do Your Own Thing Unto Others." His attack on using taxpayer money to pay for sports stadiums was titled "Let's All Give Money to the Rich Man!" And his piece on Amtrak -- inspired by a disastrous trip through California that arrived six hours late -- was simply called "Amtrak Sucks."

My favorite Bagge piece, titled " 'Real' 'Art,' " was inspired by a foray into a Seattle art museum, where he found himself looking at a few too many pompous avant-garde artworks. He responded with a wonderful illustrated rant: "My feelings toward the contemporary fine art world have always been a mix of bemusement, resentment and contempt," he wrote. "95% of what they're hyping is pure [drivel], yet if you dare say as much out loud you'll be looked upon as a clueless philistine!"

Bagge isn't afraid to be called a philistine. Not only does he denounce government grants to avant-garde "artists," he also attacks government grants for Shakespeare plays. "Now there are all these Shakespeare companies currently plaguing the nation," he wrote. "Heaven forbid a single community should live without the bard's hokey, unintelligible 400-year-old situation comedies."

Ah, you've got to love a man who's willing to shoot a spitball at Shakespeare. Like all good political cartoonists, Bagge can be cruel. But he's also willing to skewer himself when he deserves it. Shortly before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Bagge, who opposed the invasion, covered an antiwar rally and drew a cartoon called "Observations From a Reluctant Anti-Warrior," a savage mockery of the pretensions of the protesters. A year later, haunted by what he termed "a deep sense of shame" about that cartoon, he drew "Confessions of a Lazy Anti-Warrior," eviscerating himself for attacking the protesters.

"I knew at the time that I was being counterproductive," he wrote, "but I couldn't help myself. I couldn't stand those people!"

Ah, you've got to love a man who'll shoot a spitball at himself.


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