Peter Bagge’s Virtual Reality

The legendary Hate creator talks technology: how it’s changed his artwork and his career trajectory, and how it gave a sci-fi twist to his brand new tale of a washed-up comedian trying to fix his life via virtual reality, Reset.


Legendary alt-cartoonist Peter Bagge debuted his new mini-series, Reset, this week from Dark Horse Comics. It explores his own hilarious take on the virtual reality genre. Here down-and-out actor/comedian Guy Krause signs up for a virtual reality experiment, reliving the significant events in his life for the promise of quick cash. However, in Bagge’s unique twist on this familiar V.R. story, Krause is so paranoid of reliving his past that he continuously hits the reset button before the experiment can even begin. It’s the equivalent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Total Recall mixed in a Prozac smoothie with a side of fearful cynicism. Perhaps it’s best described in Guy Krause’s own words: “It’s like psychotherapy in 3D…” The first issue’s deadpan insight on the perils of celebrity, grimy reality television, and the pervasive amalgamation of social interaction and technology is a welcome addition to Dark Horse’s 2012 lineup of comics that redefine genres. PLAYBACK:stl caught up with Bagge to discuss the inspiration of Reset and his thoughts on the comic industry’s transition into the digital world.
PLAYBACK:stl: The main “hook” in your new series Reset is that the lead character, Guy Krause, can relive the essential moments of his life through a virtual reality machine. What attracted you to the plot convention of reliving one’s past?
Peter Bagge: It’s just something that I’ve thought about off and on, probably more often as I get older. I presume this is true of almost everybody where you think about either your whole life or segments of your life and imagine what you would do differently if you could live your life over again. Basically, I wish I knew then what I know now.
So that was the original thought. I just have a hard time with that. I have a very hard time with leaving the world of plausibility. I can’t do straight fantasy or science fiction. So then I modified that [idea] into thinking: What if there was a way to do that in some virtual sense? Some kind of game you could play with yourself where you go back to a certain point in your life? So then I thought about how that could possibly work with contemporary technology. Who could it be used on? I thought some kind of celebrity would be prefect. It would be easy to gather information on him or her. Then I thought, why would they do that? So [then] I thought, a washed-up actor. [Laughs] A washed up celebrity who needs the money would be a prime candidate. It just proceeded from there. [Laughs] Then I thought, who would come up with something like this and why? What would other people want out of it besides the person it’s being tested on?
In Reset you don’t romanticize the concept of reliving your life. In the first issue, Guy seems to look at the whole experiment from a very cynical perspective. Do you think the humor in the series is derived from his cynicism?
Yes. It also came from the fact [that] the people testing him all have cross-purposes, as will become readily apparent. Without giving too much away, they don’t know what they’re doing. [Laughs] Guy is at their mercy. There is a lot of yin and yang… and throughout, there are a lot of compromises going on where Guy is like, “I’ll go along with this if you let me do that.” At a certain point, you do fall completely into this fantasy world that he creates, but it doesn’t last long.
You’ve stated in the past that your most famous character, Buddy Bradley from Hate, is a semi-autobiographical reflection of your own life. Have any of your other characters been inspired by events in your own life?
All my main characters I relate to, to some degree. You kind of have to. I don’t know how a writer can’t relate to a principle character and still make them believable. So yeah, there’s a little bit of me in every single one of the characters, at least the main characters anyway.
In the early issues of Hate, you made a name for yourself with your distinctive use of cross-hatching. However, in Reset, and in many of you other recent releases, the inks have been much cleaner. Is cross-hatching an inking method you’ve abandoned altogether, or is it a style that you still reserve for certain stories?
I tried it with the backup stories that were in Apocalypse Nerd [Bagge’s 2005 miniseries, released by Dark Horse]. I did these Founding Father Funnies. Those were crossed-hatched. I was cross-hatching those old Hates with a Rapidograph, and I can’t find that same Rapidograph, [with] the same point. So I cross-hatched the Founding Father Funnies with a slightly thicker one. It was too thick, but the next thinnest size, which was the one I assumed I used on Hate, just clogged constantly. It was unworkable. I guess I could have kept searching until I found that perfect technical pen, but I just couldn’t find it. So I just plowed ahead with this slightly thicker one. I wasn’t as happy with the results.
I have mixed feeling about using [cross-hatching]. Ever since I’ve abandoned it people tell me they miss it, but while I was doing it, I remember especially a lot of my peers used to make fun of me. They thought my cross-hatching was a bit excessive. I was frequently told that it didn’t contribute to moving the story along… that it just looked masturbatory or something. I was doing it just to create some sense of depth; especially working in black-and-white, it would give the characters more depth. Once I became addicted to Photoshop, if I was doing something in black-and-white, I would just add grey tones to it to give it a sense of depth. I felt like there was no longer a need for me to do cross-hatching, but of course anything you abandon somebody is going to say, “Why don’t you do it anymore?”
In both Reset and your previous graphic novel Other Lives, your protagonists have been very paranoid about modern technologies and culture, such as social media, expansive video games and reality TV. Do you share these suspicions?
No, not really. I’m not a techie. I’m hardly the first person on to all of these things, but I’m not at all paranoid of them. I couldn’t believe [it] in the late ‘90s when I bought my first computer and started to go online. So many of my cartoonist friends were totally against it and swore that they’d never get a computer. They were very leery of it, paranoid, suspicious. I always found that charming, but I also thought that was silly. I also thought that was a defense. They don’t want to say they’re intimidated by the learning curve they suspect would be involved. They don’t want to turn on something and be the most inept at it.
I read an article recently, I don’t remember his name, but he talked about how he was one of the biggest critics of the internet. He says now he’s totally embarrassed about how he was even published. He said, “I’ve got to be honest. I was intimidated by it. I was an old dog who didn’t want to learn a new trick.” But after a while he realized by not being connected, by not having a cell phone, by not having email, by not being on Facebook, he was inconveniencing everybody else.
As a longtime cartoonist, how do you think the comic industry will adapt to the digital age?
That’s a really good question. It has clearly cut into my income. I can’t speak for all cartoonists, but there’s so much on [the Internet] that’s for free. I keep finding with all those file-sharers, I keep finding my own comics on there. There where several people who paid me to digitize (my comics). I keep getting royalty checks from companies who turn my comics into .PDF files, but it was mostly college students who would pay money and download it and I would get some money for that. I’d get royalties. I thought this was booming. Every single royalty check I got from this company was increasing three fold. The last one was like one tenth what the previous one was. That made me suspicious so I did a search on myself and I saw these very same PDF files that certain students or certain people were buying of mine, they were just then uploading it on Rapidshare and Megaupload. All the sudden everyone knew they could get all my stuff for free. Fortunately, when I wrote these companies and told them I had a copyright they did put a stop on it, but again this is something that I’m going to have to keep on top of forever. I’m going to have to babysit the Internet forever to keep them from sharing my stuff for free.
At the same time, I could think maybe I should just let it go. Maybe I should just let everybody share this stuff for free and get it all out there, but then it’s like, at what point do I make money? It’s that age-old problem of exposure. It’s something I’ve heard about my whole life. Don’t sweat people seeing stuff for free, or bands don’t sweat people making bootlegs because it’s exposure. It will increase interest and it will all come back to you, but in this digital age… coming back of course means making money, and with the direction things are going I don’t see how it’s going to circle back and put money into my pocket. Maybe I lack an imagination, but it’s just more free stuff for people to download, and I don’t have any idea how to capitalize on it. I’ve been sitting around hoping for the best, but it feels very out of my control. It feels like my work isn’t my work anymore. It’s the universe’s. Like claiming what I’ve drawn is mine is like claiming the air is yours.
Have you found any advantages with modern technologies?
Yes, as a consumer, not as someone who is trying to make a living as an artist. As a consumer I love it because I can do everything for free now. It saves me a fortune. Music, movies, magazines, newspapers, I’m consuming all of it for free or for next to nothing via Netflix where you pay this nominal monthly fee. And for this nine-dollar fee you have a choice of ten thousand movies. [Laughs] On the consumer end, it’s fantastic. It’s just when you’re a creative type like myself trying to make money, you’re fucked.
I just saw on Yahoo, they had this big feature about this guy who is now a huge bestseller. He’s a bestselling science fiction writer. Now he’s doing great. His books are selling great. He’s rich and he’s youngish. I suppose he’s in his 30s. He said he originally intentionally put up all his stories online for free. It created this buzz. It was almost written as [if] I’m supposed to use this guy as an example. “Look, he put all of his stuff up for free, and now he’s on the bestsellers list.”
It’s really different for someone like me where I already was somebody. I already did establish myself. When he was putting his stuff up for free, I can only assume he was at the point where he didn’t have a family to support and a mortgage. He didn’t grow accustomed to a certain level of income. I assume he was at the age I was. At one point I was self-publishing stuff just to get it out there, and I was losing money on it, but I was a young guy. I didn’t have a mortgage. I didn’t have a family to support. Of course you do that when you’re of that age. I assume when he was of that age and just starting out, he had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by throwing his shit out there for absolutely free for the world to see. And he was talented and he got the exposure that he was looking for. For someone like me, I can’t suddenly now intentionally offer everything for free. I just can’t do that. Everything this guy did… I did the same thing. I just did it in a different medium. Now you’re telling me I have to start all over again like I’m a struggling young artist, but I’m 54. Is that what I really have to do? Do I have to offer everything I work on totally for free just hoping that it will lead to, what? A renaissance of interest in me? Reinvent myself? You’re really talking about something that is impossible for somebody in my situation. I might as well just get out of the comic book business if that’s what it takes.
This is an upside that I keep reading about, but I’ve never seen it benefit someone my age. Not only does it benefit the younger person, it’s the absolute obvious route to take if in your twenties. Of course you do that. I did that. I used to print stuff at a loss just to get the exposure. If I were twenty now, I’d be putting it up on a blog for free and hoping for the best.   
In writing Reset, do you think there is a common time period that most people would like to “reset” in their lives?
It seems like high school is the obvious place. Certainly on a physical sense that’s when you’re beginning your life as an adult and you’re setting the groundwork for your adulthood. How can you not make the mistakes of an adolescent? You’re stuck with a teenager’s brain. Of course, there’s so many thing I wish I’d done differently at that age. Been more focused. Goofed off less. Countless things I would have done differently to better prepare for adulthood. I’ve noticed in fiction that’s a very common point. In books, movies, TV shows, this going back, particularly to your teenage years, seems to be a classic thing. It seems to be a time when people are most consumed with regret. [Laughs]
So high school seemed like an obvious starting point for that character.
Do have any updates on a new issue of Hate Annual or any other Hate collections to be released in the near future?
I would love to. I can just never find the time to work on it. The Hate Annuals don’t sell anything like the regular Hates did. I get paid by royalties, so literally everything else pays more than working on a Hate Annual. I’m absolutely determined to do more. As soon as I can find the time, I’ll definitely do another one. I started a story arc that I want to finish. So yes, but I don’t know when. [Laughs]
 Are there any surprises you’d like to hint at about future issues of Reset?
Well, I really don’t want to give too much away. I guess the biggest surprise, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that it does have a happy ending. [Laughs] Something to keep in mind…. | Jon Scorfina

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