Sweatshop #1-6 (2003)
by Peter Bagge

Ah, the good ones never last. Peter Bagge's Sweatshop should never have been a mainstream publsher title anyway, and sure enough, it was canceled after six issues, bringing an end to one of the most subversive comics ever to bear the DC imprint.

Bagge is a master of biting the hand that feeds, consistently turning coat on everyone who follows his work … if you liked Hate!, you were probably also a target of Bagge's curmugeonly satire on 90s slacker culture. Like Robert Crumb, Bagge is a hipster icon whose actual viewpoint on the people who support him is unabashedly antagonistic. He's an old-fashioned, conservative man whose art and wit allow him to subvert everything he observes, including (and perhaps especially) himself.

I was a huge fan of Yeah!, Bagge's previous DC outing, which was a fake Josie & the Pussycats knockoff that was lighter on the cynicism and more in tune with Bagge's joyful love of pop music. After that one failed to sell, I never imagined Bagge might land another DC contract.

With Sweatshop, he goes for broke and uses the opportunity to dissect comic-world hypocrisies and shortcomings, from the ruthless bottom-dollar attitudes and banal vision of the big publishers to the pathetic lives of the writers to the lame trendiness and/or pure nerdiness of the fans.

So it's a hostile brew Bagge cooks up in Sweatshop, mercilessly skewing pretty much anyone to whom the book might appeal. It's a gigantic "fuck you" to comic publishers, writers, and readers; even in indie comics, this would be a pretty tough sell. At times, Bagge makes Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" seem downright pleasant.

The setting presents Mel Bowling, creator of an old-school newspaper comic called "Freddy Ferret," and his ragtag group of assistants who crank out his pitiful but popular work: Alfred (black nerd), Nick (hostile hipster nerd), and Carrie (neurotic nerdgrrl). They all dream of bigger and better things for their comic careers, but see the Freddy Ferret gig as a good way to pay the bills until the "big break" comes along.

Bowling is clueless, opinionated, insecure, competitive, bigoted, malicious, and perpetually irate … and he's the heart of the book. Everyone else reacts to Mel's various irrational directives, all the while stuffing down their own self-loathing and hatred of the job.

Throughout the series, Bagge manages to parody virtually everything in indie and mainstream comics, from self-published comic zines to comic conventions, comic awards banquets, and specific comic artists (Neil Gaiman is set afire at one point in issue #5).

The juiciest shit is presented at the end of most of the issues, where you'll find examples of Alfred, Nick, and Carrie's "real work" … these are absolutely savage parodies of different comic styles, such as Alfred's grudging attempt to draw in the "hip" manga style and "Carrie's Comic Diary," a simply brutal rip on women comic writers.

So, true to form, Bagge wasn't looking to make friends with any of this. One wonders just how much damage he might have been able to do given a full year's run of it. Yet ultimately, his observations are right on, even when he seems to be jumping from one side of the fence to another. Sweatshop is therefore a brilliant comic for any comic fan who has a good sense of humor about it all, especially his or her self.

This series had a lot to say about the way comics are made, and although I can't say it really posits any new way to go about things, it's nice to see someone take down the foibles of an industry that shoots itself in the foot so much. I like that Bagge used this forum to point out that everyone involved with comics ought to demand better than the pulpy crap, cranked out under tight deadlines and never allowed to really soar, that comprises 90% of the inventory in your local comic shop.

It shouldn't be the case that truly great comics are the exceptions to the rule. Sweatshop illustrated this point on many levels, and its demise is tantamount to a mob hit on an informant who knows too much. It's hard to tell who really lost here – Bagge? DC? The fans? – but it's nice to see that an old crank like Peter Bagge can still find the exact wrong thing to do, intentionally and without remorse. One hopes that the comics world learned something, even if just for a fleeting moment, from staring into this cracked mirror.

Review by Kermit Ash