Peter Bagge’s best-known series is the award-winning Hate, which should give you some idea of his approach to comics. R. Crumb seems to have been one of the biggest influences on his work, and he has been active in indie comics for three decades.
Other Lives is the story of four losers: Vader Ryderback, a free-lance journalist; his girlfriend, Ivy Chin; Otis Boyd (born Javier Ortiz), a self-proclaimed anti-terrorism expert and agent, who, contrary to stereotype, lives in his mother’s garage, not her basement; and Vader’s friend and former college buddy, Woodrow, an insurance adjuster who keeps forgetting to tell people that he’s recently divorced. They all spend a lot of time on the Internet, and in the case of Woodrow, most of that time is spent in a virtual world called, appropriately enough, “Second World,” where he is joined in due order by Ivy. The interweaving of their “real” lives and their virtual lives — and fantasies — provides the story.
This is obviously intended to be satirical, with the emphasis on the “obviously.” It occurs to me that satire, at any other than the most juvenile level, relies for its power on some degree of subtlety, a quality missing from Other Lives. I found myself wondering, as I was reading through this book, what Bagge’s target audience was. Checking his biography, I learned that Hate was hailed by critics for its “brilliant characterization” in its portrayal of the 1990s. Looking at the characters in Other Lives, they are complete characters, although I don’t see how anyone could term the characterizations “brilliant” — they’re all flat-out, right up front, and just in case we, the readers, aren’t getting it, they tell us what they’re all about. And you can tell they’re all losers by the fact that, although aware of their shortcomings, neuroses, and hang-ups, they neither accept them nor do anything about them. The characterizations sort of fall under the heading “Pop Psych ‘R’ Us.” There’s not a sympathetic character in the bunch, although it’s very easy to pity them — they’re unappealing enough that empathy is a distinct effort.
The art bears equal responsibility here: Bagge is one of those artists who relies on the grotesque as a baseline. The characters’ physical appearances are just as unappealing as their personalities — every flaw and physical quirk becomes a major element. I don’t insist that every character look like a superhero, but they could be something a little closer to normal — that might even make the satire work. The page layouts, and the visual narrative flow, are the standard frame-follows-frame variety, broken from time to time by a half-page frame. It’s fairly mechanical, and doesn’t really count as “narrative” — we’re in the realm of the illustrated story: the weight is in the words.
As for the concept, writers have been doing engaging and challenging work with the interface between outside and inside realities for centuries. As for the impact of the virtual world on our outlooks and attitudes, one need only read William Gibson’s novels — or for that matter, those of any number of contemporary science-fiction writers — to get a good taste of what can be done with that idea. To say that in Bagge’s hands the idea is muddy at best is a gross understatement.
So, if you’re really into blatant, beat-us-over-the-head satire designed to make you feel superior, by all means, pick up a copy of Other Voices.
(Vertigo Comics, 2010)