Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its forty-seventh choice, The Bradleys by Peter Bagge, reviewed by Tripwire senior editor Andrew Colman…
Writer/ Artist: Peter Bagge
Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff was the ghastly blue-collar progeny of Kurtzman-era Mad and Robert Crumb at his most misanthropic. The flagship characters in Bagge’s mag of ragbag miscreants, caricatures and outright weirdos, the Bradleys were the archetypally dysfunctional family from hell, with prodigal son Buddy Bradley the definitive Generation X slacker who possessed little to no moral fibre or self-knowledge. The stories may be old, but they haven’t dated, and the level of unbridled psychosis and emotional immaturity within the family still packs a hilarious punch. Not to mention that such tales may have the insanity cranked up as high as it can go, but they have a genuine and harsh ring of truth to them.
Originally appearing in the late 1980s and early 90s, Bagge’s family were composed of the aforementioned Buddy, his sister Babs, brother Butch and his parents, Brad and Betty. Buddy had a couple of equally feckless friends in Tom and “Stinky” Brown, who he would hang out with despite having little respect for either. Occasionally Buddy would intersect with older, more mature but still desperately flaky characters. For the rest of the strip, Buddy and his family would eternally be at each other’s throats, morphing into fanged gargoyles whenever they exploded with rage. Throughout this period Buddy’s character remained resolutely the same – a disaffected, somewhat hostile and habitually inert teenager whose only positive trait was his emotional honesty.
In many interviews writer / artist Bagge stated that a great deal of the strip was based on personal experience from his formative years in New Jersey ten year earlier. Essentially one could say that this is a cathartic project from him about those times, as no-one in the cast is spared – sister Babs is a stereotypical nightmare teen, while younger brother Butch (who Buddy relentlessly bullies and humiliates) is a little fascist in waiting, obsessed with idealized, nationalistic visions of America. His put-upon mother, also given to explosive outbursts, is slavishly in thrall to religion while dad Brad is a jowly, aging crank who has plainly accepted defeat. All are trapped with each other and would like the situation to end – a classic sitcom trope. Bagge’s effort here is a savage, warts-and-all satire of the American nuclear family that may be a particularly skewed cartoon but is firmly rooted in venal, jaded, even Kafka-esque reality. And as such it is still wonderfully funny regardless of its age.
Despite the odd moment of casual racism, lack of direction and general contempt for everything, Buddy chimed with readers, becoming (much to Bagge’s chagrin) an emblem of the nascent grunge culture emerging in Seattle. His escapades were seen as examples of carefree, itinerant individualism rather than lazy, existential inertia (depending on how old you were). When Neat Stuff ended, Bagge carried on with new title Hate, which starred the then twenty-something Buddy as he relocated to slacker-central, Seattle – where he actually started to have relationships. The book proved to be immensely popular throughout the 1990s, bringing underground comics (along of course with Dan Clowes, Joe Matt, Seth and Chester Brown) not just back into vogue but into cultural pre-eminence.
Rereading these stories for the first time in many years, there’s an inevitable tug of nostalgia for a faded era, but that doesn’t detract from Bagge’s uncompromising vision of suburban unfulfillment – no doubt there are still a lot of young Buddys out there. Grotesque and human in equal measure, this collection is a compulsive treat from start to finish.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far