Buddy Bites the Bullet Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books)

Hate Annual #1 Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books)

Hate Annual #2 Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books)

At the end of the last collection of Peter Bagge's underground Hate comic books, Buddy Bites the Bullet!, dread-filled hipster Buddy Bradley's on-again, off-again girlfriend Lisa tells him that she's pregnant--by him. Buddy, ever the fount of chivalry, offers to take responsibility for the problem ("What's one more abortion, right?") and receives a less-than-thrilled response. "I've had too many abortions already, Buddy!" she says. "What if I can never get pregnant again? What if--."

It's hard to argue with "what if," especially coming from a distraught girlfriend. To his credit, when it finally dawns on Buddy that Lisa is keeping the kid, he pops the question. Thus, the cover of Buddy Bites the Bullet!: Buddy Bradley in suit and top hat; a visibly knocked-up Lisa in a veil and wedding dress.

The title also carries a double meaning and, perhaps, an ironic dig. Near the beginning, Stinky, a longtime--and insane--Hate character accidentally blows out his own brains while shooting bottles with Buddy's brother, Butch. While extreme, the shooting incident is not unlike a lot of the crap raining down on Buddy on a daily basis. He's got to negotiate neurotic girlfriends, insane siblings and in-laws, a junkie business partner, and his own grunge-inspired self-loathing.

Sifting through the pages, I was reminded of an unpleasant truth about creators. They may harbor good feelings for their characters, but if they want to keep an audience interested, they must act like angry, unreasonable deities--putting them through sheer hell for our entertainment. In a nut, if there's no misery there's no story. Bliss has to wait until the very end: in this case, marriage and children.

The happy ending of Buddy Bites the Bullet! may go a long way toward explaining why the new Buddy stories don't work. The sexual angst is now gone. Buddy's life seems to have finally acquired the purpose that it was searching for, so the stakes have been considerably lowered. In both brief stories (Buddy has to watch the baby and his sister's kids for the day; Buddy debates buying an Aquabus and decides against it) the conflict is dull and the laughs are uneven.

Even picking up on that possible ironic dig, the most that could be said is that married life hasn't turned out to be the wildly fulfilling experience that Buddy expected. Then again, his expectations ("It's not like I had anything better to do") weren't grandiose in the first place. The Hate annuals, those brief yearly checkups, are never going to rise to the level of the regular series until actual pain is inflicted on the characters. Bagge realizes that he's unwilling to run Buddy--who I take to be based on himself--through the wringer anymore. In the 96 pages of the two books, only 18 are devoted to Buddy's newly pedestrian life.

Bagge, who is based in Seattle, has had to resort to other material in order to pick up the page slack. Each annual features a story on his new but unpromising character, Lovey. They also contain dispatches from the late, great Suck Online, on everything from the Alan Keyes candidacy to the Miss America competition. My favorite is the one on the Experience Music Project monstrosity, which Bagge judged to be "ugly in a way that was AWE-INSPIRING. Ugly like the Divine was 'ugly,' like Rat Fink is 'ugly.' In other words, I thought it was BEAUTIFUL, in its own, garish, can't-take-your-eyes-off-of-it-way."

Both annuals feature long, original essays on the music that Bagge grew up listening to. The end of his essay on the Hollies is worth quoting at length here to make a point, if subtly: "A half-hearted reunion attempt in the early '80s produced uninspired results anyway, so there may have been no point for them even if they had remained together. All good things must come to an end and theirs is a classic example." JEREMY LOTT