Buddy Does Jersey: written and illustrated by Peter Bagge and others (1994-98; collected 2007): Peter Bagge has consistently been one of America’s greatest cartoonists for nearly thirty years now, from his days on the acidic Neat Stuff in the 1980’s to his new series Retro today.
He’s written and drawn the adventures of New Jersey’s Bradley family for much of that time, first in Neat Stuff and ultimately in the 1990’s in Hate, which focused upon slacker son 20-something Buddy’s adventures in Seattle and then his return to Jersey. It’s one of the ten greatest sustained comics narratives, a bildungsroman about the sarcastic, undermotivated Buddy and all his screwed-up friends and family.
Buddy Does Jersey returns Buddy to his hometown with squirrelly girlfriend Lisa. Stuck living in his parents’ basement, Buddy and Lisa squabble within the greater squabblings of Buddy’s father, mother, alcoholic younger brother, and angry single-parent sister. People say and do small, terrible things to one another, though there are grace notes scattered throughout. The whole thing seems sarcastically realistic, with Bagge’s jagged cartooning portraying the angry inner lives of these characters in various hilarious and startling and sympathetic ways.
By definition, Bagge is a ‘Big Foot’ cartoonist — his characters stretch, spindle, and fold for comic and dramatic effect; by inclination, he’s a kitchen-sink dramatist. The characters may live lives of desperation in a decaying America, but they’re not lives of quiet desperation: everyone sounds off, repeatedly, often while under the influence of various and sundry drugs and alcohol. As funny as much of this can be, it remains fundamentally dramatic: the situations that occur may sometimes stretch credibility, but they never break it.
And throughout, the art shines as both a dramatic and comedic tool: the death of one character is about as horrific as it gets without in the least being realistically graphic; a running visual gag that involves a broken-down Monster Truck Buddy buys to use as personal transportation never stops being visually funny. This is one of the great comic narratives that people are thinking of when they try to recommend comics to people who don’t read superhero comics: brilliant, sad, cynical, dementedly funny and pointed as all hell in its depiction of the dynamics among dissatisfied people of all ages. Highest recommendation.