Writer: Peter Bagge
Artists: Peter Bagge, Stephen DeStefano, Bill Wray, Stephanie Gladden, Jim Blanchard, Johnny Ryan
Release Date: February 8, 2015
Much like Yeah!, Peter Bagge’s other failed DC series subsequently reissued by Fantagraphics, Sweatshop was a project almost doomed before it began. Focusing on the team behind a successful daily comic strip called Freddy Ferret created by an angry, out-of-touch, aging conservative, the series lasted a mere six issues and was canceled after only two. Sure, many comics fans are cranky old dudes who appreciate a focus on their own world, but many more are not.
Even as a failure, Sweatshop is entertaining stuff, and, as a bonus, it’s fairly self-reflexive. Bagge wrote every issue, but he couldn’t keep up with the drawing, so he first hired Stephen DeStefano and then a series of other artists to execute the visuals, creating his own kind of sweatshop to churn out content. He was probably a better director than Mel Bowling, Sweatshop’s main character, who spends most of his time playing golf, complaining about his competitors and focusing his energies on catch-phrases over gags. But still… the parallel makes you wonder a bit.
The presence of different artists is weirdly noticeable and not at the same time. It’s not like, for example, a Spongebob Squarepants comic, where the varied contributors each display their unique styles. Instead, Ryan, DeStefano and Stephanie Gladden mostly imitate Bagge’s wiggly-limbed, gape-mouthed, slumped-shouldered approach. The itch that results from the mix of artists trying to do the same thing is uncomfortable, and it draws more attention to the panels than a consecutive approach would.
When he does illustrate, Bagge’s spartan backgrounds pair perfectly with his animated foregrounds, the lack of detail allowing his numerous word balloons and expressive squiggles room to breathe. He provides a uniformity and purity to his characters that calls to mind the newspaper strips Sweatshop takes as its subject. You don’t find the same connection between content and form when others try to ape Bagge’s style.
Fundamentally, Sweatshop is a workplace comedy that takes some pokes at the comics world, mocking indie auteurs (Chris Ware, Charles Burns) as much as mainstream, kiddie-friendly fare. The writing is amusing and frenetic, though far from Bagge’s best stuff. (It’s a bit gag-centric, for one thing). And although it spreads its bile around evenly, there’s not much pure venom on display. Sweatshop proves to be a minor work, not a lost classic, but it’s not a bad acquisition while it’s still in print and accessible.