In this era of pervasive Netflix and Hulu, even the most short-lived TV series never completely go away. Short-run shows seem to live on forever and become long-lived cult hits – the kinds of programs that make top 10 lists of shows that deserved longer runs (with Firefly at the top of the list, of course).
Peter Bagge’s Sweatshop is a lost charmer, a short-lived Vertigo book from the early aughts that’s a lot like those sorts of TV shows. Bagge and his collaborators create a workplace sitcom on paper in the story of the wildly tyrannical, angry and racist Mel Bowling and his hilarious group of protégés on the terrible-seeming comic strip Freddy Ferret. The characters stumble into all manner of wonderfully funny situations, events that reveal them to be strange, silly and intriguing.st
Mel’s assistants include a group of personalities that any fan would recognize: Carrie, the autobio cartoonist whose precious minicomic attracts a surprising male suitor and a surprising TV suitor; Elliott, a tall, dreadlock-wearing black man from a wealthy family who creates a tiresome and shallow political strip; black geek Alfred, a virginal guy who wants to draw super-hero stories and somehow has a beautiful Amazon woman fall in love with him; asshole Nick, whose arrogance causes him to lose out on everything.
These assistants, which also include Mel’s long-suffering sister Miller, are vivid in a traditional Peter Bagge manner – whether illustrated by Bagge or one of his collaborators, their elastic arms and wildly distorted bodies continually show a hurricane of emotions shown in every twitch and selfish impulse that seem to pulse through every moment of their vain, selfish lives. In their over-the-top approaches and vanity, these men and women jump off the page and embed themselves in the reader’s head.
The characters have some wonderful adventures that flow from their charming complexity: Millie, desperately looking for love but forced to answer Mel’s endless phone calls about pointless, mindless problems he has at home (“where’d I put the adapter for my laptop?”); Alfred and Nick’s blind date that starts terribly but which amazingly leads to love; Mel’s rivalry with a counterpart in which the pair engage in delirious one-upmanship; a fateful trip to Comic-con, where everyone’s dreams come true for a brief, precious moment and just as quickly disastrously fall apart.
As Sweatshop develops it becomes more and more like a classic TV sitcom, with unpredictable plots that flow from the quirky personalities of the people on the page. The more we get to know them, the more we start to like them as they show unexpected depth. As the last story ends, it wraps with a bit of bittersweet happiness as I’ve found myself becoming attached to these wacky people.
Sweatshop is only partially drawn by Bagge; cartoonists like Stephen DeStefano, Stephanie Gladden, Jim Blanchard, Bill Wray and – yes – Johnny Ryan illustrate stories in styles that ape Bagge’s loose-limbed and loopy approach. It’s a weird touch, to have a series about comic ‘ghosts’ produced by more comic ‘ghosts’, a quirky sort of inside joke that simply grows out of the fact that Bagge didn’t have time or energy to draw a new story every month.
None of the ghosts produce in a style as vivid as Bagge, of course, and some of the issues are a bit awkward, but Bagge’s approach works nicely, even when filtered through other cartoonists. And when bits and pieces of Johnny Ryan’s style peek through his work over Bagge, it presents a delightfully interesting vision.
Sweatshop is like a lost sitcom that you might find on Netflix and marathon to catch every episode. It had the potential to be a classic but ends up being yet another series that never quite took off.