I don’t know if it counts as collective wisdom or not, but one of the general theories floating around comics culture these days is that while the great graphic novel revolution of the past decade kicked down the proverbial doors of snobbery, helped the medium reach a wider readership, and enabled cartoonists to tell longer and more complex stories, there were talented artists that were ill-served by the rush to publish lengthy stories about people’s difficult relationships with their parents.
Take Peter Bagge for instance. He’s always been an artist that has seemed to favor short, episodic stories over the sort of longer, sustained narratives that have been in vogue. And while he hasn’t stayed out of the public eye since ending Hate in 1998, he hasn’t created a work that’s resonated on the same level that Hate did either (though certainly the grunge zeitgeist played into that). Indeed, the manner in which he’s jumped around from project to project with a variety of publishers (Vertigo, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics) suggests, at least at first glance, an artist ill at ease with the current market and struggling to find a place within it.
But a closer examination of Bagge’s work during the past several years belies that. Instead, what you see is an artist finding new obsessions and learning to tailor his talents to accommodate them. Bagge’s interest in history and politics has driven some of his best work in recent years. The journalistic-style op-ed “essays” he’s done for Reason magazine (recently collected in the book Everyone is Stupid Except for Me) show him easily able to affix his rubbery art and conversational writing to more serious and topical issues. The same is true for strips like the one-page scientist biographies (collected in Peter Bagge’s Other Stuff, also from Fantagraphics) or his short 2010 biography of libertarian author and critic Isabel Mary Paterson (found in the new, hardcover edition of Stupid).
That last comic can be seen as a blueprint of sorts for Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, Bagge’s first second “original” (i.e. unserialized) graphic novel, a biography of the woman long regarded as the founder of the birth control movement. As with the Paterson story, Woman Rebel shows that Bagge is more than capable of producing the sort of nuanced, insightful, informative, and entertaining story this sort of material requires.
It helps that he picked a great subject matter. As Tom Spurgeon notes in his introduction, in many ways Sanger is not too far removed from many of the characters Bagge has created in comics like Hate. At least within the confines of this book, Sanger is an irascible, iconoclastic, headstrong woman, blessed with an oversized personality, flawed in recognizable, human ways, and more than willing to square off against oppressive, wrongheaded governmental forces that think they “know what’s best.” One can easily imagine Buddy Bradley having a crush on her.
Bagge doles out Sanger’s life in short, episodic fashion, with each page or two chronicling a significant episode in her life. It might be a bit too cursory for a reader used to 1,000-page biographies, but the book’s hectic pace effectively mirrors Sanger’s own frantic work ethic (at one point her son compares traveling with her to “chasing a hurricane”). More to the point, Bagge’s book is clearly designed not only to refute some of the nastier claims made about her by pro-life forces (namely that she was a bigot who supported eugenics and the KKK) but to also serve as a re-introduction to Sanger’s life and times (I for one had only the barest knowledge of her significance before reading this book).
The interesting thing is that this is no stolid, straight-faced biography, but a comic that is more visually in keeping with Segar’s Popeye. Bagge doesn’t give up an ounce of his cartoonish iconography here. There are pratfalls, flop-sweats, budding hearts to signal new love and even daggers exchanged between the eyes of rivals. Yet the comic doesn’t feel the slightest bit shallow. Bagge’s cartoonish style doesn’t debase or demean the subject matter, it helps enliven it.
To someone who hadn’t been paying attention, it might seem extremely odd that someone like Bagge, whose work has so frequently relied upon on caricature, outlandish humor and slapstick would even attempt a work of this nature, much less succeed. But it’s those very qualities in Bagge’s work – his cartoonish art style, his ear for snappy dialogue and his gift for delineating colorful characters – that make Woman Rebel not just enjoyable and inspiring but a heckuva lot of fun.