Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Elastic History: Woman Rebel

Tom Spurgeon and others have written extensively about how Peter Bagge was one of the first rank, most influential alt-cartoonists in the world in the 1990s. Bagge was not only a preeminent humorist, he was also a fine editor, first at Weirdo and then again in the latter issues of Hate, when he started printing work by the likes of Rick Altergott and Johnny Ryan. Indeed, Bagge mentioned that he almost thought about keeping Hate going as an anthology periodical, but he saw the handwriting on the wall at the time: the market would no longer support a comics periodical in numbers large enough to sustain a viable professional career. Bagge was also a tastemaker, as a mention from him in Hate was enough to help launch a dozen careers. Even as he was drawing Buddy Bradley's misadventures, I always sensed a restlessness from him and a probing intellect. This played out in ending Hate to pursue any number of other projects and interests, from writing a couple of kids' series for DC (Yeah!, Sweatshop) to writing & drawing a couple of series for Dark Horse (Reset, Apocalypse Nerd) to creating an original graphic novel for DC/Vertigo (Other Lives). Of course, Bagge was also active on any number of websites, with his political strips for Reason winding up in the fine collection Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me.

These projects have had varying degrees of financial and aesthetic success, but the pieces that resonated most for me as a reader were his biographies. The backup strip for Apocalypse Nerd, "Founding Fathers Funnies", were spot-on historically and absolutely hilarious; indeed, I preferred them to the funny main story. In the new edition of Everybody Is Stupid..., the standout piece is "I.M.P", a short biography of literary critic and iconoclastic libertarian Isabel Mary Patterson. Writing about these historical figures, especially women who struggled against sexism and stupidity in general, seemed to really bring out not just Bagge's best satirical bite, it also gave his art far more energy than it did in his recent fictional stories. Bagge seemed genuinely excited to tell Patterson's story, and he did an expert job in picking out just the right anecdotes to keep a reader completely unaware of her achievements interested.

Working with Drawn & Quarterly for the first time, he pitched some ideas about other female historical figures he wanted to write about, and the creator of the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger, was the most favored idea. Bagge was fortunate to have a wealth of biographical information about this crucial, misunderstood and (today) forgotten figure available to him, as well as the good judgment to choose a subject who lived such a crazy life. There's an argument to be made that Sanger bettered the lives of women worldwide like no other figure in the 20th century, and her life is a crazy-quilt of meetings with famous historical, political and cultural figures. Like Patterson, Sanger was an iconoclast who was stubborn to a fault, an intellectual hurricane who did not suffer fools gladly, and a passionate woman with a disdain for antiquated morals. All of that resulted in some great storytelling fodder, as Bagge details her affairs with men like H.G. Wells and sexologist Havelock Ellis. The latter is recounted in a hilarious scene where he reveals his utter disinterest in actual sex, other than in watching women urinate. The eagerness with which she volunteers to do so felt like something Lisa Leavenworth might have done in the pages of Hate.

Indeed, having a protagonist as dynamic and short-tempered as Sanger allowed Bagge to use his trademark rubbery, expressionistic style to its fullest. There are plop takes, eyes bulging out of heads, distorted limbs and other typical Bagge visual cues, but none of them feel forced or extraneous. Indeed, the craziness of Sanger's life makes one feel that Bagge is the only cartoonist able to bend reality to his will in such a way as to depict it properly! Bagge is sympathetic, perhaps to a fault, regarding some of Sanger's more controversial positions, though he points out in the afterword that some of that controversy is misinformation placed on the behalf of her arch-enemies, which included the Catholic church. Sanger didn't actually approve of abortion, but the mere act of supporting birth control and giving equal access to information for women of every socioeconomic stripe was an astoundingly radical idea. That led to her giving a lecture to the Ku Klux Klan's "ladies auxillary" a dubious choice then and now, but one she defended at the time because she thought every group of women deserved to have this information. There's also her murky connection with the eugenics movement, but evidence seems scarce that she favored birth control in order to discourage the poor from breeding. Regardless, Bagge tries to touch on these issues but more-or-less lets Sanger off the hook. It's hard to blame him, because her influence and the organization that she helped create (which later became Planned Parenthood) has been astounding. And like all good heroes, her own hubris, pride and arrogance cost her dearly in her lifetime, even as she lived life to the fullest. Bagge captures all of that, and it's amazing to see him excel in his second and third act as a cartoonist.


  1. Thanks for the kind words, Robert. I just want to clarify a few things...

    "That led to her giving a lecture to the Ku Klux Klan's "ladies auxillary" a dubious choice then and now, but one she defended at the time because she thought every group of women deserved to have this information."

    Does this mean you DON'T think certain women should have had access to that information? And if Sanger refused to share said info with Klansmen's wives, wouldn't that have made her a hypocrite?

    "There's also her murky connection with the eugenics movement, but evidence seems scarce that she favored birth control in order to discourage the poor from breeding."

    I don't understand what you're saying here. Poor women didn't need to be "discouraged" from having more babies. They were desperate to have fewer, and she was all about helping them achieve that goal.

  2. Hey Peter,

    Thanks for commenting.

    Regarding attending the Klan meeting, I don't think ANY women should be excluded from having this information. Unfortunately, meeting with a hate group under said hate group's banner implies, on a certain level, a tacit approval of their point of view. I have no idea what Sanger's attitudes toward race or ethnicity were (she surely had to be aware that the Klan hated Catholics), but it's certainly a tricky situation. I suppose from her point of view, there was really no other immediate manner with which to disseminate such information, but it's certainly telling that she didn't do it again.

    Regarding the second point, you're right that my point is a little garbled. I was trying to say that a good eugenics program should discourage the poor from breeding and instead encourage the rich to breed. From what I understand, some aspects of eugenics involved involuntary sterilization to achieve just such a goal in order to lower the numbers of different races.

    What I'm saying is that while Sanger did encourage birth control, it seemed to have NOTHING to do with this notion of simply eliminating a part of the population. It had everything to do with improving the lives of women.