It’s hard for me to describe my excitement about Peter Bagge’s newest offering Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (published by Drawn & Quarterly) without underplaying it somehow. For months I anticipated it, wondering if it would be as good as it promised, as good as I hoped. I had no way of knowing how Bagge would handle or approach telling the story of this pioneer of women’s rights and birth control, or if he would be up to the task, but I dearly hoped he would. Today I was finally able to read it and it does not disappoint. I am absolutely delighted to be able to write about this book and grateful to Peter Bagge for providing a fantastic depiction of a female (and human) role model, and an excellent example of the kind of complexity and excitement which the comic book genre is so very suited to.
From the time of her childhood, Bagge depicts Sanger’s early awareness of the burden of unwanted pregnancy upon her ill mother (who had 10 children and a staggering 18 pregnancies). From her determination to study medicine, to an early awareness of her own powers of persuasion, Sanger is shown to be a very independent young girl in an era when women weren’t yet allowed to vote. Her unusually egalitarian first marriage (for the times) to an architect and aspiring artist, plus their three small children provide a ripe playground for Bagge’s excellent depictions of chaotic family dynamics. With access to Sanger’s asides and private thoughts, it is clear that she intends to do more than just sit at home with her family, and it isn’t long before she is back to nursing, and doing so for all strata of society. In doing so she becomes increasingly aware of the hypocrisy and insanity behind the illegality of providing even the most basic feminine health education, let alone birth control, and gradually becomes the activist behind a movement that eventually changed the world. Her strong feelings about sexual freedom and openness (unheard of at the time) aren’t ignored by Bagge either, he never attempts to depict Sanger as some kind of selfless saint, instead giving us a full portrait of a woman determined to define her own reality and live by her own moral code.
Reading Woman Rebel, it is almost as if every book Bagge has ever written was a training ground for some aspect of this one. His ability to depict a vast array of contradictory characters has been proven repeatedly particularly in his work on Hate and with the Bradley family. This rare ability to intimately depict people who are bitter and mean but somehow also loving and affectionate, or stupid and thoughtless, but also considerate and wise is all Bagge, completely and totally his own creation. In Woman Rebel he uses these techniques to depict four generations of Sanger’s family, as well as a multitude of famous (and infamous) friends and associates. Like Tezuka in his affectionate portrayal of Buddha, Bagge portrays Sanger’s life as a wild roller coaster of adventures, unfolding the many phases of her life with humor and pathos.
Whether you consider yourself a feminist, a proponent of human rights and equality, or simply a human being with a place in our current society, it behooves us to recognize the various roles Sanger has played in creating a viable equality for us today. Without her tireless work around the world, we might not be where we are today, liberated from (certain kinds of) ignorance and disease. While many current politicians seek to erode these hard-won rights, it is a perfect time to recognize and applaud the people who have helped us to this position of relative freedom we enjoy today.
While a comic book creator with the comedic style of Bagge might not seem like the obvious choice to propagate the ideas of Margaret Sanger, it is exactly this which allows such a powerful depiction of this forgotten superhero of equality and health. Like the Fool in King Lear, Bagge’s deceptively harmless caricatures entitle him to engage in a brutal honesty and truth-telling which might otherwise be rejected. The humor and joy with which he tells Sanger’s story belie the intensity of it, though even a quick scan of the book leaves the reader shaken with the many revelations contained. A closer look reveals a nicely compact 18 page addendum at the back, filled with facts and photos from Bagge’s extensive research for the book, elaborating on specific panels and excerpts, giving us that much more detail about the reality of Sanger’s life.
Woman Rebel overflows with joy and humanity, bubbling over with a kind ebullience which emulates and emphasizes the completely insane amount of life contained within the covers. This chunky little book could change your world in some small way, it is a perfect example of the kind of explosive drive that only a comic book is capable of, and which Sanger’s story is more than deserving of. We can thank Mr. Bagge for this unflinching celebration of a woman and a hero.