Author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” though that’s not a sufficient portrait of her according to acclaimed cartoonist Peter Bagge.
Bagge, the author of “Hate” and “The Bradleys,” will publish a biography of Hurston through comics publisher Drawn &Quarterly. Delving into family history, education, literary peers and her long history with folklorism and anthropology in the American south and Haiti, “Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story” takes a full and complex look at Hurston’s life and views.
Ahead of the graphic novel’s release, CBR spoke with Bagge about his interest in Hurston, the deep dive of research, and how likenesses can be achieved in cartoony art styles.
CBR: Peter, what got you interested in telling Zora Neale Hurston’s story?
Peter Bagge: Besides being a longtime admirer, Hurston was one of several female authors I’d become particularly interested in due to the autonomous lives they lived in an era that predated the Women’s Rights movement of the 1960s. This independent spirit was reflected in their work.
With her autobiographical writing and essays, how much were you able to rely on her actual words to capture specific moments in her life?
Almost all information about her comes from her, even when it’s filtered through her various biographers. Comments about her from her peers tended to be brief and spotty. It seems no one else was able to get a very complete picture of her due to her (mostly) solitary and nomadic lifestyle.
Obviously there are limits to what you can do with the pages allotted to this book, but were there specific aspects of her life that you had to cut from “Fire!!” for space or because they didn’t fit the tone or format of this book?
There were many anecdotes that would have been fun to illustrate, but that didn’t do much to move the story along so they had to go. I also wound up avoiding delving too deeply into her sex life (at least in the illustrated part of the book), which like many private lives was often messy and dysfunctional. I felt it would have been bit sordid for me to do so, as well as a disservice to her legacy.
The notes section is incredibly detailed. How long did you spend researching Hurston? Did you have to go far afield from primary sources, her own writings or people who knew her?
I spent 3 years working on the book, and found myself re-checking my “facts” right up to the end, since there’s so much contradictory information about her out there. And I read pretty much everything I could about her, though many short biographies of her (particularly on the internet) were frightfully inaccurate and agenda-driven. Identity politics compel many people to take possession of Hurston’s career and legacy, yet wind up cherry-picking what aspects of her writing they chose to celebrate, while ignoring an awful lot.
Hurston’s story crosses many other recognizable literary and folklore figures, such as Langston Hughes and Alan Lomax. It seems a slippery slope, but when you’re researching, do you spend much time investigating these people and how Hurston impacted them or they impacted her?
Yes, and it did lead to me falling into many research rabbit holes! The one contemporary of hers I found most fascinating was the writer Wallace Thurman, though fortunately for me he lived a very short life, so there isn’t that much about him to read!
“Fire!!” is your second biographical book, following 2013’s “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story.” Was this a specific choice to start working on biographies? Will you be working on more?
It was, and I intend to do at least one more full length one, on the writer Rose Wilder Lane. After that: we shall see. These bios are exhausting!
You have a very distinct drawing style. How much concern do you give to capturing likenesses?
I don’t bother trying to capture a Drew Friedman-esque photo likeness of my subjects, obviously. Instead, I try to go for a simplified facsimile that hopefully captures the person’s essence. With Hurston, just emphasizing her pronounced cheekbones seemed to be enough to signify her throughout the book.
In your notes, you mention briefly giving Hurston a yellow coloring scheme. Was there a reason for that?
When Hurston travelled throughout the South (which was often), she dressed in white from head to toe, including her stockings and shoes. Yet when I colored her this way in the comic, she looked “unfinished,” like I had forgotten to color her. To rectify this, I gave her Southern outfits a pale yellow tint. An ahistorical gesture on my part, but at least it made the art look complete.
What’s next for you?
See above! Plus more features for “Reason” magazine.