Culture | Comics and controversy

New graphic novel reevaluates Margaret Sanger’s life

“I have super powers!” thinks a young Margaret Sanger a short way into Peter Bagge’s new graphic novel, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. This sequence, in which Sanger is cautioned at school for misusing her powers of persuasion, is a thoroughly convincing demonstration of the fitness of these two seemingly unlikely bedfellows that are the author and his protagonist.

Sanger is a divisive figure: on the one hand, she’s the pioneering birth rights activist who set up the first birth control clinic in the United States and spearheaded what was to become Planned Parenthood; on the other, a raging racist and proponent of eugenics. With this in mind, she might seem an unlikely subject for the man behind darkly humorous 1990s cult comic series Hate. However, the jarring quality of seeing Sanger rendered in Bagge’s exaggerated, comic style of illustration is one of the work’s greatest strengths. Her energy and devotion to her cause seem at once to be aligned with the superhuman, while remaining within a comic context that deflates and humanizes her claims to grandeur.

“The jarring quality of seeing Sanger rendered in Bagge’s exaggerated, comic style of illustration is one of the work’s greatest strengths.”

Bagge’s distance from the conventional biography also helps to mark one of his primary motivations: shifting the focus in evaluating Sanger from some of her controversial views to a holistic appreciation of her complex life and work. His whistlestop narrative, ranging across all of Sanger’s long life, allows Bagge to provide key biographical and historical context for her views and activism: for instance, an early segment effectively dramatizes the illegality of mere discussion of contraception between doctor and patient. Bagge glazes over Sanger’s oft-cited, disturbing comments concerning eugenics and race, arguing that she needs to be understood in the context of her time, when such views, though hardly mainstream, were far more commonplace amongst intellectuals. There’s no doubt that context is key when understanding the views of a historical figure, but downplaying their significance in order to create an image more palatable for modern day evaluation  results in an incomplete picture.

Within the novel itself, Bagge doesn’t flinch from the less laudable aspects of Sanger’s life, such as the time she addressed the Ku Klux Klan about birth control. But in the extensive and informative prose notes section that follows the graphic novel, Bagge seems determined to vindicate Sanger as a historical figure. This section provides ample demonstration of the depth of Bagge’s research and his clear, though not unqualified, affection for his subject. Still, he’s got a clear agenda: “If one types the name Margaret Sanger into an internet search engine, most of the results that appear loudly proclaim her guilty of the worst thought crimes imaginable in our life and times.” Here, he provides an unsourced list of hyperbolized epiphets including “genocidal maniac,” “fascist,” and “the inventor of abortion.” “None of this is even remotely true,” Bagge writes, “and it is largely the result of a deliberate effort by opponents of abortion to slander the founder of Planned Parenthood…” Bagge has something of a point (Sanger’s racism, for example, did not stop her from opening a clinic in Harlem), but his admiration for her is in need of a bit more qualification. His view of the woman herself is nuanced: through an array of subtle asides and an affecting look at the toll her activism took on her personal life, it becomes clear that Sanger’s achievements were driven by her stubbornness and egotism as well as by her passionate conviction. This makes his willingness to excuse her views in the name of historical context a bit curious.

This complexity seems related to the surprising success of this medium for biographical depiction. In Bagge’s world of agape mouths and elasticated faces, Sanger becomes what in biography she must be: a partly fictionalized figure. His comic style is so removed from realism that it seems to tacitly acknowledge the impossibility of a definitive, ‘factual’ biography.

Woman Rebel might allow us to step to the side of traditional biography, openly acknowledging that every account of a historical figure’s life is a manufactured fiction on the part of the writer, though no less valuable for it. Sanger emerges from Woman Rebel as a character in a ‘story’ of her life, one neither to be wholly praised nor buried, but rather a figure with whom we can identify and about whom we can debate.

Woman Rebel might allow us to step to the side of traditional biography, openly acknowledging that every account of a historical figure’s life is a manufactured fiction on the part of the writer, though no less valuable for it.”

Bagge’s medium proves particularly apt for his purpose due to the enormous range it allows. Indeed, the energy with which the work ranges across time and location can make it difficult to follow, even if that is occasionally a part of what makes Woman Rebel informative and entertaining in equal measure. Credit for the latter must go largely to Sanger, whose life provides Bagge with material ranging from free love to stints in prison to a brilliant anecdote in which she pisses in front of Havelock Ellis. For all its interest and complexity, Woman Rebel is foremost a hell of a lot of fun; which makes it even more worrying how Bagge glazes over Sanger’s less laudable accomplishments and views. Woman Rebel’s accessibility and the idiosyncrasy of its genre allows for a modern exploration of a divisive figure deeply rooted in history.