Bagge on birth control: In Sanger’s life, graphic novelist saw a comic book

Michael Chevy Castranova
Published: October 13 2013 | 7:02 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 9:47 pm in

At first blush, the idea of a graphic novelist — a cartoonist — taking on the serious life story such as that of real-life birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger would seem almost disrespectful.

Not so, said Peter Bagge, author-cartoonist of “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story.”

“I very much wanted to do this,” Bagge said by telephone from his Seattle home.

During the three years he spent researching his subject — two of those years involved the “solid work” of actually plotting and drawing, he noted — Sanger “presented herself as a serious character. Images kept popping into my head.

“She had a lot of adventures, there was lots of running around.”

That is, Sanger experienced, a life and times packed with scuffles with politicians, the press and police, that lent themselves to a comic book.

And his book’s heroine certainly doesn’t come across as mild-mannered.

“Any successful politician tends to have a big ego,” Bagge laughed. “You need someone like that to accomplish things.

“It’s what keeps them charging ahead.”

He admitted to an interest in strong-willed women — he’s considering a biography of anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston — who were “very autonomous.”

“They always seem to be a product of the Progressive Era (from the 1890s to the 1920s), and they rubbed up against the New Deal,” Bagge explained.

“They had a very independent streak. They were very feminine, but that didn’t stop them from doing whatever they wanted to do.”

The seriousness of his subject, though, didn’t prevent the cartoonist from drawing these historical figures — Sanger, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge — as, well, cartoon figures, with hyper-expressive faces and Bagge’s trademark long, rubbery arms.

He cites the 1940s Warner Bros. animated cartoons by Tex Avery and others that were the staple of Saturday morning television during his childhood in Peekskill, N.Y.

“I always wanted to capture that sense of movement,” Bagge said.

Body copy ragged right: When drawing “Woman Rebel,” he wanted to keep that “expressiveness.”

Expressiveness is something he surely saw in the work of R. Crumb, one of the founders of the 1960s underground comics movement and to whom a young Bagge submitted samples of his own cartoons in hopes of publication in Crumb’s “Weirdo.”

Crumb not only eventually printed Bagge’s art but later offered him the job as the book’s managing editor.

“Keep in mind,” Bagge chuckled, “I’d never met him.”

But Crumb, Bagge recalled, was “almost immediately my favorite (cartoonist). He used a comic page as a blank canvas.”

At a young age, Bagge said, “I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

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