In Woman Rebel: 'The Margaret Sanger Story,’ cartoonist offers take on birth-control pioneer

Michael Chevy Castranova
Published: October 13 2013 | 7:00 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 9:47 pm in

Cartoonists have decided that maybe it’s OK to get serious.

In 1991, Art Spiegelman, then best known as one of the founders of the late-1960s underground comics movement, came out with “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” which told the true and deeply wrenching story of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust and detention in Auschwitz.

In it, Jews were depicted as mice and Nazis as cats, in true Saturday-morning cartoon fashion. It was a massive success, commercially and artistically, and Spielgman received a Pulitzer Prize, among other awards.

In 2009, R. Crumb — the most famous of those scandalous underground cartoonists — released his “faithful” telling of “The Book of Genesis.”

Jacques Tardi, the celebrated French comics artist, has been working on the story of his father’s World War II prisoner-of-war years, to be called, “I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War at Stalag II-B, My Return and What Followed.” (Expect explicit imagery from a cartoonist whose earlier World War I novels hide nothing.)

Now comes Peter Bagge with “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story,” the adventurous life of the early birth-control campaigner (1879-1966). Her work evolved into what we know today as Planned Parenthood.

Bagge contributed to Crumb’s “Weirdo” comic books in the 1980s, eventually becoming editor of that anthology, and later produced his own influential series, titled “Hate,” about a twenty-something slacker and his family.

In those stories, his characters reveal every thought with hyper-exaggerated facial expressions and expressive, bendy, gorilla-length arms. And so do Mrs. Sanger and the other real-life people who populate “Woman Rebel.”

That is, they look cartoony: Eyes bulge in rage or fear, mouths twist and gape in frustration, and thick, squiggly lines radiate from their skulls when they’re angry.

And those goofy arms contort, loop and stretch to accentuate their owners’ every emotion.

But it all works. In his “Why Sanger?” epilogue, Bagge notes that he took on the tale of this often-misunderstood historical figure because Sanger “lived the lives of 10 people.”

“… All I could think of was ‘comic book!’ whenever I read of her exploits,” he writes.

In telling Sanger’s story, the cartoonist leaves out none of her warts. His protagonist, while genuinely concerned about the health and choices of women, also is shown as vain, thrill-seeking and willing to manipulate and/or sleep with anyone who can help her and her cause. And did I mention vain?

This event-packed and frequently heartbreaking book gallops through the years — many final, right-hand-page panels conclude with a surprise reveal or a plot twist, soap opera-like.

But, then, this is a comic book, hard-bound though it is. And Bagge’s intentional quick pacing gives us a feel for Sanger’s own breathtaking life and accomplishments.

As the cartoon Sanger herself says at the end of the book, with a trace of sly humor, “H.G. Wells once told me I was the greatest woman in the world.”

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