Peter Bagge, the Seattle-based alternative comics legend who rose to prominence with his ’90s series Hate, is turning his deranged but incisive sense of humor away from Gen-X slackers, toward an unexpected subject: reproductive-rights pioneer Margaret Sanger.
In his new graphic biography Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly), Bagge describes the extraordinary life of the woman who founded America’s first birth control clinic in 1916 and jump started a movement that led to the creation of Planned Parenthood and the Pill.
But why would Bagge—a man best known for his fictional comics—want to tell the real-life story of a women’s rights leader? He says that his political leanings as a libertarian led him to take an interest in rabble-rousers in general, though not Sanger in particular. But in researching several authors whose political worldviews overlapped with his own—many of whom happened to be female—he made a startling discovery: “I noticed that, one way or another, none of these women had children.” Birth control, he concluded, “certainly helped them live more free and easy lifestyles!” This, in turn, piqued his interest in the birth control movement, which led him to Sanger.
But what intrigued Bagge most about Sanger was the current online vitriol against her. Sanger’s opponents insist that she was a eugenicist—someone who advocates controlling who can and can’t have children in order to achieve racial purity. “Whenever I typed her name into a search engine, I would get a lot of really extreme, derogatory comments and articles and observations about her [indicating] that she was a supporter of the Nazis, that she was a racist—the worst thought crimes imaginable in the postwar era,” he says, adding, “What was being said about her was the opposite of the truth.”
At that point, Bagge realized that Sanger was his ideal subject for a biographical comic: independent, powerful, politically engaged, and controversial. “Once Drawn & Quarterly and I settled on doing a book about her, I really had to dive in. It was a year of nothing but research and writing,” he notes.
Bagge learned about Sanger’s formative experiences as a nurse attending to mothers whose pregnancies endangered their lives, as well as about her legal battle to distribute her sex education materials by mail—materials deemed “obscene.” He also discovered that she had many affairs, including one with H.G. Wells. “She had done so much over the course of her life that it almost doesn’t seem possible,” he says, noting her long battle with tuberculosis.
But Bagge, a contributor to the libertarian magazine Reason for over 10 years, didn’t necessarily set out to tackle political themes with his comics. In fact, when he first became interested in art as a teenager, his parents and teachers didn’t want him to pursue comics at all.
Bagge loved reading the funnies section of the local newspaper when he was a kid, but he says that back when he graduated from high school in 1975, “comics in general still had a very sordid reputation.” Later in college, he recalls that his professors told him that comics aren’t art.
Then in 1977, while Bagge was attending the School of Visual Arts in New York, he discovered underground comics. “It was particularly the work of Robert Crumb that appealed to me,” Bagge says. “He would pretty much use the format of a comic book like canvas. I immediately thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ ”
Bagge landed his first cartooning job in 1980 and copublished Comical Funnies with Punk magazine’s John Holmstrom and others from 1980–1981. His iconic Bradley family characters made their first appearance there: “I just doodled a one-page comic strip that said ‘Meet the Bradleys.’ I was pretending I was introducing this warm, wonderful sitcom family, but when I introduced each member of the family, I was pretty much describing someone from my own family.”
Then came another boost: Bagge’s work was published in Crumb’s Weirdo, a groundbreaking comic. In contrast to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw (the other prominent underground comic of the era), Weirdo had a more anarchic and feral aesthetic that resonated with Bagge.
Thanks to Weirdo, Bagge was off to a great start, corresponding with and being published by his idol, and, soon after, editing Weirdo at Crumb’s request. Says Bagge, “I was very surprised that he asked me. He told me later that, of all the artists he was communicating with, I seemed the most normal!” From 1983–1986, Bagge worked as Weirdo’s managing editor.
Bagge left Weirdo to work on his own comics. In 1985, he launched the series Neat Stuff, which evolved into another series, Hate. Here, he focused on the character of Buddy Bradley, the family’s apathetic teenage son. He says, “Because Buddy Bradley was largely based on me, I always had excellent ideas for him. He’s like a more surly, exaggerated, short-tempered version of myself.”
But it wasn’t just the Buddy character that drew fans to Hate. With the comic’s alt girls, slackers, and junkies set against the backdrop of Seattle, Hate chronicled ’90s grunge culture precisely at the moment when it became the zeitgeist. Young readers found the voice of their generation, and critics praised the author’s astute portrait of the counterculture. Cartoonist Johnny Ryan was a fan of Hate. Ryan says, “[Bagge’s] comics were like a demented, disgusting sitcom/soap opera. And incredibly well written.” Hate didn’t just elevate Bagge’s profile, it meant that he could finally make a living doing comics. He says, “All through the ’80s, financially, it was a real struggle for me. But [Hate] did well enough that I made a typical, middle-class living. That was pretty much all that I had ever hoped for.”
However, other underground cartoonists rose to mainstream prominence with feature films—R. Crumb in Crumb (1994), Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (2003), and Daniel Clowes with his adaptations Ghost World (2001) and Art School Confidential (2006).
Bagge had no such luck. He says that after the ’90s, he could have kept working on Hate, but instead tried his hand at other media; various TV and movie production companies optioned Hate and other works. But the deals always fell through. “I once got 50,000 bucks from Will Smith’s production company. But then they pulled the rug out from under me before I wrote a single word,” he says. “All through the aughts, for me it was a parade of failed projects.”
The landscape for alternative comics has shifted from serialized comics and a tight-knit alt comics community to webcomics and graphic novels with broader appeal. But Bagge continues to apply his unique punk aesthetic and razor-sharp wit to subject matter that’s just as engaging today as grunge culture was during the ’90s. With Woman Rebel, he turns his eye to a subject who, like the artist himself, is sometimes obscured and underappreciated.
Grace Bello is a freelancer who writes about comics for PW.