If you’ve always thought Peter Bagge could use a touch more Chester Brown in his make-up, Woman Rebel is the book for you. It tells the story of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger in a style at once accessible yet seriously devoted to the facts. The depiction is both unvarnished in presentation and juicy in content, with copious and entertaining footnotes full of first-person asides in the back of the book.
Bagge is best known for semi-autobiographical indie comics full of bile and existential dread, rendered in an immediately recognizable, wiggly style. He retains this visual DNA here: mouths gape or frown dramatically; eyes either widen in delight or squint in anger; lines of expression, whether conveying enthusiasm, anger, frustration, or surprise, surround his characters. No one emotes subtly or stands up straight. Spaghetti limbs bend every which way. It’s a rich illustrative vocabulary that makes use of the classical comic forms of exaggeration. The overblown aesthetic also fits perfectly with the story of a woman who pissed off everyone she knew on a regular basis.
Sanger wasn’t a shrinking personality. She fumed, committed acts of civil disobedience, practiced free love, and manipulated the media to get more attention for her cause: the legalization and promotion of birth control. Like many biographical comics, Woman Rebel packs a lot in a relatively limited space, which can lead to some crowded pages. Two-page spreads often feel like small but complete story arcs, which can make the book’s narrative flow seem choppy. But Bagge’s passion for the story comes through as well as, one theorizes, his identification with Sanger’s cranky, uncompromising nature. He presents the bad — her late-life addiction to painkillers, her difficulties with her children, her fricative relationships with other women of power — as well as the good with an even hand. It all makes for a great read, full of politics, sex, controversy, yelling, feminism, and, of course, history.