Pioneering U.S. birth control advocate and Planned Parenthood co-founder Margaret Sanger’s story — her decades spent battling the law, the political establishment and plain ignorance — had enough in it for 10 lifetimes, cartoonist Peter Bagge reckons. Paring it down for a 72-page graphic biography, Women Rebel, meant taking on the modern age’s great gift to misunderstanding, the web.
“Now that we’re in the click-troll era, when you would first Google her name you would see all these pieces are basically accusing her of being a racist and a Nazi,” says Bagge, on the phone from his Seattle home. Woman Rebel is, he notes, aimed at the general reader who otherwise might get misled by the web-traffic-hustling of Sanger’s political detractors.
“Simply by doing a comic book I like to think that that makes it more accessible, more inviting to someone who has just the most casual interest (and) whatever I’d read about her, it always seemed that like old adage about blind men describing an elephant.”
Bagge’s fast-paced, colourful account — which he’ll talk about Saturday afternoon in Toronto, as part of the International Festival of Authors — need not strain to depict the globetrotting Sanger’s flaws: she’s depicted as a neglectful parent and a wife who carves out space in her marriages for a great many affairs with intellectuals. (Her meeting with trailblazing sexologist Havelock Ellis is a comic highlight that Bagge says all but leaped onto the page.)
Beyond that, her apparent contradictions show through, including her relatively fair-minded views on race — certainly by the standards of her times and peers — versus her willingness to make common cause with eugenicists. She even ends up lecturing at a Ku Klux Klan auxiliary meeting.
As with the Prohibitionists in Daniel Okrent’s 2010 book Last Call, Sanger — at her most potent in the 1920s through 1940s — was a single-issue advocate, game to attach herself to a then-fashionable movement if it aided her cause. Eugenics was not then synonymous with bigotry, and people having many more children than they could care for was an issue a century ago — Sanger herself was Irish Catholic and one of 11 children. Woman Rebel carves out space for a macabre incident from her youth about a dead sibling and grave-robbing.
“She also was very well aware of what it was like to be considered part of a quote-unquote lesser race,” Bagge says, ” noting leading eugenicists sized her up as an opportunist. “They also used to say ‘you’re not as interested in improving the overall stock of humanity (but) your main interest is female autonomy.’ And again her critics were 100 per cent correct,” says the affable Baggle, cackling.
His award-winning comics, beginning in the ’80s, drew attention with their loose-limbed, energetic style perfectly suited to capturing exasperation and comical fury and hence, youth. Unsurprisingly then, what got the most attention was his ’90s series Hate, set in Seattle’s alternative scene.
This is a more mannered tale, but he says he tried to work a joke of sorts on every page. However, he heeded his publisher and, in the interests of reaching young people, made a bedroom scene between Sanger and H.G. Wells more chaste.
“In the past I never would’ve done that, I had (American cartoonist) Robert Crumb as mentor and I just kept picturing himself shaking his head in horror at me.”
Peter Bagge talks with cartoonist Seth and CBC’s Brent Bambury on Saturday at 2 p.m. at York Quay Centre, 235 Queens Quay. Admission $15-$18.