While the name of Margaret Sanger is largely unfamiliar on this side of the Atlantic, this daughter of Irish emigrants became one of the leading birth control activists in the United States and founded the Planned Parenthood movement. Her fascinating, event-filled life has recently been brought to life in the graphic biography Woman Rebel, a title taken from one of her pamphlets.
Cartoonist Peter Bagge’s biography presents us with a deeply driven, left-leaning and thoroughly modern woman who was unafraid of challenging authority and courting controversy.
Born in rural New York in 1879 to Anne Purcell and Michael Hennessy Higgins, both of whom hailed from Cork, Sanger moved in very influential circles: John D Rockefeller Jr was a generous financial supporter of her cause and the writer HG Wells was one of her lovers.
Bagge, who is best known for his hilarious portrayals of dysfunctional families and grunge-era foibles in comic series such as The Bradleys and Hate respectively, had long been aware of Sanger but her true significance dawned on him while he was researching a project on certain female American authors.
“I just thought it was interesting how, especially during the years between the world wars and right after, how, at least in the United States, the people who most clearly defined this very American notion of freedom and independence were women,” he says.
“Normally politically men are the risk takers and women are more interested in security and it seems interesting that these women did such a better job and a clearer job of defining what it means to be free.”
Bagge noted that these same autonomous women were all childless.
“And then when I started reading about Sanger I couldn’t help but notice the incredibly contradictory information I was reading about her on the internet,” Bagge continues.
Rendered in Bagge’s trademark rubbery-limbed kinetic style, Sanger’s life story is vividly told in a narrative that is both rich in detail and rigorously concise. We see how her mother’s 18 pregnancies and many miscarriages and her fiery socialist father both shaped this most single-minded yet complex individual.
“At a certain point I had to stop researching her. I just was constantly stumbling on interesting stories, anecdotes, but they weren’t essential to the main narrative. “But it was very difficult to decide what not to include. I spent years on the thing — it had to come out,” he chuckles.
It has also become apparent both how popular and suitable the comic book form has become as a biographical medium. Something Bagge too has come to appreciate.
“Well in comic book form there’s always been biographies going all the way back to the 1950s but I couldn’t help but notice that there suddenly are a lot.
“And I think part of that is the sudden acceptance and explosion of that graphic novel format, this long form format that comics are now more often than not released in; they’re now books.”