“Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books—because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself.” —Langston Hughes on Zora Neale Hurston
“I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” —Zora Neale Hurston, in reaction to photographs taken of her by Carl Van Vechten
Peter Bagge’s Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story is a graphic biography, a life story in comic form. Following on his biography of Margaret Sanger, Woman Rebel, Bagge has chosen to illustrate the life of another iconoclastic woman of the early twentieth century. Best known to many readers as the author of the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was an novelist, a scholar, a folklorist, an activist, and above all a woman who refused to compromise her independence.
Hurston was raised in an all-Black town in Florida around the turn of the twentieth century. Determined to get an education, she left home to attend high school and later college, lying about her age to get scholarships. Eventually she landed at Columbia University in New York City, where for a time in the mid-1920s she was the first—and only—Black woman student at Barnard College. She was mentored by influential anthropologist Franz Boas, who was interested in her potential for field work in neighboring Harlem. Hurston also attracted the attention of Fannie Hurst (author of the 1933 novel Imitation of Life), who hired Hurston as her personal assistant. In a series of panels, Bagge imagines a conversation between the two women, in which Hurston, who admittedly had few secretarial skills, accuses her employer: “Sounds like you just want me around to be your pet Negro.” This ambivalence toward liberal white writers who took an interest in her work (as many did) continued throughout Hurston’s career. In a later scene where Bagge dramatizes a series of radio interviews with Hurston, she asserts, “White liberalism is another form of racism… They presume I need their help to get ahead… And that I ‘owe’ them in return! … All I ask of whites is to get out of my way!”
During her time New York, Hurston joined a group that literary historians now call the Harlem Renaissance. But she had many disagreements with her fellow artists and writers, such as Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen, as well as with their mentors, Alain Locke and W. E. B. Dubois. Hurston and several others decided to publish their own magazine, “Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists,” as a platform. The publication, which inspired Bagge’s title, only lasted for one issue, but it had lasting influence in showcasing the diverse artistic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. After New York, Hurston’s life took many twists and turns, from faculty positions at historically African American colleges in the South, to field research in the Caribbean, to her final years in poor health and obscurity in her native Florida. The story covers the sweep of her life, never toning down her idiosyncrasies and refusal to conform to others’ ideas of what a Black woman writer should write about, do, or be.
Bagge’s engaging visual style is nearly unchanged from his early days drawing alternative comics in the 1980s and 1990s, and its quirkiness—human figures are drawn with overbites and rubbery, boneless limbs—is perfectly suited to his subject. In an introduction, he discusses his admiration for Hurston’s wardrobe and admits that he toned down her dress for the simpler lines of the comic. Hurston preferred wearing all-white outfits, but Bagge made the choice of representing her in yellow as a “color signifier” for visual continuity. Over twenty-five pages at the end of the graphic biography are dedicated to Bagge’s notes on his story, where he fleshes out the comic with photographs and historical details. Readers (teens and up) will enjoy, learn from, and admire Hurston’s passion and determination even without the notes. Understanding Hurston’s life, as scholars would argue, is essential to understanding African American history and literature. Bagge’s book, an important contribution to the emerging genre of non-fiction comics, brings Hurston to life for new readers.