Cartoonists don’t often get a chance at second acts. We expect them to keep drawing the same immortal characters until they grow old and die, like Charles Schulz; or retire, like Gary Larson; or perfect their art and ascend to the literary heavens, like Lynda Barry.
Tacoma cartoonist Peter Bagge, then, is the great exception. His semi-autobiographical Buddy Bradley comics—partially canonized last year in the deluxe two-volume reprint collection The Complete Neat Stuff—is largely considered a cornerstone of 1990s alternative comics. The series, which mercilessly mocked apathetic slacker culture, came to represent the culture it skewered: Nothing typified the young Northwest aesthetic of desperately trying to signal that you’re not trying at all like having a few issues of Bagge’s Fantagraphics series Hate fastidiously splayed across your thrift-store coffee table.
Bagge spent decades wrestling with his own alt-comics image. His libertarian-leaning comics journalism for Reason represented a more acidic side of the white-guy-slacker profile, and his underappreciated corporate-comics satire Sweatshop—which in a grand meta-joke he somehow convinced Time Warner’s DC Comics to publish—felt like a crowning moment in alt-comics history, with the pissy, sarcastic punk momentarily seizing control of the means of production.
But four years ago, at age 56, Bagge accomplished the unthinkable for a cartoonist: He did something new. His comics biography of feminist birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, Woman Rebel, was a fastidiously researched portrait of an unfairly maligned figure in American history. So far as I’m concerned, Woman Rebel is the best thing Bagge has ever done: It’s indisputably drawn in his style, and the word balloons and narration still demonstrate the rhythm and cadence of his voice, but the cartoonist almost entirely stepped aside to make room for Sanger’s story. (Not bad for an artist whose previous greatest dramatic achievement was the junkyard death scene of a character named Stinky.)
Now Bagge is unveiling the second in what I can only hope is a continuing series of biographies of great American women. Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story obviously shares storytelling DNA with Woman Rebel. As he did Sanger’s, Bagge tells Hurston’s story from childhood to grave, and both comics are sandwiched between prose pages detailing his research notes and historical context. But Fire!! doesn’t have to clear its subject’s name—Sanger had been the victim of decades of anti-abortion smears, which Bagge addressed directly in Woman Rebel—and so more of the story can focus on its subject’s freewheeling spirit.