She was a fiction writer, social observer, commentator and stubborn individualist — so in retrospect, it’s no wonder that Peter Bagge, who ticks off most of those boxes himself, felt drawn to Zora Neale Hurston, long before he actually drew her. And that’s before we even get into politics.
The much-honoured cartoonist was last in Toronto in 2014 touting Woman Rebel, his graphic biography of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and is back this weekend with Fire!!, capturing the life of an African-American author who blazed any number of trails, starting in the 1920s, then sank into something close to obscurity.
“A lot of her impulses I definitely related to,” says the affable 59-year-old writer/illustrator, chatting over the phone from his Tacoma, Wash., home before his return to our city this weekend for Comic-Con at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
“In particular there’s this two-page scene where I drew her and her three closest compatriots — Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman and Bruce Nugent — reacting negatively to the dominant culture and the dominant rules about what an artist should be writing about” — in their case, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In a way, he says, he can relate, recalling his own youthful efforts to get his lively, cartoonish, broadly comic drawings published somewhere.
“I and some friends of mine in New York back in the early ’80s went through this same exact thing. And it compelled us to self-publish,” as Hurston and her fellow artists did. Bagge recalls visiting the Village Voice with his portfolio and the art director “literally ran away. That’s how I was rejected.”
Hurston was doomed to have a contentious relationship with the self-consciously civilized leaders of the Renaissance. Bagge’s book does not stint on her slow climb from her small-town Florida roots, and it’s in capturing the African-American argot of that place and time that she found fame.
But some of Hurston’s contemporaries couldn’t abide that very accomplishment; one gets a hint why from any chunk of her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God — for example, the mocking words of the protagonist, Janie: “You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.”
“Nobody wrote like her, then or now. She was a sponge for strange vernacular,” says Bagge, who’ll be selling copies of Fire!! Friday through Sunday at the comics convention. Hurston’s peers — as vividly captured by Bagge — think she’s pandering to racist whites, Bagge notes, “by using this southern dialect. They couldn’t believe that an all-black town like Eatonville (Fla.) existed. They wanted (their prose) to, if not mimic white people, then at least shave all that backwoods stuff.”
But the backwoods stuff distinguished her, propelling her to Haiti and Jamaica to capture the experiences of people of colour there. She probably wasn’t going to fall in line with her literary frenemies back in Harlem, anyhow; while most of them were embracing Communism, Bagge says Hurston, who died in1960, was a libertarian before the word was common: in Fire!! she even decries the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision — striking down separate public school systems for black students — as coercive integration.
Bagge, a libertarian himself who regularly contributes to Reason magazine, said her politics “led to her being buried” in the literary world after her passing in 1960. By the time The Color Purpleauthor Alice Walker —who makes a cameo in Fire!! — came on the scene, for example, she didn’t know of Hurston’s accomplishments, “didn’t think someone like that existed back then.”
The cartoonist, whose work on the ’90s comic Hate first brought him to broader attention, is now moving on to his third comic-strip biography of freedom-craving women, with the next subject being Rose Wilder Lane, influential daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. More commonalities are bound to emerge and Bagge agrees that both of the women he’s most recently paid homage to — Sanger and Hurston — each paid a price domestically for their broader ambitions.
“(Both) associated a close personal relationship with claustrophobia. They sacrificed a full personal life for the sake of their careers. But for them, that wasn’t a big sacrifice.”