Peter Bagge is a multi-award winning cartoonist perhaps best known for his series Neat Stuff and Hate. Immediately identifiable by their streaks of dark humor, impassioned and opinionated characters, and intentionally exaggerated aesthetic, Bagge's work has been shedding light on different facets of American life for decades. Though the bulk of the artist's bibliography has been fictional to date, he has recently released his second full-length graphic novel biography. Under the Radar had the great luck of chatting with Bagge about his latest, Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story (published by Drawn & Quarterly). Hurston, a contemporary of such other talented writers and thinkers as Langston Hughes, was a figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance, a larger than life persona whose role in history has been woefully underappreciated. Bagge, who pays fantastic tribute to her in his stellar new graphic novel (you can read our review of it here), opens up about Hurston and writing graphic biographies.
Zach Hollwedel (Under the Radar): In the book's introduction, you explain that—though you weren't 100 percent sure how you initially came across it—your first exposure to Hurston was through a reading of [her 1937 novel] Their Eyes Were Watching God. From there, you exposed yourself to more of her writings. What about that novel initially drew you to her as somebody whose life you wanted to know more about?
Peter Bagge: I simply enjoyed the book. I was fascinated—besides being thoroughly entertained, I was fascinated—by the unique dialect it was written in, and her way with words, her incredible way with words, and her use of humor. Even in tragic scenes, you were never more than a page away from a laugh, so to speak. And I don't think that was deliberate, either. I don't think she was thinking like a Hollywood scriptwriter, where she was obliged to inject a joke every certain amount of beats. She was just a naturally funny person. Also, her background was relatively unique. As it's mentioned in the footnotes of the book, there was a time in the mid-'30s where, at least according to one of her biographers—you can research, but it's very hard to confirm this—she was at one point the only black female who was writing as a form of self-expression. It's an amazing and tragic thought if you think about it.
I saw that note, and what makes it so interesting is that, if that is true, how did she wind up being one of the lesser known of her contemporaries? Somebody like Langston Hughes is very much a household name, but you don't have to go too far out on a limb to say that Zora Neale Hurston might not be.
That's a good question, and there are two parts to that. One is the way that she herself removed herself from mainstream academia and the literary world at the time. After she went through that tragedy with her arrest, she was thoroughly traumatized, as you can imagine. Not just by that ordeal, but also by the complete lack of support of any kind from her former black peers. I mean, still Carl Van Vechten and Fannie Hurst stood by her through all of that. But they were white people, so she was like, "Where are all my black friends? What the hell happened?" From that experience, she moved back to Florida and led a relatively solitary life. Not solitary in that she shut herself off from the world. She had a lot of friends and was very busy in Florida, but it wasn't part of the mainstream intellectual world of New York. And she pretty much also stopped corresponding with people from that world. She did that for the second reason, which was, she felt this huge wall being built between her and her peers, which largely revolved around politics. That was because there was very much a powerful group-think, particularly amongst her black peers, where everybody adhered to very hard left politics. If they weren't Communist, they still were extremely left wing. She wasn't. It's easy to imagine—just in the way political discourse is carried on today—it's easy to see how, when one of them may have [back in the '40s] been talking to her directly face to face, that that would have given her an opportunity to express the nuances of her political beliefs. Her libertarianism, basically, which isn't conservatism in a strict, true sense. That other person could have grasped and said, "Oh, I see what you mean." But when they're all together as a group, and she's out of the picture, and all of her peers are all together as a group, they would start othering her. It's one of those things where, if you're not on board with all of our agenda, you're the enemy. Do you know what I mean? So, I think, because there's no other explanation for it, once she disappeared and once she died, the politics contributed to this air of indifference. It couldn't have been strictly personal. She was very good friends with all of these people, and one of her former best friends—Bruce Nugent, who outlived everybody from the Harlem Renaissance Era—he described her as the living embodiment of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Like she was the personification of it. So, it's strange that she could be that, but also someone who they didn't talk about and certainly made zero effort to keep her memory alive.
She literally winds up in an unmarked grave. Yet, reading the book is not a somber experience. You're able to impart a fair amount of levity, or at least end it on an uplifting note. How much of this was a conscious decision on your part, or was that just how you saw her life and her place in history?
I tried to portray everything as close...I tried to stick to the facts as much as possible. I tried to do as little speculating as possible. Like right now, you asked me a speculative question. You asked me "why do I think she wound up forgotten for all of those years," so I'm giving you a speculative answer. [Laughs] And I touched on that a little...and that was her speculation as well. That was her guess. Nobody would tell her personally. Something that I didn't discuss in the book is that, privately, a number of her former peers—especially the ones that were her age, and particularly Langston Hughes—privately agreed with much of what she was saying. That he could see that, with the advent of this push for integration, how it was eating away at what used to be the core of black neighborhoods. How it used to be that on main street, the drug store, you name it, was black-owned, but then you had chain stores moving in. You can blame that on chain stores, and economics of scale, so to speak. By then the chain stores were hiring black employees, black managers, in these black neighborhoods. So, a black pharmacist, rather than running his own pharmacy, and the risks associated with all that, would simply manage a Walgreens, so to speak. That also contributed, literally, to a lack of investment in black neighborhoods, and that ate away at the fabric of and more or less helped to destroy black neighborhoods. He lived in Harlem, Langston Hughes did, and he made it almost a political point of not moving out of Harlem. Meanwhile, all around him, he saw the whole neighborhood crumble and how crime took over. He himself was afraid—with good reason—to leave the house at night.
You talk about in the book, and especially the footnotes (which are extremely detailed and terrific), that she at a certain point made the shift to discuss race directly in a way that a lot of writers didn't, and that her points of view weren't always in line with those of her more lingering contemporaries.
There was a built-in irony, too, to the creative differences she had with most of her peers, and it became worse as time went by. The division was particularly clear with the advent of Richard Wright, the author of Native Son and Black Boy, who had nothing but condescending things to say about Hurston. He could not get past her use of dialect. He was not the first; she always had critics. But to him, it made her work a total embarrassment, and he could not see her use of that dialect as serving any purpose, other than to pander to white racist assumptions. Her response was, "So we're supposed to always talk and act white?" Do you understand what I'm saying?
And her point wouldn't sink in. As well as that point that, first of all, white racists wouldn't touch a book written by a black person. They're talking about...they're always complaining about her pandering to an audience that literally did not exist. You know what I mean? [Laughs] And she was writing for herself; that's who she was writing for.
So going back a little bit then, to your involvement. At what point did you think this was a subject and subject matter that you really wanted to work about, and how did you approach such an intriguing and rich life to consolidate into a graphic biography? And how long did it take you to realize it from start to finish?
She was one of a number of people I thought was worthy of a graphic novel biography for a long time. Once I approached Drawn and Quarterly about doing full-length biographies, she was at the top of my list. She almost would have been the first one that I tackled. Not right after I read Eyes, like decades ago, but more recently, like in the last 10 or so years, I began to read more and more about her. And the more I read, the more interested I was, and the more I realized that, her life...there was so much to it that you can see in the book, that it felt like it would make for not just an interesting, but a visually rich comic book. It just lent itself to it. Reading about these incidents in her life, I just kept picturing them. And as a cartoonist, I kept picturing them as comic pages. Pretty much, that two-pager that's more or less in the middle of the book, where it's her and three of her compatriots, where they conceived of putting out their own magazine—It's her and Hughes and Thurman and Nugent talking about starting Fire!!—that was actually the beginning of the book in my mind. First of all, I related to it. I can remember, not for the same exact reasons, but for the same kind of politically and artistically driven rebellious reasons, me and a group of friends of mine did the same thing. We pooled our resources together and put out a comic book. Just to publish work that we couldn't otherwise get published. So I very much related to their impulse to do it. But that scene, I knew that it was going o be in the book. It's pretty much right in the middle of the book, and it all started from there.
This is your second graphic biography. Is there anything that you learned from [Woman Rebel] The Margaret Sanger Story, either creatively as they pertained to retelling someone's life, or about the importance or fluidity of historical accuracy—that you were able to incorporate into making Fire!!?
Woman Rebel definitely served as a template for this book. It was a bit of a struggle to figure out exactly how to tell these stories, how to narrate it for one thing. It's always a struggle, a bit of an ethical struggle, staying as true as you possibly can to what, as far as you can tell is the truth, while at the same time maintaining a narrative flow and keeping it entertaining and engaging to the reader without getting too bogged down in accuracy. But, I was pretty satisfied with the way Woman Rebel turned out, and so I just built on that. Like I said, I used that as a template and I think this one makes for a smoother read than the other one, if only slightly.
And you're working on another, or have at least another person whose life you'd like to explore, is that true?
Yes, and that'd be Rose Wilder Lane, who is best known as the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although, it has since come to light that, Laura Ingalls' daughter, the woman I want to write about, Rose Wilder Lane, she actually co-wrote all of her mother's books.
Yes. When they were alive, they very much wanted to keep that a secret. But, it's mainly Wilder scholars, while studying the copious letters between them, realized that, "Wait a minute, these letters I'm reading, they'll all about co-writing all of The Little House books." But there's so much to Lane's life apart from that, completely apart from the Little House books. She did so much; there are so many aspects to her life. It was as multifaceted and as colorful as Sanger's life and as Zora Neale Hurston's life. Once again, reading about her, I'm like, "This is the stuff of comic books," at least in my mind.
Fascinating. Going a bit broader then, with Zora—what was your biggest takeaway about American history from her time, which you garnered from your research and working on this project?
My two takeaways are somewhat tied together. One is how, even though the debates, the overall general debates have shifted somewhat, it's depressing how little has changed. The fights over racial politics, and especially intra-African American debates and fights, how little things have changed in the negative. And the other is—and I don't mean this about everybody, but for myself—in studying the life of Sanger and Hurston, is how brave they were. And how they did all of these things at a time when, officially, women weren't supposed to be allowed to do anything. Yet, at the same time, they always did whatever they wanted to do. And they barely even paused to talk about it. Like with Hurston; Hurston, mainly because she was asked about it a lot, Hurston wrote a lot of essays dealing with her blackness. But she rarely talked directly about being a woman. So, she obviously never—and she lived that life—she never felt as if there was anything she couldn't do because she was a woman.
You talk about not being speculative, but when reading the book, it's hard not to think about it within the context of modern political times and discourse and the role of women and African Americans in the current political environment.
Right. It's basically that Hurston would do things, not asking for permission. So, by the time she had accomplished something (wrote a book, wrote a collection of folklore), it was already out in the world. It was already too late for there to be a debate about, "Can she do this, can she be allowed to do it?" Because the deed was already done. People were past that point. "I just did it, so let's just talk about the work itself." And that is what happened; that is why she's a trailblazer. She un-self-consciously blazed all these trails. She literally had no predecessor. She just went ahead and did it. So, my takeaway from that is, not just for everybody, but for me, let's think about how much free will we have and take advantage of it. And let's stop policing other people, because when you police other people, you're also policing yourself. When you're telling other people you can or you should or you shouldn't say or do this, that, or the other thing, you also are, inadvertently, making rules for yourself about you can or cannot do.