Review by Ian Keogh
In 2013 a biography of Margaret Sanger seemed a strange choice for Peter Bagge’s first graphic novel not to feature his own characters, yet time has positioned it as an astute side step into a new career as Bagge has continued to explore the lives of influential women. In other ways Woman Rebel is a smooth acceleration of Bagge’s already passionate cartooning, the exaggeration and shorthand applying equally well to the birth control advocate as it had done to the dysfunctional Bradley family.
For all her importance and influence, Margaret Sanger isn’t a household name, so any attention brought to her immense contributions to society is positive. She originated the term ‘birth control’ and her primary focus was insisting it’s a woman’s inalienable right, having seen her mother die at 49 after eighteen pregnancies, seven miscarriages and a lifetime of illness resulting from them. Working as a nurse in poor areas of New York in the years before World War I reinforced her opinions. Birth control and abortion remains divisive in 21st century USA, so consider how controversial it must have been a century ago. Bagge brings this through with verve and charm, accentuating Sanger’s inventive solutions to problems such as censorship and unsanitary jail toilets. She was no one issue campaigner, and maintained a passion for other social causes throughout her life.
Woman Rebel may seem a relatively short graphic novel at 72 pages, but Tom Spurgeon’s introduction notes there’s a density to the experience, Bagge’s visual richness and ability to compress necessary information admirable. That Bagge believes information about Sanger’s inspirational life should be spread as wide as possible is apparent in his approach. There’s much about Sanger and people she associated with that could be sensationalised, but while adult topics are aired, he deliberately tones down language and illustration to a PG-13 rating. At times there is a tendency to pack in opinion wholesale in the form of discussions, interviews and speeches, but these are minor interruptions to an incredibly paced, information packed read. Comedy moments are well placed, and Bagge doesn’t shy from Sanger’s negative traits, her callous disregard for some who valued her, and a confrontational nature, the reason she was so successful, but also marginalising her at times when society still had much catching up to do. He also shows she could be selfish and could prioritise her ego when advised another course might achieve greater results.
Sanger developed an array of influential contacts, but when it became obvious that vested interests would be unable to prevent Sanger from professing her views and using her notoriety to spread them, circumstances led to the extraordinary scene pictured on the cover. It’s easy to miss the explanation tucked away in the indicia pages.
To end with Bagge supplies a detailed index of historical details referenced, along with an essay on his views about Sanger. The entire package is well researched, thought provoking and immensely readable. One day all graphic novel biographies will meet these standards.