Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger is often held up in political debates as a simple symbol: She must be either revered as a fearless crusader for reproductive rights or dismissed as a racist, extremist abortion-monger. Sanger has become such and politically loaded figure in American history that it’s easy to forget she was actually a flesh-and-blood person.
Artist Peter Bagge’s new comics biography of Sanger, Woman Rebel (out from Drawn and Quarterly this fall), presents the iconoclast as we’ve never seen her: a kooky comic hero, full of bad ideas, wild adventures, big ambitions, and a fiery spirit. Bagge crams Sanger’s whole life into 72 jam-packed pages, followed by an appendix that explains page-by-page what in the story is historical fact and what is artistic interpretation.
As writer Tom Spurgeon explains in the book’s introduction, “Bagge portrays Sanger as a comedic protagonist, an upright pile of conflicting wants and needs that is more or less aimed at various issues rather than someone who nobly processes her way through them.”
Here’s a few typical panels of Sanger talking with sexologist Havelock Ellis:
And Sanger pressuring her sister into talking about her experience on hunger strike at a fundraiser:
Bagge is well known to alternative comics fans for his comic series Hate and his somewhat autobiographical comics starring anti-hero Buddy Bradley. Switching from fictional comics about ne’er-do-well slackers to a historical comic about Margaret Sanger is a surprising choice. But his interest is sincere—he explains in an endnote to Woman Rebel that he became interested in researching Sanger’s life after reading so much conflicting information about her. “She led such a busy, colorful existence that my hardest task was deciding what parts of her life not to include—and so much of it was literally action-packed that all I could think of was ‘comic book!’ whenever I read of her exploits,” writes Bagge.
Though Bagge’s approach to the life of Sanger is refreshing, the story gets so busy detailing Sanger’s many projects, love affairs, and political fights that it winds up being not much of a story. Instead, the book reads as a creative whirlwind tour of a cast of characters who we never get to know and events that flash by without meaning. I found myself reading each illustrated page and then flipping to the back to read the appendix to see what actually happened—which is certainly an awkward way to read a book.
The book is highly readable as it covers the highs and lows of Sanger’s life, from her early frustration as a nurse being legally unable to distribute birth control advice, to her speaking engagement for a KKK chapter, to her many groundbreaking lectures for reproductive freedom. Bagge’s style as a comics artist has always been to pack his pages full of text and action and in Woman Rebel, Sanger’s life lacks narrative, instead becoming a high-paced mish-mash. But it’s certainly an entertaining mish-mash!