A portrait, in black and white

Paul Constant

March 21, 2017

Cartoonists don’t often get a chance at second acts. We expect comics artists to keep drawing the same immortal characters over and over until they grow old and die, like Charles Schulz; or until they retire from the business, like Gary Larson; or until they 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 one of the cornerstones 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 the fact that you’re not trying at all than 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 magazine 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 the age of 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 Bagge’s style, and the word balloons and narration still demonstrate the rhythm and cadence of Bagge’s 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 some storytelling DNA with Woman Rebel. As he did with Sanger, Bagge tells Hurston’s story from childhood to grave, and both comics are sandwiched between prose pages detailing Bagge’s research notes and historical context. But Fire!! doesn’t have to clear its subject’s name — Sanger had been a victim of decades of anti-abortion smears, which Bagge addressed directly in Woman Rebel — and so more of the story can focus on the freewheeling spirit of its subject.

Bagge clearly fell a little bit in love with Hurston during the making of Fire!!, and it’s easy to see why. Hurston was a free spirit, a black woman spending the first decades of the 20th century traveling the country as she pleased, cheerfully but always with a gun at her side. As willful as she was welcoming, Hurston seemed at least a century ahead of her time.

It’s a shame, though, that Bagge doesn’t manage to capture any of the greatness of Hurston’s writing. He portrays her as a folklorist and a playwright and, of course, a novelist, but we don’t get an impression of her work beyond a few reactions from audiences and her peers. It’s just as difficult to portray literary skills in a comic as it is in film — I defy you to name a movie about a writer that doesn’t contain at least one montage featuring an actor looking glamorously overwrought as they hunt-and-peck at a keyboard — but Bagge doesn’t even try to convey much more than the success of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

And some readers might feel a level of discomfort, too, in Bagge drawing a book about a great figure in black history. One scene in Fire!! finds a white photographer taking pictures of a young black child eating a slice of watermelon. Hurston chastises the photographer for dealing in stereotypes: “It’s called context! And I cannot abide the thought of you sharing these photos with your Yankee friends!”

Bagge included that scene for a reason. There are several moments in Fire!! that could easily be taken out of context by racists, particularly early scenes in which Hurston’s neighbors talk in dialect (“Was a time womens was just as strong as mens…man didn’t like dat, so he ask God to make him stronger.”) Later in the book, a teacher chastises Hurston for using “an exaggerated southern negro dialect” in her writing, to which she replies, “It’s hardly exaggerated, sir…that’s how folks talk in my hometown.”

It’s clear that Bagge, who calls himself a “pasty-faced twenty-first century Northerner” in the introduction, is wrestling with these questions of race and representation. And Bagge isn’t the problem — it’s the other pasty-faces who might mischaracterize and exploit Hurston’s prickly positions, including her questioning of desegregation (“In black schools, the best and brightest are groomed for greatness…while at a white school they’ll all be groomed to be janitors,”) that worry me.

Bagge’s exploration of Hurston’s story is obviously born out of curiosity and admiration. It’s a marvelous tribute to her exceptional life. But as Bagge-via-Hurston reminds us, context is everything, and Fire!! is a book that, in the wrong hands and taken in the wrong context, could be used to tear down Hurston’s achievements.

Nearly 130 years after Hurston’s birth, race still dominates many conversations about art: what color is the hand that points the camera? What color is the subject’s skin? What will happen to this portrait when it’s released into the world? Where does the artist’s responsibility begin and end? The answers still escape us, but artists like Bagge continue to do the necessary work of asking the questions.

Books in this review:
  • Fire!!
    by Peter Bagge
    Drawn and Quarterly
    March 21, 2017
    104 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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