Now that comic books have become the source material for blockbuster movies, the oft-told story of the maligned and misunderstood superhero should be a familiar one, even to many who have never read a comic. Think Professor Xavier’s cohort in the X-Men movies or Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. They’re extraordinary. They’re also flawed, often unable to shake the ghosts of an uneasy past. But their powers, not their shortcomings, are the reason they’re so maligned. No matter their good intentions, they challenge what is known and established, earning them fear and distrust.
Bagge’s graphic novel is a refreshing contribution to a medium that is often a guilty pleasure at best.
Given that trope, maybe it wasn’t such an odd idea to give the comic book treatment to the life of Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights pioneer and founder of Planned Parenthood. Writer and illustrator Peter Bagge, a veteran of alternative comics, does just that in Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). The outcome is a graphic novel that doesn’t let exaggerated expressions, vivid colors, and terse speech bubbles derail an intelligent and sensitive retelling of Sanger’s life.
Comparing Sanger to a superhero might be hyperbole, but Sanger’s trailblazing work not only created the movement to advocate for birth control but also spurred the development of the oral contraceptive, or “the Pill.” She had the drive and the know-how to contribute to the movement as an author, editor, lecturer, and founder of a reproductive health clinic. Along the way, Sanger helped change the laws that stood in the way of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, while rubbing shoulders (and sometimes developing romances) with many luminaries of her time, from novelists to political agitators to wealthy industrialists. March is Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment — a theme perfect for someone of Sanger’s stature. Sanger’s visionary efforts earned her many accolades — as well as a campaign of character assassination that has called her everything from a fascist to a proponent of genocide.
In the first several pages of Woman Rebel, it’s apparent that Bagge knows how to handle this biography, deftly dramatizing episodes from Sanger’s life that reveal how she arrived at her views. We see a childhood among several siblings, with a father whose income is not steady enough to support his family, especially as it keeps growing. We see a mother whose life and health are always on the brink of falling apart as pregnancy after pregnancy results in more births and more miscarriages. With each pregnancy, Margaret fears for her mother’s well-being.
In spite of the family’s limited income, Margaret experiences a lucky turning point in her life when she gets into a private school, Claverback College, through the help of her sisters and a work-study program. It’s at Claverback that she learns she has a knack for persuasion — and the resolve to stand by her ideas even when her classmates find them radical or bizarre.
Claverback gives Sanger the academic boost to pursue a career in nursing later. As a nurse, Sanger sees the challenges her mother faced writ large. Working in impoverished neighborhoods in New York City, she sees first-hand the life-threatening effects of complicated pregnancies, and she quickly becomes outraged at the laws that forbid her and the doctor who employs her from providing advice on birth control. She knows that the advice would save lives — and give the families in these impoverished neighborhoods a better chance at survival and social mobility by putting child-rearing in line with financial readiness.
It was that outrage, combined with her early involvement with the radical leftist Emma Goldman, that turned Sanger into the advocate we know today. Bagge does excellent work fitting Sanger’s political thought into speech bubbles, which don’t lend themselves well to a lot of elaboration. He is at his best when he portrays Sanger delivering a speech at the Park Theater in New York in 1921: “Tonight I’d like to discuss the morality of birth control. When one acts recklessly and irresponsibly we regard such behavior as immoral … except, we’re told, when it comes to procreation.” At the same time, Bagge stays true to the comic form. Nonfiction graphic novels (a seeming oxymoron, but they exist) run the risk of reading like drastically abridged history texts that are awkwardly mashed together with sequential illustrations that distract more than they illuminate or entertain. Sometimes the idea doesn’t gel — but not this time. Bagge captures both the spirit and intellect of Margaret Sanger in his graphic novel. Nonetheless, there’s room for more commentary, which he takes the time to write in his afterword, “Why Sanger?”
Bagge’s afterword answers how and why he decided to write about Sanger, explaining among other things where he used his artistic license. More importantly, he addresses many of the accusations that have been leveled against Sanger. After using his graphic novel to tell her story as accurately as the medium allows, he uses his afterword to expose the lies that have been told about her. Even though her first marriage was to a Jewish man, she was a Japanophile and repeat visitor to Japan, she once fired a nurse who made a racist comment about black patients, and in many other ways showed her inclusiveness and forward thinking on race and ethnicity, her critics have accused Sanger of being an advocate of ethnic cleansing, due in large part to her association with the eugenics movement. Bagge takes this accusation head on:
Yet another irony is her association with the eugenics movement, which her critics often use as evidence that she was an advocate of “ethnic cleansing” and a hero of Hitler’s (her books were among the very first to be banned by the Nazis, in fact). One would never know it by the hysterical way the subject is discussed today, but there was no uniform “school” of eugenic thought — rather, it was a catch-all term for a set of practices its proponents believed would improve the human gene pool, including nutrition, hygiene, environmental protection, prenatal care, and, of course, birth control, all now universally acceptable. In fact, most eugenics advocates of the early 1920s (including several U.S. presidents) didn’t regard Sanger as a legitimate spokesperson for the movement at all, partly due to her refusal to acknowledge ethnicity as any kind of measure of human “fitness.”
Bagge’s graphic novel is worth picking up just for its afterword, which sets the record straight about Sanger, addressing many of the most repeated accusations and criticisms Sanger has faced both then and now. As a whole, the work is a refreshing contribution to a medium that is often a guilty pleasure at best. Women are significantly underrepresented in comic books and are frequently secondary, less powerful characters who are sexually objectified; and works like Michael Sheyahshe’s Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study give us painful reminders of how poorly the medium does on other counts. While honest about her stubbornness and other flaws, Bagge’s work is an important step in redeeming Margaret Sanger from the relentless smear campaign against her, and it’s a welcome alternative in a medium with a questionable track record.