Friday, April 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #114: Woman Rebel by Peter Bagge

There are two kinds of biographies: some are too long, some are too short. (No book is ever exactly the right length; then it would be perfect, and we all know there's nothing perfect in this world.) Either way can be good, as long as it's not too far in that direction: a thousand pages about Adlai Stevenson or three about the first Queen Elizabeth. But, all in all, it's better to be too short: that's the old show-biz saying of always leaving them wanting more.

Peter Bagge's comics-format biography of Planned Parenthood founder and contraceptive pioneer Margaret Sanger, Woman Rebel, is definitely too short: it zips through Sanger's eventful eighty-plus year life in a mere 72 pages, giving each year less than a page. It gets a bit choppy because of that brevity, actually, as Bagge piles scenes on scenes and smash-cuts between years to get all of the events he wants to cover into the book. It's rare to say so these days, but this is one book that could have used a little decompression to give it some more air and space.

Sanger was a driven, energetic, monomaniacal woman -- so far, you can easily see the appeal to Bagge, who has spent most of his career telling the fictional stories of driven seekers who want something so much they sometimes even know what it is. But Sanger was successful and sociable -- scandalously so, since she was a major proponent of free love when that was a marker of the radical left-wing in the first half of the twentieth century -- and eventually rich, none of which is at all typical for a Bagge character. (Tom Spurgeon, of the online site Comics Reporter, makes this exact point at greater length in his scene-setting introduction.) After a parade of losers, it's a treat to see Bagge work on the life of someone who had strong opinions and directly affected the world for good: Sanger saved uncounted women from endless, health-sapping pregnancies, and not a few from death along the way.

She traveled the world, founded and ran several organizations (and fell out with the leadership of a number of those as well), wrote books and pamphlets and newsletters, had affairs with more men than Bagge even tries to track, fought multiple court battles and was arrested and thrown in jail more than once, and raised and distributed millions of dollars to the causes she supported so strongly. Through it all, she was opinionated, headstrong, and demanding -- but also, clearly, friendly and endlessly sociable, particularly after her second marriage made her rich and lifted her into greater contact with America's upper classes.

Woman Rebel will leave most readers wanting more, even after its extensive notes and afterword from Bagge at the end. And that's exactly what a good biography should do.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index


Lawrence Person said...

Did he cover her support for racist eugenics?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Lawrence: That mostly comes out in Bagge's notes; he presents Sanger as part of the larger eugenics movement (promoting birth control obviously puts her solidly in that camp), but waffly on the forced-sterilization question. I think he makes a good case for her as quite progressive and forward-thinking in her milieu -- and not primarily driven by race-based thinking -- but I'm not an expert.

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