Friday, 28 February 2014

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story Review (Peter Bagge)


I’ll be completely honest: I had no idea who Margaret Sanger was until I read this book. Having finished it, I’m now very much informed on the subject and thoroughly enjoyed reading about Sanger’s extraordinary life thanks to Peter Bagge’s wonderful storytelling and research.

Comics are a wonderful medium and one of the things they do extremely well, which is never emphasised enough, is non-fiction. Whether biography, true crime, philosophy, politics, science or history, comics can make nearly every non-fiction type much more appealing and understandable. So even if I knew nothing about Margaret Sanger, I know Peter Bagge is an accomplished cartoonist, I know Drawn & Quarterly publish quality books, and I knew the medium would bring the subject to life. And I was right - Woman Rebel is a great book!

Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood, the American organisation for birth control. It’s no surprise to see where her drive for birth control came from seeing that her own mother had 18 pregnancies (10 of whom survived into adulthood) and that, as a young nurse, she saw women harming themselves to prevent further pregnancies, and living in appalling conditions surrounded by financially draining unwanted children due to ignorance of birth prevention. 

This led to Sanger’s lifelong crusade to educate and inform the women of the world about their bodies and push for sex education for everyone everywhere and the widespread use, and legalisation, of birth control methods like diaphragms. Surprisingly, she was against abortion, preferring women exercise safe sex to ensure against pregnancy, and advised women to carry their pregnancies to term, though this might have been because of it being illegal so she only saw the results of back-alley abortions. 

Sanger was a fascinating woman who, despite being diagnosed with TB at a young age, lived a full, long life. She was a proto-feminist who led a bohemian lifestyle despite being married and a mother of three, taking many lovers, among them Havelock Ellis and HG Wells. She frequently challenged the law to speak to great crowds of people on birth control, leading to numerous high profile arrests and making her a celebrity in the process - she became a rebel with a cause! 

Bagge’s approach is to be informative but also funny at times – in a respectful way – to suit the scene such as when Havelock Ellis reveals his turn-on is to watch a woman pee and, after Sanger offers, Ellis’ expression is still emotionless and blunt as he says yes. It’s a humanistic portrait too that shows how her incredible drive led to great reform but also made her a difficult person to live with and in her final years, though she remains indomitable, she becomes a drug addicted alcoholic (that is the time to throw caution to the wind though, right? You’re on your way out, so why not?). 

Due to the shortness of the comic – roughly 70 pages – Bagge’s storytelling relies heavily on exposition. Normally I’d say this is an artless way of getting across information but it’s necessary in the circumstances as Bagge eschews blocks of descriptive text or narrative boxes to set the scene or put across relevant information. Also, the choice to have the characters talk about their situations/actions as its happening makes for a more fluid and energetic reading that’s also illuminating. 

If you’re looking for more information, Bagge includes numerous pages of text at the end – with photos – that goes into Sanger’s life in more detail and also shows how much research Bagge’s put into this book. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Bagge’s work – and he’s worth checking out if you enjoy alternative comics – his art style is highly stylised. Characters aren’t drawn in the least bit realistically, arms and legs appear curved and floppy, faces turn cartoonishly extreme depending on their emotions and so on – but it’s a great style that gives his work a unique look and suits Sanger’s freewheeling and dramatic lifestyle. 

Woman Rebel is an accessible, well written and drawn book about a remarkable woman who changed the world. It’s an entertaining and informative read that sets out to enlighten readers of the life of Margaret Sanger and accomplishes this fully. Absolutely brilliant!

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

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