If there were any justice in this world, Margaret Sanger would be the face on our $20 bill. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Sanger was a vocal advocate for birth control at a time when books and magazines could be seized and banned by the government for even mentioning birth control. She met Emma Goldman, Eleanor Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gandhi. She was a free-love revolutionary, a nurse, a feminist leader before the word "feminism" was commonly known, and an outspoken advocate for the poor and forgotten.
But Margaret Sanger hasn't been immortalized in any notable way, and that's thanks to two things: America's lazy approach to history and a dedicated smear campaign to erase strong female role models from the history books. If she's remembered at all, Sanger is now remembered as a creepy proponent of eugenics. (Family planning isn't eugenics, and Sanger argued with pro-eugenics thinkers at every opportunity.) And, sure, she had her flaws—she wasn't a particularly good mother, it could be argued—but how many portraits of slave owners do you have sitting in your wallet right now? Sanger has been marginalized and diminished, cheating generations of young women out of an important role model.
This is a terrible injustice. How it hasn't been addressed before now is a mystery, but the happy truth is that Sanger's historical exile may finally be at an end. And you couldn't guess the person who's decided to clear her good name if you tried. Turns out, her greatest advocate may just be a middle-aged white male libertarian cartoonist from Seattle.
I've been reading Peter Bagge's comics since I was 13 years old. In my early 20s, I was an avid reader of his ongoing comic Hate; his slacker alter ego Buddy Bradley was always about 10 years older than me, serving as a kind of road map, or more often a warning flare, from my future. I've enjoyed Bagge's recent short-form comics like Sweatshop and Other Lives, though I've missed his affinity for pacing a story out to the length and breadth of a whole life. All of which goes to say that I'm a fan. (And I'm not the only one; local poet Ed Skoog once remarked with great happiness at the beginning of a beer-fueled reading in a parking garage that he finally felt like a character in a Peter Bagge comic.) So I do not say this lightly: I think Bagge's new biography of Sanger, Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn and Quarterly, $21.95), is the best work of his career.
Bagge novitiates may require a few pages to get used to the art in Woman Rebel. He's still working in the same loose-limbed, cartoony style that he's always used, and for whatever reason, people tend to expect a more photorealistic rendering in their comics biographies. The double takes, flapping lips, and little halos of sweat flying off the brows of stressed-out people might be off-putting at first. But as Scott McCloud argued in his excellent Understanding Comics, the thing about cartoony comics is that they disarm the reader and make it easy for them to get inside the characters' heads. Within a few pages, if you still find the art to be difficult, you're probably actively fighting the book's charms.
Woman Rebel moves quickly, establishing Sanger as a contrarian figure even in her childhood, and then demonstrating exactly how rotten women had it at the turn of the last century by presenting a sequence in which a young Sanger works as a nurse for a woman whose frequent pregnancies are literally threatening her life. "I can't go through [a pregnancy] again!" the woman pleads with Sanger. "Tell me how I can prevent it!... Rich women know how to prevent it! Prostitutes know how! Why can't I know how?" The doctor Sanger is assisting replies coolly, "Advice you want, eh? Very well... tell your husband to sleep on the roof." They leave the woman, presumably to her death.
The next three panels, showing a devastated Sanger standing in the street, slowly fuming over the doctor's outright refusal to help a patient in need, and then kicking a trash can out of sheer rage at her impotence, are pretty much your standard comic-book origin sequence. You could put the panels side by side with a 1939 sequence of Bruce Wayne moping in his gloomy study—"A bat! That's it! It's an omen. I shall become a BAT!"—and you'd swear you were watching two superheroes being born.
It's a short biography, but it covers a lot of ground, following Sanger as she travels the world, preaching the gospel of birth control that would eventually give women the agency to fight for suffrage and equal rights. Bagge has a clear fondness for his subject, and though he doesn't shy away from Sanger's follies, his affection shines down on every page. His hard work goes a long way toward rehabilitating Sanger for future generations.
In case you think that a comic-book biography somehow requires less research than a "real" biography, Bagge also includes an extensive prose notes section in the back of Woman Rebel. There was very little material available that was directly about Sanger—Bagge notes with a little exasperation that one of the best places to find Sanger's writings online is a "pro-life website, of all places"—so Bagge explains his methodology and his sources in great detail. (It's also one of the chattiest, most readable notes sections I've ever encountered in a biography.)
Woman Rebel represents a remarkable second act for Bagge. He's done nonfiction reportage before, but never anything so dense, or so rewarding. It's the sort of complex endeavor that you can imagine Buddy Bradley flirting with during a drunken monologue in one of Bagge's 1990s comics. Buddy never would have actually gone through with something like this—too much work—but let's hope Bagge continues down this path. The best of his career may be yet to come.