Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Cartoonist Peter Bagge on Immortalizing the Indignant Through Comics

Comics Features Peter Bagge
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<i>Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story</i> Cartoonist Peter Bagge on Immortalizing the Indignant Through Comics

Peter Bagge seems like he’d be an intimidating person to interview. His characters spend a lot of time yelling at one another passionately, flecks of spittle flying through the air. Those antics have calmed down after 40 years of making comics, but he continues to produce at a stellar pace. Three and a half years after releasing Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, a zippy biography about the founder of Planned Parenthood, he delivers Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story. Like Woman Rebel, it’s a compact and entertaining biography of an important cultural figure, in this case the Floridian author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston and Sanger have a lot in common, including tendencies to be forthright and, appropriately, fiery, which makes them great subjects for biographies. Bagge didn’t yell at me once when we exchanged emails about his process in crafting these books and whether he identifies with his cranky protagonists.

Paste: How does it feel to make a shift toward biographic nonfiction at this point in your career? You’re a veteran cartoonist and you’ve suddenly produced two books of relatively scholarly biographical nonfiction in a row.

Peter Bagge: I’ve grown tired of both writing and reading fiction, for one thing. It’s a common old-age affliction! I have less patience reading made-up stuff these days. Reality is far more fascinating. And I’ve been writing nonfiction (including biographical) comics for the past 20 years or so. They’ve just taken a more ambitious turn lately.

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Cover Art by Peter Bagge

Paste: Is it something you see yourself continuing to pursue? Or are these books just something you had to get out of your system?

Bagge: I would like to do more. They just take so long to complete! When I told a long-time music biographer about my latest efforts she said, “Oh, so you want to be poor, too?” But as long as I can afford to do them I will.

Paste: You go into it in your notes, but could you talk about some of the similarities between Margaret Sanger (your last subject) and Zora Neale Hurston (your current one)?

Bagge: Oh, I think I went through a long list of uncanny similarities in Fire!!’s notes section, which you’re welcome to reprint. Besides living parallel lives, they both lived very independent lives. They always found their "significant others" suffocating, no matter how much in love they may have been at any given time, and their work—one via art, the other via activism—was all about sharing that freedom with others.

Paste: Are you attracted to free-spirited people in general? Some of your libertarian leanings come through in both of these books, in a disdain for received wisdom (which both Sanger and Hurston seem to have shared).

Bagge: Yes, and my political views (which also are my world views) have a lot to do with my interest in these people. They also led busy, fascinating and ground-breaking lives. What’s not to admire?

Paste: So do you plan on doing any biographies of cranky dudes? Or are you sticking with the cranky ladies?

Bagge: I have one more “cranky lady” in mind: Rose Wilder Lane. After that, no plans.

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Interior Art by Peter Bagge

Paste: She seems like a great subject. No desire to cover Ayn Rand?

Bagge: No. I’m too ambivalent about Rand. In some ways she’s very impressive, but in other ways she was rather troubling and inconsistent. Plus I’m sick of hearing and reading about her!

Paste: Speaking of the kind of outspoken, take-no-shit personality that both Hurston and Sanger had—and many of your other characters, both autobiographical and non-, have—is that how you behave in your day-to-day life? What happens if there’s something wrong with your order at a restaurant?

Bagge: Ha! Well, neither Hurston nor Sanger would make a scene over a wrong order. They both were actually very charming, likable people in real life, and everyone who knew them loved them. So I’d like to think I’m like that! They just got indignant over big things.

Paste: What’s the planning process like for these books as opposed to your usual stories (where you can make things up)? Longer, I’m sure, but is it harder or easier?

Bagge: These are much harder, simply because of the research involved. I try to read as much as I can—even bios aimed at younger readers have unique tidbits of information in them, sometimes. And then trying to format their lives into an accurate, yet entertaining, comic book. It’s a tricky bit of business!

Paste: How do you know it’s time to stop researching and start drawing?

Bagge: When bills are overdue, ha ha. Also when what I’m researching starts to become redundant, and there’s no more “gold to be panned,” so to speak.

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Interior Art by Peter Bagge

Paste: I feel like Woman Rebel and Fire!! are both more visually restrained for you. Do you think that’s true? Is it conscious?

Bagge: My art in general has “calmed down” over the years. That manic energy that used to be my calling card just doesn’t seem to serve any purpose in work like this. When I used to draw in that exaggerated style it was often for its own sake, just to amuse myself or see how far I could push it. I’ve outgrown that now.

Paste: Do you consider yourself a feminist? What about your wife, who colors your work?

Bagge: I consider myself a feminist in the same way that literally everyone I know does: in the very basic, second-wave, “equal rights and opportunities” sense. More recent (and ever-changing) definitions strike me as petty and divisive, and an exercise in futility. I assume my wife would agree. She thinks about this stuff less than I do!

Paste: How does that process work? Do you just let her do her thing? Or do you give her extensive notes?

Bagge: I give notes only when certain things have to be a certain color, or if it’s a night scene, etc. Otherwise she’s on her own.

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Interior Art by Peter Bagge

Paste: How much non-comics reading do you do?

Bagge: I read a lot of essays on the internet, and I also am always surrounded by a pile of books that I have to read for my next bio project.

Paste: I really appreciate the parts in the notes where you say you guessed at what happened in a given situation because you’d steeped yourself in Hurston’s biography and you figured you knew how the scene would have gone. Do you think your less traditional medium (less traditional than a big non-picture book) gives you more license to do that?

Bagge: It’s a necessity, since I have to draw something, and you have no choice but to guess at almost everything in any given scene. Plus I have to keep a narrative thread going, which entails smoothing down the bumpier parts of real-life events. It’s actually very similar to movies, in which the same problems come up—only filmmakers have no qualms about taking huge liberties with the facts with their biopics when it suits them.

Paste: How did you find visual references throughout this book? What about cases where you had to take more of a leap? Have you historically used photo reference, or is it just that it’s a necessity in these biographical comics?

Bagge: I used photo references as much as I could, since it would be absurd to, say, draw a person or a place without using a reference if one exists—and with search engines there’s no excuse not to use references. In fact, it’s very frustrating when I can’t find a photo of someone, as was the case with Anita Block (a close ally of Sanger’s) or Hurston’s editor/publisher Bertram Lippincott.

Paste: So what did you do in those cases where you couldn’t find a photo reference?

Bagge: I just took a guess as to what they might look like. I’ve yet to hear any complaints from their descendants!

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Interior Art by Peter Bagge

Paste: How has your drawing process changed over the years?

Bagge: It hasn’t really. I wish I could simplify my process, but the work always suffers when I try. The only thing different with these bio comics is the constant rechecking of my source material, which slows me down even further. What have I gotten myself into?!?

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story Interior Art by Peter Bagge

Paste: Is there anything you wanted to put in Fire!! and just couldn’t shoehorn in?

Bagge: There’s a lot of amusing anecdotes I could have included, like the time she knocked a masher out cold in a hotel elevator, and then casually stepped over his unconscious body as she entered the lobby to join her friends. But I tried to stick to moments in her life that moved the main narrative along.

Paste: How many other comics biographies have you read? I feel like the genre is both more popular and giving rise to better work over the last five years or so. Do you think that’s true?

Bagge: It does seem to be an exploding genre, and I’ve been very impressed with some of them, though I have mixed feelings about many that I read. I always want to “edit” them! Though I’m sure those authors feel the same about my bios, since I still struggle myself with how exactly to format such work. Many great comics—many of the best, in fact—have been memoirs, and you’d think there wouldn’t be much difference between the two genres, but I think bios still have some kinks to be worked out.

The biggest problem is to cling to or give up on objectivity, and just “play” with the facts rather than cling to them. Autobiographical or memoir writers can get away with this since who will call them out on it? Which frees them to do as they please with the narrative. They completely “own” the story. Whereas this creates an ethical dilemma for biographical writers.

Paste: Favorite biographical comics not including your own?

Bagge: R. Crumb’s Patton, based on the blues singer Charlie Patton. a short but concise bio—30 years old, but still the best! Hip Hop Family Tree and The Abominable Mr. Seabrook are also really good. But like I said, memoirs so far have a better batting average. [Bill] Griffith’s Invisible Ink sure was a doozy.