Peter Bagge first rose to prominence through his 1990s Fantagraphics series Hate!, a semiautobiographical work chronicling the rudderless life of young Buddy Bradley as he fails his way through a series of jobs, relationships, and friendships. Since ending that title, Bagge has branched out in a variety of different directions, creating a number of short works (the limited series Apocalypse Nerd, the one-shot Other Lives), a run of political reportage for the libertarian magazine Reason (collected in Everybody Is Stupid Except for Me), and even a kids’ comic (DC’s sadly short-lived Yeah!).
What has been most surprising — at least to those of us who still associate Bagge with the lowbrow humor of Hate! — is his sudden interest in historical biography. He’s already put out a collection of comics on figures from the American founding (Founding Fathers Funnies) as well as a longer treatment of pioneering birth-control activist Margaret Sanger called Woman Rebel. Continuing his work in this genre, Bagge’s latest offering is another story of an innovative woman from a century ago: Fire!! The Zola Neale Hurston Story.
Hurston is remembered today chiefly for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Others might also recall her work collecting the myths and legends of the black South along with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, and true fans can name some of her other novels. Bagge counts himself as a real Hurstonian, writing warmly of his admiration for her in the book’s introductory essay. “While Hurston was obviously all in favor of freedom and equal opportunity for anyone of any gender or race to speak their minds and live their lives as they saw fit (and indeed, that’s what her own life was all about), she was equally determined to pursue her own achievements on her own terms, without letting anyone else confine her or dictate the context and terms she wrote in.” His mission here is to rescue Hurston from semi-obscurity, and just as importantly, he feels duty-bound to chronicle her less-admirable personal qualities. For Bagge, this is in keeping with the guiding aesthetic of Hurston’s own work: “I feel obliged to mention that, like all humans, she was far from perfect, and her numerous character flaws are on full display in the following pages. As with her own stories, this book is ‘warts-and-all.’”
If the intro explains Bagge’s affection for his subject, the actual details of her life are, curiously, relegated to the endnotes. It’s here, rather than in the book’s main section, that the broad sweep of her life is best made sense of, and her place within the various circles she traveled in — be it the Harlem Renaissance, the Federal Writers’ Project, or midcentury American literature — is fully explained. This functions as an excellent short version of Hurston’s story and demonstrates Bagge’s skill as a scholar (albeit of secondary sources) and a clear, concise prose writer.
Sandwiched in between these two short essay sections is the 72-page comic itself. Though it deals with the same events as both of the shorter pieces, it unfortunately doesn’t share their passion and humor, and is in many ways the weakest part of Fire!!
Part of this is due to Bagge’s art. When I’d heard he was turning his attention to historical biography, I was concerned that his style might not serve the material well, and Fire!! does little to change my mind. Throughout Bagge’s career, he’s stuck to the same visual style, evolving in skill and execution but staying obstinately put in his commitment to a type of figuration that could be charitably characterized as broad. That style worked wonderfully in Hate!, but this sort of manic exaggeration doesn’t lend itself to subtle variations in tone: Throughout Fire!!, it seems as though his characters are constantly waving their arms and shouting, or threatening to do so.
That said, there is great pleasure to be found in individual sections. Bagge’s graphics still have the power to amuse, and they demonstrate his obvious mastery of the bones of the medium, directing the eye within and between panels with great skill. Even some of the cartoon “acting” at times works well within the context of the story. Hurston is an irascible, flinty protagonist, given to dramatic outbursts and inappropriate frankness, and it’s in scenes such as these that Bagge is most in his element.
But the real failure of Fire!! is a narrative one. Bagge’s Hurston doesn’t have many definite, sustained goals over the course of the story; the few times that she does, they are either fulfilled or abandoned almost immediately. The most egregious example of this occurs in a long midpoint section detailing her and her fellow black intellectuals’ efforts to start a literary magazine (called Fire!!), which promptly fails a few pages later. Each of Hurston’s various books receive a mention, but rarely more than once, and only Their Eyes Were Watching God is followed up on (for a scene about Hurston’s professional success, more than anything to do specifically with that book). The most intriguing and seemingly portentous event in the book — a premonition of a future meeting with a mysterious figure — is paid off disappointingly early, and to no long-lasting significance to the story. Few if any of the actual incidents of Hurston’s life are paced in a way that generates any kind of suspense.
It could be argued that this is a consequence of Bagge’s devotion to the art of biography; that is, he’s unwilling to massage these incidents into an artificial shape, preferring instead to let Hurston’s life speak for itself. Perhaps this is the case, but the result is a book that feels more like a series of semi-related events in Hurston’s life than a coherent story. The effect is similar to reading a collection of daily comic strips: There may be much to admire on the micro level, but the experience of the whole leaves a lot to be desired.
The finest part of Fire!! comes in what is a fairly incidental element. The back cover carries a portrait of Hurston that’s among Bagge’s best art — a rendering, he says, of a photograph of the author in a “traditional Norwegian ski outfit,” taken by her close friend Carl van Vechten. In an explanatory note, Bagge writes of Hurston’s apprehension at wearing such an unusual getup, but he also mentions that she “had a well-deserved reputation for being an adventurous dresser” and insinuates that, ultimately, she had faith in van Vechten’s eye. The resulting sketch finds a side of Hurston that doesn’t appear in between the covers of Fire!!: her face relaxed, a sardonic smile her only expression, and, though she is dressed in a somewhat ridiculous costume, a slight hunch and arched shoulders show a half-serious willingness to inhabit the outfit. Hurston, charmed by a trusted friend yet fully attentive to the absurdity of the moment, is, for once, at some sort of calm with herself. Little else in the book — comics or prose — captures a human personality quite like this. If Bagge is determined to continue with biographical comics, I hope he follows the impulse that led him to include this image, challenging himself to find greater subtlety in both draftsmanship and storytelling.
Fire!! The Zola Neale Hurston Story is now available from Drawn & Quarterly.