Books

"Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story" by Peter Bagge (Drawn and Quarterly)

Margaret Sanger isn't a name that comes up a lot as a historical figure to be familiar with, but that has a lot to do with a right-wing effort to discredit her as anything but a monster -- Public Enemy Number One in the culture wars, it seems. Sanger's sin? Pushing the envelope in contraceptive research and establishing Planned Parenthood from the concept that women should not be slaves to their own biology.

It appears that not everyone has agreed with that belief, and the struggles resulting still blemish our society today.

Sanger was a political activist whose mission was born of the realities she saw springing up around her, of women who were literally hostage to pregnancy for their entire lives. Bright and aggressive, Sanger worked her way through the Anarchist ranks, defying expectations on both political sides and addressing the crowds that needed her to speak, even if that included the wives of the Ku Klux Klan. She dabbled in eugenics -- taking a more reasonable approach than most, if such a thing is possible -- and took H.G. Wells as a lover.

This is not a typical graphic novel for Bagge, whose work tends to live in the alternative comedy realm, but his art style lends something different to what could be a typical biography, giving Sanger's story a modern edge and energy that singles out its importance in contemporary America -- shadows of the same battles are still being fought -- while still not presenting it with overbearing importance. Bagge lends a wacky edge to the story that is deserved -- Sanger was a bit of a nut, as so many public and progressive people could be back then.

Sanger falls into that classic prototype of early 20th century strong-minded women, who aren't exactly saints in the eyes of normal society -- most recently, "Mary Poppins" creator P.L. Travers has been the poster lady in this phenomenon. The revelation that progressive women of the time might have also been imperfect in their private lives has never hurt men of the era when that litmus test has been applied to their accomplishments versus their personal foibles. Surely women deserve the same consideration.

Regardless, Sanger proves to be a fascinating character with potent issues worth addressing -- and Bagge reveals himself to be an unexpectedly perfect communicator for feminist issues and lives.