Truth is, we are getting on a bit here at Graphic Content. We’re not quite 80 but we remember the 1980s. And so, we are old enough to have been old enough to have been less interested in Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns (though, of course, we read both) than in the indie alternative provided by Fantagraphics. And so we adored Dan Clowes’s Lloyd Lewellyn, we devoured Love and Rockets and, oh yes, we laughed ourselves stupid reading Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff.
We then stuck around for Bagge’s follow-up, Hate, a wonderfully acid sitcom based around the life of slacker Buddy Bradley, which first appeared in 1990 and ran for 30 issues full of family dysfunction and masturbation jokes. As one critic wrote: “each and every character is terrible in their own unique way.” The result is black humour with the dark turned up.
But that was then. In the last few years Bagge has changed tack. First came a graphic memoir of Margaret Sanger, the American pioneer of birth control (Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story). And now his latest book tells the story of African-American anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and one of the mainstays of the Harlem Renaissance.
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Bagge turns the facts of her life – her eccentric dress sense, her libertarian-inclined politics, her research into voodoo – into a hugely entertaining and informative graphic novel, told in his trademark rubbery cartooning style. The result is a joy.
Here, Bagge tells us about its origins and how comics have changed in the years since Neat Stuff.
Fire!! is your second graphic memoir. Why the switch from fiction?
Because truth is stranger than fiction – and more fascinating! As a reader I've become far more interested in non-fiction over the last 20 or so years, and I've been writing more non-fiction comics over that time period as well. The only downside to doing these biographies is the obligation to keep all your facts straight, so the research involved is very time-consuming.
What was it about Zora Neale Hurston that caught your eye? What makes her special? (And why the interest in feminist pioneers?)
I was drawn to her as a writer first. She had a unique way with words, and she also was very, very funny. But I also share her political worldview, in that she was a strong advocate for individual freedom and autonomy, and I wanted to illustrate her own attempts at getting her views across as a way of expressing my own views.
As for the latter part of your question: I'd become fascinated by a number of women – writers, mostly – who lead very free, active, creative lives particularly during the years between the two world wars. Their lives were remarkable at least in part because they pre-dated the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s, yet still did whatever the hell they wanted to do anyway!
Has the comics world changed out of recognition since you started in the industry? What has been gained and what, if anything, has been lost?
There are a lot more comics and cartoonists now than there were back then, that's for sure! And yes, comics also have obviously become a far more respected art form – in that it's now even considered an art form! But that's also what I miss about the old days – we used to fly under the radar back then, which in itself was quite liberating. We had nothing to lose, as far as societal respect was concerned.
Nice easy question. Is life inherently tragic or absurd?
Both, in equal measures. The two go hand in hand!
What is unique about comics as an art form?
It's similar to film or TV, in that you're using words and pictures to tell a story. Yet TV and film require many people - and a lot of money - to pull it off, while only one person can do a comic, and for very little money, so it can have a far more singular vision.
What’s Buddy Bradley doing these days?
He's in hibernation! No idea if or when he'll return.
Is there anything else you want to tell us?
Buy more comics!
Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, by Peter Bagge, is published by Drawn & Quarterly on March 21.