For those who haven’t, it’s past time to surrender those tightly held convictions that comics are for kids and certainly not proper fare for serious students of history and politics. Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986–1991) gave official recognition to a popular form of narrative power and technical sophistication. Enter Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, a biography of the birth control advocate. Sanger is not the most likely subject for the graphic novel treatment, but the result is a success that will transport the essence of Sanger’s eventful life to readers of all ages.
Woman Rebel is based on the historical evidence, though there are factual errors (for example, that Sanger opposed masturbation) and chronological elisions (that Sanger was involved in the Harlem Clinic in 1939). Some characters appear at incorrect times and places. But in general Bagge is true to the spirit of Sanger’s life if not the letter, and some events in her life are captured pictorially in a way that creates an intimate emotional relationship between the reader and Sanger. For example, the interpretation of Sanger’s reaction to the death of Sadie Sachs from an illegal abortion demonstrates the emotional power of graphic narration. Bagge is less successful, however, in conveying Sanger’s magnetism and charm, which she used to transform contraception from a loathed illegal practice to an acceptable means of spacing babies.
Graphic biographies are appealing candidates for classroom material, and Bagge’s Woman Rebel is no exception. Of course such a medium simplifies, and there is no substitute for text-based material. Teachers should also make clear that the dialogue in Woman Rebel is manufactured by the author. Yet we should surrender our prejudices against pictures and made-up dialogue as a way to learn history, and we might consider the truism that a picture is worth a thousand words.