New Review by Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
Memorializing an Author, and Her Politics: Review of Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge
Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
In a footnote in Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, cartoonist Peter Bagge notes the similarities between the graphic biography’s subject and that of Bagge’s first, Margaret Sanger (2013’s Woman Rebel): both women valued sexual freedom, published prolifically, and came from humble origins. But whereas continued disputes over both birth control and Sanger’s legacy instantly justified her as a present day subject, the question of why to centre a comic around Hurston in 2017, aside from celebrating the life of one of the great twentieth century American authors, initially seems a bit more opaque.
Bagge provides an answer in his prologue (appropriately titled “Why Hurston”), and his justification echoes throughout the book: Hurston supposedly “despised all top-down, government imposed ideologies, seeing them as being diametrically opposed to human nature in general and freedom of movement and thought in particular.” Bagge contrasts his characterization of her worldview with that of most other Black artists of her era, many of whom supported socialism or communism. Bagge himself is a libertarian, and his description of Hurston in the prologue lays out a clear agenda for the rest of the graphic biography.
This agenda subsequently casts an inexorable shadow over Fire!!. In the comic’s opening pages, the young Zora’s father scolds her for befriending a white couple and warns her not to trust whites: whereas he writes people off due to their race, she doesn’t essentialize. In a comparable scene, Bagge lampoons Dr. Alain Locke, the first Black Rhodes scholar and a professor of Hurston’s, for being enraged with her and her peers for serving fried chicken and watermelon at a party hosted by Black students. Likewise, Bagge celebrates her independence from other left-leaning Black artists, including Langston Hughes, who idealize communist Russia and hope to go there to escape American racism. Bagge’s message is clear: Hurston was an independent firebrand who didn’t want to be defined by her race, and one whose views often contradicted leftism.
Although Bagge’s own ideological bent does detract on occasion from his telling of Hurston’s life, she nonetheless comes across as a compelling and singular figure. The book’s episodic narrative style keeps Bagge from lingering on Hurston’s political views or any other facet of her life for too long at a given time, hopping between periods such as her origins in Eatonville, Florida, time spent studying at Barnard, and the writing of her 1937 magnum opus Their Eyes Were Watching God with fluid ease. This narrative approach, which similarly served Bagge well in Woman Rebel, presents a comprehensive overview of Hurston’s life while also remaining cohesive enough to function as a unified character study. Fire!! packs an impressive amount of detail into the individual episodes both through detailed footnotes (nearly every page is accompanied by an extensive prose description in the footnotes of the events depicted, citing Hurston’s work and other primary and secondary sources), which allow Bagge to circumvent clunky exposition in the comic itself, and jam-packed, brightly coloured wide panels rich with visual information.
As he does throughout his oeuvre, Bagge fills those panels with frenetic images reminiscent of early Loony Toons animation, which he cites as a major influence (Douresseau). The visual style is particularly effective for capturing more mythical moments in Hurston’s life, such as her interest in the world of voodoo. Bagge’s cartoonishness works comparably for capturing the outrage of Locke and others, highlighting their fervency and Hurston’s resilience in the face of it. In two particularly effective scenes, in which a young Zora discovers the joys of reading through Norse mythology and Milton, the drawings do the difficult work of capturing the intellectual development of a young artist, revealing Fire!! to be something of a Küntslerroman. But even in heavier moments, such as the death of Hurston’s mother, Bagge’s gonzo visuals keep the comic light on its feet and remain true to the grandiosity of Hurston’s life.
Bagge also remains true to Hurston’s prose in his dialogue, sharing her interest in and affection for the rhythms of colloquial speech. As such, the book as a whole functions as a metacommentary on the critiques of Hurston by Locke and others (in a footnote, Bagge admits to using Locke as a representative of a sentiment shared by many critics of the time) for her representations of Black people as impoverished and anti-intellectual. Simultaneously, white fans of her work (and financial supporters) such as philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason fetishized Hurston’s interest in depicting Black culture, and Bagge doesn’t let them off the hook, either.
Yet Bagge’s inclination towards satire doesn’t detract from the pathos throughout Fire!!. The relationship between Hurston and Hughes is particularly affecting, as Bagge artfully captures their platonic intimacy (many assume that Hughes was gay) without engaging in too much gossip or speculation. In a particularly traumatic sequence late in the comic, Hurston is falsely accused by a neighbour of molesting her ten-year-old son (she had caught him engaging in homosexual acts with his friends and was looking for someone to blame), and Bagge highlights both the absurdity of the charge and the pain it causes Hurston. As with the rest of the book, the details provided in the footnotes add to Bagge’s thoroughness and help to bring Hurston to life.
Such details, along with Bagge’s trademark visual style and the comic’s energetic verve, make Fire!! a compelling portrait of a fundamental figure in American letters. Although Bagge’s interest in claiming Hurston for libertarianism occasionally overshadows other facets of the graphic biography, Fire!! nonetheless provides an entertaining and thoughtful depiction of her public and private life. Aside from her literary contributions, Hurston lived an adventurous existence, and Bagge captures the vitality of both.
Bagge, Peter. Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story. Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2017.
—-. Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2013.
Douresseau, LJ. “Interview with Peter Bagge.” ComicBookBin, Toon Doctor Inc, 16 Nov. 2003, www.comicbookbin.com/charlie02.html. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, NY, Harper Collins, 2006.