Critics who write about Zora Neale Hurston always seem to write about her contradictions — and no wonder. The extremes she embodied were manifest in her history, her lifestyle, her work and even her legacy. Born in 1891 — though she habitually subtracted years from her age — she grew up in tiny Eatonville, Fla., receiving no encouragement to develop intellectual pursuits. Yet she became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing seven books and dozens of articles, short stories, essays and plays. She crisscrossed the country and journeyed solo to Jamaica, Haiti and Honduras, researching folklore. But she was often bankrolled by wealthy white benefactors. She wrote tales of small-town Southern life like 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (a book with its own complicated history: Dismissed as lightweight by contemporaries like Richard Wright, it’s Hurston’s best-known work today). She was also drawn to retell the sweeping Biblical myths of Moses and Herod.
One of the most grimly paradoxical twists in Hurston’s story came when, after a lifetime of accomplishments and adventures, she was reduced in her last decade to working as a maid. Discovered in this lowly vocation by a newspaper reporter, she airily declared, “You can only use your mind so long. Then you have to use your hands. A change of pace is good for everyone.” She added that she was doing research to launch a magazine for and by domestic workers.
“Good! He bought it!” she adds in a handy thought balloon in Peter Bagge’s new cartoon biography. It’s one of countless little moments making this book, so improbable at first glance, an exhilarating addition to Hurston lore. Bagge doesn’t hesitate to climb inside Hurston’s mind, and he fits remarkably well there.
Like his subject, Bagge is full of contradictions. He’s a real cartoonist — nothing so snooty as a “comic artist” or “creator” — known for his rubber-band lines and yowie-zowie sense of humor. But it’s been a long time since he zoomed onto the alt-comics scene with bratty, brazen works like Neat Stuff and Hate, and he’s sobered a bit. In recent years he’s contributed to Discover and Reason magazines and been featured in the University Press of Mississippi’s “Conversations with Comic Artists” book series (a “comic artist” after all!). He published a biography of another lifetime troublemaker, birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, in 2013.
The book’s title (exclamation points and all) comes from the short-lived literary magazine Hurston founded in 1926 with Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent and Langston Hughes. Bagge’s depiction of the magazine’s beginnings exemplifies the uncanny synergy between his style and his subject matter. You’d think a 12-panel-long, four-part conversation about the state of African-American literature would be visually static, but not here. Bagge turns every expression and gesture into a feast for the cheap seats.
Bagge has plenty of fun with the most colorful milestones of Hurston’s life, from her psychic visions to her folklore trips to her up-close study of voodoo culture. But his style proves most essential in interpersonal moments. All his characters are larger than life, and yet he pays respect to their ambiguities. Carl Van Vechten — writer, photographer and cultural trailblazer — here is boyishly silly. “I just love to start trends!” he says, showing Hurston his fashion-forward wristwatch. And when Hurston visits her primary funder, “Godmother” Charlotte Osgood Mason, the old lady greets her sitting on a throne in a room decorated with African relics. It’s an economical illustration of the relationship between the two.
True, little of the real pathos of Hurston’s life survives Bagge’s ever-springy pen. But that doesn’t feel like a loss. It’s irresistible to try and imagine what Hurston would make of this book, and inevitable to conclude that she’d approve. She prided herself on her ability to make “a way out of no way,” to use a phrase from “High John de Conquer,” her 1943 essay on the popular folk figure. It’s quoted in Valerie Boyd’s 2003 biography Wrapped in Rainbows, on which Bagge draws heavily. High John “was top-superior to the whole mess of sorrow,” Hurston writes. “He could beat it all, and what made it so cool, finish it off with a laugh.” That’s an eloquent description of a classic trickster. Bagge proves here that it takes one to know one.