Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Vidula G. Khanduri. A STEM major at Wellesley College, Vidula enjoys dabbling in the crossroads of politics, science, technology, and society. She’s an avid reader of graphic novels and mystery books, is a skilled makeup artist, and loves to sing classical music.
Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story.
By Peter Bagge
72 pp + notes. Drawn and Quarterly. 2017.
Review by Vidula G. Khanduri.
Author, anthropologist, and feminist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) stood out among her peers during the Harlem Renaissance. She bent norms: denouncing communism, wearing unique clothing, and embracing social imperfections. Her books narrate black American life, “warts and all,” unlike the works of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and other black literary figures, who accounted for white perceptions of the black community. Hurston’s impact on literature was long forgotten until Alice Walker revived her works in the 1970s. Her grave was left unmarked and untended for years. Since then, Hurston’s novels, especially Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), have found spots in college syllabi all over the country. Named after an unsuccessful black literary magazine Hurston and her colleagues created in criticism of Harlem politics, Peter Bagge’s Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story narrates her life from start to finish in a graphic form as colorful as Hurston herself.
Bagge’s cover art turns the iconic Hurston – sitting, holding a cigarette between her fingers – on its head. The front cover is a composite picturing Hurston at a turpentine camp where she conducted fieldwork, donning the new Stetson hat, car, and shotgun she was notorious for spending her whole anthropological research grant on. Bagge consistently illustrates Hurston wearing bright yellow – homage to her commanding and bold personality. Episodes of dispute, frustration, excitement, and frenzy stand out as silhouettes in black and white panels.
Hurston’s life begins in Eatonville, an all-black town in Florida. Here she’s sheltered from racial conflicts – a stark contrast to her Harlem born and raised contemporaries. Sparks flew from her spunky personality wherever she went. However, it was not Hurston versus the world. Home was a tense place. Bagge highlights Hurston’s continuously strained relationship with her family, exacerbated after her mother’s death. Her father ignored her reminders of her mother’s dying wishes not to follow after-death rituals such as removing pillows and covering mirrors. Still, she leaned on her family when she requested her brother’s help in saving up for school (13).
Bagge’s depiction of Hurston’s experience as a granddaughter and stepdaughter push us to think beyond intersectionality. Hurston’s grandmother criticized her for not being more like her older sister Sarah, who was quiet and enjoyed domestic work (4). The reader witnesses Hurston’s stepmother treat her like a servant, prompting a violent altercation leading to Hurston’s banishment from home (11). These uneasy conflicts among women in a family leave much to think about the domestic world and its micro forms of aggression and resistance.
Hurston struggled to attend high school, largely due to affordability. Afterward, she attended the historically black school Howard University. Serendipity played a role in Hurston’s life. At an after-party for Opportunity Magazine’s Literary Awards Ceremony, in which she won many awards, Hurston met Annie Meyer, founder of the all-women’s Barnard College, and was invited to transfer, becoming their first black student (21).
Controversy did not end at Barnard. In one instance, Hurston served fried chicken and watermelon at a party. Professor Alain Locke burst out that Hurston needed to focus on her work. Locke’s wrath resulted from Hurston’s culinary choices, which knowingly played on the racist stereotype of black people eating fried chicken and watermelon (27). White peers dismissed her until hearing of her prestigious job as author Fannie Hurst’s secretary (22). In the midst of these challenges, Hurston met Franz Boas.
Boas’s cultural relativism and observation about anthropologists’ attractions to “isolated communities” prompted Hurston to reimagine fieldwork: “That sounds like my hometown. I need […] to put Eatonville under a microscope” (31).
Fire!! is as eye-opening as it is entertaining. Readers new to Hurston’s writings will gain much from Fire!!. Readers can learn of her book about Southern white people – Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) – or her venture into musical theatre with From Sun to Sun: Music from the Bahamas, and her many research trips to Caribbean countries. Most interesting was her anthropological research on voodoo, which led to the publication of Tell My Horse. The book painted Caribbean cultural and religious traditions in a positive light, which contrasted with Hurston’s own beliefs and those of her mother. Hurston lived for the adventure and adventured to live.
Peter Bagge is a comic artist and writer best known for comic magazine Neat Stuff, serial collections of short stories in magazine-sized installments through the 1980s, and the Hate comic book series, starring his well-known character Buddy Bradley. Here, he honed his large-headed, wobbly-armed style of drawing characters. Bagge’s characters look like floppy air dancers and Bendos, giving his panels movement and energy. Fire!! is his second biographical graphic novel, his first being Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (2013). Sanger (1879-1966) was instrumental in establishing Planned Parenthood, and like her contemporary, Hurston, is a famous 20th century feminist. Bagge seems drawn to rebels of their time, which leaves readers, especially women who persist, asking for more.
Hurston was known for her eccentric outfits, such as the “’traditional Norwegian skiing outfit,’” photographed by Carl Van Vechten and pictured on the back cover. While Bagge chose to avoid drawing Hurston’s wacky outfits within the pages so as to not distract from the narrative, her outfits were as much a part of her story, her politics, and her message as her writings and life events. Illustrating her outfits would have added flair to the narrative, not detracted from it.
Bagge adds deeply-researched notes and references that expand upon the history and significance behind each scene he illustrates. The end notes are the most information-dense part of the book, and are useful as context between scenes and panels. This blending of graphic and archival research makes Fire!! an appealing read. It shows how image is text and biography is history. This graphic novel belongs in syllabi and in every graphic novel enthusiast’s library. Accompanied by black-and-white photographs of Hurston, references to contemporary celebrities, people important to her life, advertisements, book covers, and more, each note brings Hurston’s story to life. Through Bagge’s skillful artwork, readers can see Hurston in a new light that exceeds previous renditions in film and text.
Fire!! is an accessible read. It is hard to pin the age group Bagge is appealing to. That is the book’s strength; Hurston’s story is about America, coming-of-age, the first black student at Barnard College, the making of an African American anthropologist, and more. Anthropologists’ lives are stories themselves, and Fire!! is the story of a storyteller. Those already familiar with Hurston’s work would be delighted by this graphic novel. Those new to her work will be intrigued and inspired by her career.