Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story
Peter Bagge (Writer and Artist)
Drawn & Quarterly
When a call was put out asking who would like review the new graphic novel, Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story, my response was “Who wouldn’t?” Zora Neale Hurston was a remarkable female anthropologist, folklorist and writer. She was an important figure in the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, the first black woman to attend my alma mater Barnard College and the author of the richly complex novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Throughout her life, her work told the stories of southern black culture in ways that have moved so many people through their power and authenticity. So yes, who wouldn’t want to check it out?
When I opened the file in my inbox, a few thoughts jumbled in my head. Is this right? Brenda, don’t judge a book by its cover. And what the hell? The cover features a caricature-art style of Hurston with an open smile, one eye closed and a pistol aimed at the sky.
Much to my dismay the art style continues throughout the book. I admit that this is not an artistic style that I’m drawn to at all. Beyond my personal preference I feel it’s a big miss for the story. For me, the style is reminiscent of the kind of comedy that makes jokes at the expense of someone, not in celebration. And we’ve already had plenty of stories and cartoons that make black culture the butt of the joke. For a graphic novel celebrating the life of one of the key black figures of the 20th century, the art feels like a disservice.
The art appears to be the normal stylings of American cartoonist Peter Bagge. His past works, the dark humored Hate, Neat Stuff, and more recently another biographical piece Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, all have similar exaggerated facial expressions and oddly portioned bodies. I don’t blame Peter Bagge for the way he drew Fire, but I do question whether his artistic style was the best fit for the project.
I was excited to review Fire!! for another reason. Over the past few years, I’ve watched the success of non-fiction graphic novels aimed at young audiences. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, El Deafo by Cece Bell and, of course, March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, grant access to perspectives young people might not otherwise see.
The overall story of Hurston’s life is told in short snippets, often only a page or two long. Even within a page, we’re likely to go from one time and place, to a “Soon.” This kind of always-on-the-go pacing never allows a particular story, scene, or character to fully develop. Rather than making me feel the eccentricity of Hurston’s ways, it often made her feel like a joke. There are also numerous short stories about Hurston’s travel among different voodoo and hoodoo anthropological study trips. Again these are so short that many seem to poke fun at Hurston, the practitioners or both. Instead of highlighting her work documenting these spiritual traditions, it feels like they’re being treated like a joke.
The design is choppy. I loosely thought it might be to help with teacher lesson plans, but even that is a stretch. I found it hard to stay engaged and to want to continue reading. My favorite part of this graphic novel is the Addendum which discusses each page in more detail and fully tells the story.
As Peter Bagge himself mentions in the introduction to Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, the subject matter of Their Eyes Were Watching God was not something he figured he would relate to, “the evolution of a poor Black woman living in the South in the early twentieth century.” Bagge, a white male born in New York and now living in Seattle, obviously did become enchanted with the book and his interest and respect for Hurston is apparent in the Fire’s Introduction and Addendum.
I wonder about what might have been lost in translation because as someone who covers diversity in pop culture media, it’s the nuance that counts. Oftentimes someone connected to the community will care about the details that make the story feel honest and authentic. I’m not saying a white person should never be able to tell a story with a black character or lead. Would this graphic novel look differently if a woman had written it? Or a black person? Or a southerner?
I really wanted to like Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story. With the wide-eyed earnestness of my high school self reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, I wanted to like it. With the college-aged awe learning in halls of Barnard College, I wanted to like it. With the fierce independence of a strong woman of color, I really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, this interpretation fell flat.