Review: Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge

During the Harlem Renaissance, there was no larger presence than author, essayist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, a brilliant woman known as much for her controversial drive to celebrate all aspects, positive and negative, of the African-American community, as she was for her creative fashion choices and young lovers. But while her collaborators and contemporaries such as Langston Hughes are venerated and honored still today, Hurston’s legacy faded into obscurity. That is until 1973 when author Alice Walker made it her personal mission to bring Hurston’s work and influence back from the dead. She started by finding Hurston’s unmarked grave and buying her a headstone.

This story and more are detailed in comic artist Peter Bagge’s fantastic biography of Hurston, “Fire!!,” out this March from Drawn and Quarterly Press.

Bagge’s overstated, embellished drawings suit Hurston’s larger-than-life personality and experience. Born to a well-off family of eight children and raised in the all black town of Eatonville, Fla., Hurston’s life took a fairy tale turn when her mother died, her father remarried a much younger woman and stopped paying for her education, leaving Hurston to survive on her own.

Determined to succeed, Hurston scrubbed floors and served as a domestic, eventually graduating from high school at 27, then making her way to Howard, Barnard and Columbia.

“While Hurston was obviously all in favor of freedom and equal opportunity for anyone of any gender or race to speak their minds and live their lives as they saw fit (and indeed, that’s what her own life was all about),” Bagge writes in the introduction, “she was “equally determined to pursue her achievements on her own terms, without letting anyone else confine her or dictate the context and terms she wrote in,” Bagge writes in the introduction. This can be seen in Hurston’s insistence on writing in the dialect of her neighbors and family despite pushback from professors and mentors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who found her writing style “pandering.” (“Pandering to whom?” Neale asks herself in “Fire!!”)

While “Fire!!” details Hurston’s entire life, it is by no means a complete biography. Rather “Fire!!” is episodic, jumping from one critical moment in Hurston’s life to the next, often with little to no transition or character development. To fill in the biographical gaps readers must turn to the extensive notes section in the back of the book.

While this makes for a disjointed factual read (particularly, I imagine, for those less familiar with Hurston’s work), these brief scenes do capture larger elements of Hurston’s experience, such as her fearlessness, ambition and refusal to live according to others’ expectations.

Bagge, then, succeeds in what he set out to do: Bring Zora Neale Hurston to life in a manner befitting her drive, talent and personality — full living color.