Tuesday, April 3, 2018

First Second: Penelope Bagieu's Brazen

French cartoonist Penelope Bagieu has carved out an interesting career doing biographical comics. Her book about Cass Elliott was exceedingly well-drawn, particularly since what Bagieu does best is exaggeration. A big personality like Elliott's was perfect for that kind of story, even if it felt like the book delivered its message in a heavy-handed way at times. Her new book, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World, sees Bagieu select subjects who had to defy society simply to achieve what they wanted. In this collection, Bagieu is able to create incredibly vivid biographical portrayals of historical figures using no more than five to eight pages. Even with the two page, bright portrayal of each figure in-between chapters, this is an extremely dense book that delivers a lot of information. That's a tribute to the sheer intensity of Bagieu's research, and as such, this isn't really a book that's mean to be read all at once. Indeed, in its original format, each entry appeared once a week. 

There is value, however, in reading it relatively quickly, because one can see the thematic through-line of the book appearing quite clearly. Bagieu went out of her way to tell the stories of women throughout history and all over the world. Freeing the book from a simple Eurocentric bent made the stories all the richer while making it clear that the kinds of challenges and gains that women have made tend to be similar no matter what the era. There are stories of women from Africa, Asia, and South America and the Middle East. It's not just women in their youth who are profiled, but also women whose primary impact came at a more advanced age. I'm happy that Bagieu also included Christine Jorgensen, the most famous trans woman in the world in the mid-twentieth century. Bagieu is also careful not to feature too many of the more obvious candidates. There's no Susan B. Anthony or Tina Turner, for example. No Joan of Arc, Cleopatra or Catherine the Great. Instead, we get Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo & Matamba (roughly modern Angola), who seized power in a system that did not allow for a queen and waged war against the Portuguese. We get Wu Zetian, the first and only Empress of China. Through sheer intelligence, guile and willpower, they navigated the minefield of the patriarchy to rule their countries. In Wu Zetian's case, she was especially concerned with improving the plight of the poor. 

Bagieu presents us with actors (Margaret Hamilton, Hedy Lamarr{who was also a brilliant inventor}), public servants (social worker Leymah Gbowee's story is amazing), artists (Tove Jansson), musicians (The Shaggs, Betty Davis, Sonita Alizadeh), scientists and physicians (Agnodice, Katia Krafft, Mae Jemison), revolutionaries (Las Mariposas, Therese Clerc, Naziq al-Abid) and more that's hard to categorize. Indeed, some of the most delightful entries included Giorgina Reid, who saved the Montauk Point lighthouse because of her innovative technique that fought off beach erosion. She had no engineering degree or special training, just remarkable intelligence, vision and persistence. Then there's Frances Glessner Lee, who overcame the frustration of a lifetime of being able to use her brain for something useful to inheriting money that funded a school of forensic medicine at Harvard. She created crime scene miniatures that were so detailed, down to the tiniest minutia, that they are still in use today. Even virtual simulations can't match them. 

These stories are not all breezy and fun. Not all of these women lived long lives, due to being killed, like Las Mariposas. There is a lot of blood and violence in these stories, and women are often the victims. The essence of what she hits on for each of these women is that they were aware of the ways in which the deck was stacked against them and figured out ways to beat the system, because their ideas were that important to them. These were women who wanted to express themselves and had no time for sexism (and in some cases, racism) to deter them as they boldly defied mores and even laws. Even The Shaggs, who recorded music because of their tyrannical father, created a sound that influenced a number of different musicians later on because of its unique qualities. The women in this book seized their own agency and definitively put the lie to the notion that women were in any way incapable of doing anything a man could. Even the women in the book who had support from the men in their lives still found obstacles placed in front of them by society's institutions, all of which were informed by patriarchal thinking. That so many of the women in the book are unfamiliar only goes to show how history is written and why.

Bagieu's line is delightful in the clear-line tradition, even when depicting violence and tragedy. Her use of color greatly aided her in such situations, as she was able to subtly shade a scene that touched on darker material. Though she mostly uses a variation on a nine-panel grid, she uses an open-panel format that allows the work to breathe a little, no matter how much detail she crams into a panel. These are text-heavy stories, and Bagieu struggles at times to balance word and image on the page. Thankfully, her line is so skillful and her use of color so tasteful, she's able to get away with it most of the time. It also helps that she unleashes these beautiful two-page drawings encapsulating each subject following each story, acting as a much-needed palate cleanser. Her character design is consistently clever and lively, using exaggeration to sell emotions and situations. This is a book that will appeal to its YA target audience but also keep the interest of adults as well. 

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