With stunning yet simple illustrations, informative narration and endearing dialogue, the graphic novel Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu tells the story of 29 unique and brilliant women from throughout history and all over the globe. Bagieu’s striking comics bring a diverse group of largely unknown lives to our focus and her use of colour themes and space creates an enthralling reading experience.
I first happened upon this book on a shelf in a bookstore in Mumbai and was immediately attracted to its bold title and cover, displaying the international symbol for women with a clenched fist within it, surrounded by illustrations from some stories within. The pink, gold, and blue colour scheme is not only eye-catching but also sets the tone for the vivid and scintillating comics inside.
Bagieu is a French illustrator and comic writer, known widely for her popular bande desinees (french comics) such as ‘Josephine’ and ‘California Dreamin’. Brazen is a compilation of her female-centric comic strips for the website of the Le Monde newspaper in France, originally titled Les Culottees. They were first published in two volumes as Culottees: Des Femmes Qui ne Font Que ce Qu’elles Veulent (Women Who Do As They Please) and then translated into 10 languages for the book Brazen.
Bagieu makes the women the stars of their own story, and not only relevant as support to males in their lives.
When I began the book, I expected to most likely see well-illustrated but largely Western centric comics. I was pleasantly surprised. Bagieu’s selection of women is excellent, with women from 14th-century Africa to 21st-century Afghanistan. There are rappers, volcanologists, actresses, empresses, activists and more.
Each story is recounted with empathy and wit, and we follow the protagonist from her birth till her death. Their cultures and socio-political surroundings are portrayed, which helps readers understand the magnitude of their accomplishments in their own context.
Some stories are about more well-known women such as Peggy Guggenheim, who dedicated her life to her love for modern art and amassed one of the largest collections in history. Others are stories of women whose remarkable lives are forgotten and considered unimportant, such as Josephina Van Gorkum, a 17th-century Catholic woman who designs her grave to cut through a cemetery wall so she may be buried with her Protestant husband. All these stories are extraordinary and celebrate the mettle and bravery of women in the face of the status quo.
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Each comic is 3-5 sides and concludes with a two-sided spread. Bagieu is able to concentrate a large amount of information into short descriptions and dialogue and highlights the trail-blazing nature of the stories. The spreads are beautiful with striking patterns and intense colours and are distinctive for each woman, to demonstrate her life and legacy. Some I found particularly moving were those of painter Tove Jansson, rapper Sonita Alizadeh and astronaut Mae Jemison.
The illustrations develop with the character, and the attention to detail and accuracy in depicting the lives is impressive. The accounts are given without judgement, and eccentricities and quirks make the stories all the more fascinating.
In an interview, Bagieu said, “Many of these women are everywhere but they’re not really the center of attention, they’re the background character in somebody else’s biography. Or the wife of someone. Or the mom of someone. Someone who did all the work but who was a woman so she wasn’t the center of attention. These women are worth books, and movies, and all sorts of things.” This attitude reflects in Brazen, where Bagieu makes the women the stars of their own story, and not only relevant as support to males in their lives. From lighthouse keepers to rock stars, their story is about THEM.
Brazen is proof that there is an audience curious about the diverse women of the past.
Books such as this one are refreshing to read when historical narratives are dominated by men. It’s easy to believe that there just weren’t that many pioneering women, but the reality is that they were just ignored and after they died, their stories were lost. In India, female contributions to society and progress are hardly acknowledged in the history syllabus and textbooks.
This is why initiatives such as Women’s History Month are vital because we need to relearn and remember. Bagieu makes the same effort with this graphic novel, and its positive reception is proof that there is an audience curious about the diverse women of the past. Brazen initially included the story of Phoolan Devi, but it was removed because it involved the rape of a 10-year-old girl by her husband.
This book is special because its commemoration of women is joyful and heart-warming, and leaves readers in awe of these 29 lives. I felt motivated and touched by every story and was filled with the urge to get up and try to change the world immediately. A touch melodramatic, but the comics are just really that good.
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Featured Image Credit: Left Bank