Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World Isn’t Afraid of Complex Women

Comics Reviews First Second
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World Isn’t Afraid of Complex Women

Brazen.jpegWriter/Artist: Penelope Bagieu
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: March 7, 2018

If you just see a picture of the cover of Penelope Bagieu’s new book—with a Venus symbol centering on a power fist and a bunch of pink circles with different women’s faces—it’s easy to dismiss it as another shallow exercise in monetizing “girl power,” the equivalent of a bedazzled t-shirt from a big-box store. If, on the other hand, you encounter and touch the physical object that is the book, you’ll realize that it’s literally much rougher than it seems: the circles and the letters are treated with spot gloss varnish, but most of the cover has a sandpaper finish. That contrast between slick and rough serves as an apt metaphor for the contents of the book, which is both the kind of book that will give liberals warm fuzzies about giving it to their daughters, and something pricklier and trickier than that.

Bagieu has always had a talent for presenting complexity in a seemingly simple package. Her last book, California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas, accomplished the same thing, refusing to buff out its subject’s flaws. The target audience for Brazen is older than that of the better-known Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (which is not a comic), and this lowered profile allows Bagieu to focus not just on the inspiring stories of its subjects, but also on their stumbles, personality quirks and sex lives. There’s war here, plus abortion, trans issues, homosexuality, murder and palace intrigue. That all makes it a much more interesting book!

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World Interior Art by Penelope Bagieu

Brazen developed out of a series Bagieu published on a blog with the renowned French newspaper Le Monde, and you can feel her passion for the subject in her drawings, which are as bewitching as they are intelligent. Each story ends with a two-page single-image spread that somehow captures everything important in the preceding three to eight pages of story, most of which are arranged in a classic nine-panel grid. Bagieu’s not afraid of color, but she’s also smart enough to use a limited palette for each story, keyed to its themes. Leymah Gbowee (Liberian social worker and activist, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize), for example, appears in reds and greens, the colors of the pan-African flag; Tove Jansson in the bright, primary colors one associates with the covers of her Moomin books; Katia Krafft, volcanologist, with a fiery lava-like red running through her panels.

Bagieu’s line is finer and more scribbly here than in some of her other work (California Dreamin’ was done in thick pencils, forcefully applied to the page); one might even call it a feminine drawing approach. What it allows her to do is sneak in that heavier subject matter because the look of the pages is light and joyful. It’s a celebratory book, to be sure, but one that doesn’t need its subjects to be perfect to elevate them. It’s also intersectional without being preachy. Bagieu treats Christine Jorgensen, Mae Jemison, Sonita Alizadeh, Las Mariposas, Nzinga and the Shaggs in quick succession, with the same studiedly light approach, just as if she were writing a book about… famous men?

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World Interior Art by Penelope Bagieu

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