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Review: ‘Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World’

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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World
Writer/artist: Pénélope Bagieu
First Second; $24.99

Last year, Pénélope Bagieu released California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & The Papas, a comics biography of the young woman who would grow up to become the famed singer and entertainer. This year Bagieu follows it with not one, not two, not ten, but twenty-nine separate comics biographies. Granted, they are much shorter, each filling a single chapter in Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World, but they are no less engaging. And while each of the women within could easily carry a comics biography of her own—and some have, just as many of them have also been the subjects of prose biographies, documentaries, and/or feature-length biopics—the work’s great strength is how many women’s lives appear within, and how a sort of conversation begins to teem beneath the surface the longer one reads, as the stories complement one another, contrast with one another, and echo one another.

BrazenEach of Bagieu’s rebels gets a three-to-seven-page bio comic, the first panel of which is a cameo-style picture above the years she was born and—in most cases—died, and then a huge, gorgeous, two-page portrait of sorts distilling that story down to a single, evocative image.

Her subjects range through time from 450 B.C. to a young woman born in 1996, and they are literally all over the map, in terms of where they lived and worked.

Some are standbys for works focusing on remarkable, trailblazing, and inspirational women from history, like Josephine Baker, Nelly Bly, Temple Grandin, Mae Jemison, and Hedy Lamarr. Some are household names, even if we don’t know them for more than a thing or two, like “Terrifying Actress” Margaret Hamilton, who played The Wicked Witch of The West in The Wizard of Oz, or “Singer-Songwriter” Betty Davis, an iconic modern post-Madonna rock star who was decades before her time…or, more accurately, decades before everyone else’s time.

There’s an African queen and a Chinese empress, a gynecologist and a volcanologist, a woman who was born in a male body and another woman who was famous for her beard, an aristocrat and a social worker. There’s a warrior, a mermaid, a rapper, a rock band, a band of sister activists, a lawyer, a lighthouse keeper, and a woman who created her very own thing: Frances Glessner Lee, the 20th century “crime miniaturist.” Comics fans might take special delight in the story of Tove Jansson, the Finnish artist who became world famous for her Moomin characters.

Despite how different these women all are when it comes to the specifics of their stories—the whens and wheres and whats—each and every one of Brazen‘s 29 heroines is impeccably designed as a compelling cartoon character under Bagieu’s masterful pen, and their stories are all fun and funny, even thought at various points in their stories the subjects all face adversity ranging from the daily indignities of sexism to the full force of states or even whole armies.

Because Bagieu chooses such a wide variety of subjects for a single work, the effect of reading them all is that characters who might seem somewhat obscure are demonstrated to be well worth increased notoriety by mere virtue of their inclusion among the more well-known women, just as those with very specific accomplishments seem every bit as important as the rich and royal, the politically powerful and culturally influential.

That variety also all but ensures that almost every reader will meet many new women they have never, ever heard of, and learn a lot along the way. And with Bagieu doing the teaching, that learning will be about as fun as imaginable.

I know we’ve only just passed the half-way mark of this year, but Brazen seems like it may prove to be one of the best comics works of the year and, if it has much in the way of competition, 2018 will turn out to be a particularly amazing year for comics.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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