Review by Frank Plowright
Pénélope Bagieu describes Brazen as the stories of women who gripped and fascinated her, and boy is she a fantastic judge of character. Without a knowledge of specific subjects, Josephine Baker and Hedy Lamarr are about the best known of the 29 featured women, both with gripping, transformational stories, yet they’re hardly household names. That makes Brazen a discovery treasure chest of inspirational and captivating women, some of them still living.
Because Bagieu’s subjects are relatively obscure, she’s enlightening about numerous people whose names might register, but without any background knowledge. The Shaggs are an example, three sisters known to some music fans as pioneers of the outsider music scene due to their toneless and tuneless 1960s album. The abusive horror of their circumstances, however, paints their achievements in an entirely different light, and Bagieu achieves this time and again.
The stories are both inspirational and aspirational, of courage in the face of adversity, pure strength of will and a refusal to accept the status quo in societies and times that almost enshrined it in law. Heard of Delia Akeley? She left a physically abusive father when she was thirteen in 1882, fled to Chicago and apprenticed to a noted taxidermist whom she later married and managed his expeditions to Africa. Aged fifty she decided to embark on her own expeditions, becoming the first woman known to have crossed Africa from West to East, and specialising in ethnography. As stated in the text, she lived to a hundred, with the birth date on her introductory illustration wrong. It was a remarkable life, and like so many others recounted, one that makes you head online to discover more about the subjects.
Bagieu’s cartooning is elegant, generally a compact nine panels to a page, some without borders, and making effective use of flat colour. It appears simple, but is great when specific moods are needed, such as vulcanologist Katia Krafft’s boredom with mundane administration, or the contrasting exhilaration as Leymah Gbowee begins training as a social worker.
This isn’t just a great reading experience. Chris Dickey and Danielle Ceccolini are credited for the book design and their work should be highlighted. They do a fabulous job with covers, ensuring that they’re great to the touch. The basic material has a sort of grainy feel, while the women are in circles of gloss, and the title is embossed. The tactile concept even extends to the spine. Inside, each three to seven page strip is concluded by a two page illustration somehow embracing what their subject is or feels. These are magnificent, many dwarfing their subject by nature or abstraction.
Endearingly, after a list mentioning other women whose biographies she didn’t get around to illustrating, including a second Margaret Hamilton, Bagieu concludes by indulging herself with her own two page biography. While packing the information in, Bagieu’s work is a compact primer, an encouragement to the enquiring mind to discover more, and therefore the ideal gift for the intelligent teenager. You don’t have to be young, though, to be entranced. Sonita Alizadeh, Gbowee, Jesselyn Radack and others are still active today. Look them up.