Portraits of ‘Brazen’ Women Who Lived as They Wanted

Portraits of ‘Brazen’ Women Who Lived as They Wanted

The woman in the hijab turns out to be a contemporary Afghan rapper and refugee, Sonita Alizadeh, born in 1996, whose low-tech, unflinching music video about the fate of young girls sold into marriage went viral and helped her escape her own fate as a child bride. Alizadeh raps, “Let me scream, I’m tired of silence,” while lifting a Western-style wedding veil. Beneath it her face is made up to look as if she’s been beaten: swollen eyes and bruised jaw. It’s a powerful image, one that Bagieu doesn’t hesitate to draw into the strip.


Live Illustration with Pénélope Bagieu

Pénélope Bagieu joined the Book Review’s graphic novel editor, Gal Beckerman, to draw and talk about her new book “Brazen,” a series of biographies of women throughout history who broke the mold and did their own thing.

Publish Date March 20, 2018.


And Bagieu’s drawings are wonderful. Though sometimes spare, with minimal effort spent on backgrounds, her line manages to flow and skate through 29 stories of remarkable women. These drawings can act. They are alive with gestural attitude. They move, dance, struggle, fight back, fall in love, resist and wonder at the world. Some ham it up. Some suffer terrible abuse. To her credit, Bagieu doesn’t back away from drawing the marks of violence on their faces and their bodies, which may come as a surprise to those who are expecting a rah-rah young adult girl-power sort of read.

Bagieu calls these comics “broad stroke portraits,” and explains the sometimes too breezy storytelling this way: “This book is by no means a thorough scholarly work; rather, it’s one woman’s tribute — my homage to the full, daring lives they lead, often against great odds.”

All of her stories follow a similar pattern. Almost every page has nine frames and each biography begins with a portrait drawn in a beribboned oval template. They cover the birth, life and death of each of her subjects in a way that can feel a bit formulaic, but this seems to have more to do with the fact that the English translation is typeset rather than in Bagieu’s handwriting.

In the original version of these strips, which are luckily available in French on the Le Monde website, where they originally appeared, the difference is instantly apparent. The nature of handwriting gives the portraits a more personal “voice.” It feels as if Bagieu herself is telling you these stories. They lose their Wikipedia tone and become more intimate, more like that of a cool fairy godmother recounting tales you need to hear without too much worry about sources, originality or historical accuracy. Her handwriting preserves her passion, along with clear intent to both delight and embolden the reader.


It’s painful to see this crucial part of her work replaced with type. It changes everything about how the stories are received. The reading speed is altered. The tone and the visual relationship between the text and the drawing just isn’t there. It’s her handwriting that makes these panels spring to life. Panels that seemed awkwardly composed suddenly become elegant and beautifully balanced. It’s hard for people to understand the importance of a cartoonist’s handwriting. In the same way melody transforms lyrics, handwriting transforms words and can have a profound impact on how the story is received and understood.

Sadly, nearly every scrap of Bagieu’s lovely handwriting has been scrubbed and replaced in this translation, even when completely unnecessary. The only clue to this “voice” is a rare lettered sign here and there, and her name, “Pénélope,” sweetly signed at the end of each strip.

These “rebel ladies” come from all over the world (though surprisingly over a third of them are American). They also come from all points in time, like Agnodice, whom Bagieu presents as a gutsy gynecologist from ancient Greece, to the astronaut Mae Jemison (the one with the tight Afro), to the “Animal Whisperer” Temple Grandin and the “Lover of Modern Art” Peggy Guggenheim (she’s the one with the wild sunglasses). Bagieu includes sets of siblings, like the Wiggins sisters, who were forced by their father to form a rock band called “The Shaggs,” and “Las Mariposas,” the Dominican Republic’s Mirabel sisters, who were murdered during the Trujillo regime in 1960. And she profiles too one of my favorite women, Frances Glessner Lee, who helped crime scene investigators hone their craft by creating intensely accurate miniature replicas of rooms where murders took place.

Bagieu has dedicated this book to her own daughters, and I kept that in mind as I read it. When I imagine her telling these stories to them, I’m reminded of something my grandmother would say when she told me these kinds of tales. “Of course it is only a story my dear. But it is true!” Bagieu’s pen transforms these true stories into something that has the tone of a personalized fairy tale. And in the end, this turns out to be just perfect.

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