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by Pénélope Bagieu
First Second, $17.99, 304pp
Published: March 2018

One of the first books that I read from First Second, three years ago this month, was a graphic novel by a young writer/artist called Pénélope Bagieu, 'Exquisite Corpse', first published in France. Since then, I've been stunned not only by the consistent variety and quality from First Second but by other French graphic novels that they've translated into English for a new audience. Alex Alice's 'Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869' and 'Cici's Journal', by Joris Chamblain and Aurélie Neyret, are as different as they are excellent. I was very happy to see a new book with Pénélope Bagieu's name on it and, surprise surprise, it's completely different again.

It's easy to sum this one up by simply echoing its subtitle: 'Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World'. Yes, it's non-fiction, a collection of 29 biographies so brief that they serve best as introductions. Each of them, as the subtitle suggests, is about a female subject notable for her achievements, often made very much against the odds. Best of all, the contents don't include any of the celebrities you're already conjuring up in your head. There are no Kardashians, there's no Beyoncé and there's no Hillary Clinton. Instead, these are a wildly diverse set of ladies who deserve to be recognised far above those three but who sadly aren't very well-known to the world at large. Not all could be fairly described as heroines because some of them did some dastardly deeds but they're role models one and all because they each did it their way, regardless of the times or the consequences.

As an inveterate reader and the former captain of a quiz league team, I'd hope I'm rather more informed than the average man in the street, especially now I'm old enough to have teenage grandkids, but I learned a lot here. I'm highly impressed at the list of worthies that Bagieu compiled, especially as my own writing tends to have a very similar aim, that of unearthing interesting obscurities and overlooked gems, albeit in the world of film. Of the 29 ladies covered (with a brief autobiography at the end suggesting that Bagieu wishes to be considered in a similar vein as the thirtieth), I knew something about just over a third of them. There's a page at the end that lists a further thirty and I knew about as many there. Plenty of room for discovery!

The worst thing about the book is that Clémentine Delait comes first, which isn't to say that she's not worthy of inclusion. She fits because she was a bearded lady in the late nineteenth century who embraced who she was, to the degree that she changed the name of her café to highlight her facial growth and sold photographs of herself to boot. She was different, she was unashamed and she was influential. She certainly deserves to sit within this company, but her brief coverage appears to tell us everything we need to know about her. That changes greatly as the page count increases, as Bagieu introduces us to women who did so much that their histories could never be covered fully in five to seven pages.

And here's where this works so well. We're given glimpses into amazing lives that we're sure to want to follow up on, especially if we're still in school and being taught our supposed places in the world. These subjects were (and are, as some are still alive—Afghani rapper Sonita Alizadeh, is even a quarter of a century younger than I am) not willing to accept that sort of pigeonholing and they created their own lives the way they wished, even in countries or eras that wouldn't dream of allowing such freedom for women. Think Nzomba, the seventeenth-century queen of lands in modern-day Angola, or Wu Zetian, the seventh-century empress of China, initially a concubine. This book is especially timely, given how far the western world has come but how late and, it often seems, in such a fragile fashion. 'Brazen' is a good lesson to be taught, especially now.

What's perhaps most amazing is that Bagieu manages to do so much with such limited space. This project was originally explored in a blog hosted by the French newspaper, 'Le Monde', and at least some, probably most, of the chapters here were first published there. That doesn't provide a lot of room and she worked in what became on the page a traditional nine panel setup. It's a rare one that's ambitious enough to combine a couple of panels. However, there was obviously a great deal of thought given to how those panels are framed and composed. For instance, there's a panel in the chapter about Annette Kellerman that simply shows her legs, bare from the knees down, standing on a podium labelled with the number one. It's so simple that even I could have drawn it: there are only five lines comprising the podium and the ground it sits on. However, it depicts magnificently just how far she'd come in so short a time from polio-stricken girl to record-breaking swimmer. It's brilliant art, however simplistic it might look at first glance.

It's impossible to pick a favourite chapter. I enjoyed the ones centered on people I knew quite a lot about, such as actress Margaret Hamilton, dancer Josephine Baker or miniaturist Frances Glessner Lee, the subject of the fascinating documentary 'Of Dolls and Murder'. Hedy Lamarr has just got her biopic too, of course. I may well have enjoyed more the ones about people I knew nothing about, such as Naziq al-Abid, an activist for women's suffrage within the Ottoman Empire, who was kicked out of more countries than I've visited thus far. However, best of all for me were the chapters about people I'd heard of but knew only a fraction about, people like Betty Davis, the singer-songwriter turned recluse, and Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins.

This is a fantastic and emotional book. I recommend it highly, to anyone really but especially to young people of either sex. Buy it for your teenage daughters. And yes, buy it for your teenage sons. They need to know too. If this book teaches us anything, it's that there are people whom we shouldn't forget but are in danger of being forgotten. Thank you, Pénélope Bagieu, for keeping these names alive. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more books by Pénélope Bagieu click here

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