How Comic Book 'Brazen' Brings Feminist History to Life

Cartoonist Penelope Bagieu looks at women who changed the world and "deserve the front of the stage."
Courtesy of Penelope Bagieu/First Second

It’s International Women’s Day, and First Second Books has provided one of the finest ways to mark the occasion, thanks to this week’s release of Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World.

An anthology of biographical shorts of women throughout history who have changed the world — from Nellie Bly to Josephine Baker to Naziq al-Abid — Brazen is the work of cartoonist Penelope Bagieu. She is no stranger to transforming the real lives of iconic female figures into comic book format after last year’s Mama Cass biography, California Dreamin’. Heat Vision talked to Bagieu about the origins and process of creating the book, and deciding whose stories to share with the world.

Brazen started as a series of strips for Le Monde, but how did that actually come about?

I had just finished writing a biography of Mama Cass, and I guess it kind of opened Pandora’s box for me: I wanted to tell the stories of other women who inspired me, women who deserved to be put into the light. I thought of writing a few names, and expected to have three or four candidates, but started listing five, 10, 20 of them, and then I knew I could go on forever. And it shaped my project: this time, instead of a 300-page exhaustive biography, I would give a glimpse of their lives, just enough to hook readers and make them want to know more. At that time, we had been thinking of a collaboration for a while with Le Monde, and I simply suggested this series: every week, the short portrait of one amazing woman who deserves her own biopic.

How did the weekly deadline shape the way in which you told these stories? I’m imagining that the process of research was as much of a time-suck, if not moreso, than creating the comic itself. 

The challenge of delivering a strip every Monday was exhilarating, and really improved my creative process. I split my work time in half, between reading autobiographies, newspapers and interviews, and drawing, for a year. It was like spending my time with a bunch of inspirational women and being a student at the same time. A very intense adventure that really changed my work.

This is maybe related to what I just asked, but I love the way the book looks — your use of a limited color palette, and also a relatively spare style in terms of line, too. What was your process in making these strips?

The time constraint forced me to a an almost clockwork pace. I had to find an efficient artwork that wouldn't require too much time, so that I would be able to spend half of the week reading and taking notes. But it also had to be very vivid and expressive, to create an empathy with readers, especially an audience that was not necessarily familiar with comics. What really mattered was how to represent each woman, based on her real appearance mixed with my way of making her alive.

The most important thing to me is to communicate a lot of emotions and create a bond with the character. And for that matter, color is very helpful too: I settled for a very simple palette of four colors for each story, chosen carefully regarding the era, the country, the global feeling of the story. And between the quick drawing and the restricted color range, this whole process improved my artwork so much. I advise anyone who likes to draw to try this method, you'll be amazed!

You mentioned California Dreamin’, your biography of Mama Cass — what is it about biography, either longform or these short takes, that draws you to it repeatedly?

Brazen is my 10th book, and I think it is the time it took me to get to the very core of what I like in a story: sudden detours in destinies, paths that don't go as planned, but eventually land people exactly where they wanted, via a plan B. That's what fascinated me about Cass Elliot; that is also what kept me fueled during that whole year of searching for these extraordinary ladies. I build their stories around that twist, that moment in their life when they decide that from now on, things will go their way. 

How did you go about choosing the women whose stories you told? It’s a fun mix of people I’d heard of before, and those I was completely unaware of.

Like many women of my generation, I grew up identifying [with] men, the cool guys in fiction, because nobody wants to be the damsel in distress or the sidekick. I didn't think a female character could be strong, or brave, or fun or badass. But then I realized I did know a lot of awesome female role models: That volcanologist I saw on TV as a kid, that illustrator who created the Moomins I love, they really inspired me. But, since they're not labeled as "heroes,” but only background characters, they don't have books or movies about them. You just have to decide to focus on them and that they deserve the front of the stage. 

As for those who are already more famous, I wanted people to know that they were so much more than what is usually told about them: Josephine Baker was an exotic dancer with a banana belt, but she was also a spy during WW2, she marched with MLK, and she adopted children from around the world. Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful faces of her time, but she was also a genius who idly invented, on her spare time, what we use today as wi-fi, and so on.

Who was the most surprising subject? Was there someone who stood out either while you were working on the story, or once you were finished, as a character you couldn’t help but think about or talk about?

Ha, "can't help but talk about" was actually the screening test for them to be shortlisted as Brazen material! My friends were so sick of hearing me telling these stories over and over again that they welcomed that book with great gratitude. But perhaps one of those whose life really is a movie, is Annette Kellerman. She contracted polio at the age of 6, and was more or less destined never to walk without contraptions. But a doctor had the idea to make her swim, to stimulate her muscles, and that bold, determined little girl started swimming and swimming, to the point where she became a national champion.

But this was the 19th century, and Annette had to swim in a cumbersome, heavy and uncomfortable getup, according to Victorian laws. So, she did exactly what a brazen lady would do: she got sick of acting like a good behaved girl, and she designed a prototype of an outfit she could actually swim in, by sewing undergarments together. And people were outraged. And she got arrested. But every woman wanted to have that new swimsuit, called the Kellerman. I will stop her story here, but she was also a Hollywood star, a successful author, a nutrition coach and a businesswoman. See? I can't help but talk about her. (And I have 30 of them, like this!)

You’ve had a wonderfully varied career to this point — in addition to books like Exquisite Corpse and California Dreamin’, you’ve also created serialized strips like Josephine — which inspired two movies! — been a journalist with the Culottees strips that became Brazen and beyond, you’ve worked on charity projects and projects to raise awareness of things like deep-sea trawling … What’s next? Are you already working on your next project, and can you give a tease of what to expect …?

Well, I've been very lucky this past year and have been traveling and promoting Brazen in the 10 languages it has been published in, and I also keep a very excited eye on the TV adaptation that is in production. But what I am eager to start working on after that is a teenager story with a science fiction twist, in a high school right in the middle of a Trump voting area. I’m writing this story with a good friend, we have a lot of fun, and I must say it's good to take a break from non-fiction once in a while!


Brazen is available now.

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