IT WOULD be eminently easy for “Brazen,” the new graphic novel that profiles historically heroic women, not to be brilliant.
The new work from French cartoonist Penelope Bagieu, subtitled “Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” (First Second Books), offers 29 separate comics — one devoted to each woman — and if they were not so beguilingly engaging, “Brazen” could feel like a graphical textbook that summons the requisite trumpets for each lofty lady featured.
If that had been the case, “Brazen” could have come across like simply another entry on the growing shelf of such timely genre books, alongside the series “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” and recent illustrated works like “Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World,” “Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions and Heretics” and “Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors and Trailblazers Who Changed History.”
Instead, Bagieu, who most recently created the Mama Cass graphic biography “California Dreamin’,” achieves a rather adroit feat with “Brazen,” which arrives timed to Women’s History Month. (Bagieu will also appear for a signing Thursday in Washington, on International Women’s Day.)
The cartoonist has culled her own quite personal list to 29 subjects, and then generally gives herself fewer than 60 panels (relying heavily on nine-panel grids) to sketch each woman’s story.
The effect is that each profile is akin to a lovingly stitched story quilt, the bright panels unfolding with exquisite precision and inviting visual pacing.
This brisk storytelling requires Bagieu to hit the obligatory biographical beats of an inspiring life, yet also nod without breaking stride to many textured layers of biographical information, whether implying a darker twist to explore (“Go Google it deeper, reader” is an implied invitation throughout) or simply winking to a life event that remains sketchy even to history.
These comic bios also require Bagieu to be a nimble architect of quick story arcs, whether charting how Margaret Hamilton cut her own path into Hollywood, straight to the Yellow Brick Road (as the cackling Wicked Witch), or how a heroic airborne icon, Mae Jemison, became the first black woman in space. Brevity requires exacting blueprints.
Then there’s the challenge that these 29 short-form arcs could turn formulaic by repetition if not for some especially elevating traits. One apt aspect is that every heroine’s story is alike in that it begins in girlhood; yet each is so different in how it foreshadows themes specific to that rebel lady’s life. (The common girlhood origin stories are also a wise choice given what a natural fit this book is for school libraries and youth reading sections.)
Also enlivening these comics is Bagieu’s playful, clear line work, which practically dances through each profile, from expressive close-ups to vivid full-body physicality, especially when depicting the movement of Paris-performer-turned-WWII-spy Josephine Baker or the glide of pioneering long-distance runner Cheryl Bridges.
Yet what perhaps most resonates throughout “Brazen” is the sense of profound and passionate mission that each of these women embodies, despite their noted differences in age and class, religion, nationality and sexuality, time in history and chosen pursuit.
Some, like the 19th-century Apache shaman Lozen and the 17th-century African queen Nzinga, are warriors of both mind and body. Some, like explorer Delia Akeley or “utopian realist” Therese Clerc, have remarkably driven second acts later in life. And even among the better-known heroines here, including globe-trotting investigative journalist Nellie Bly and actress turned inventor Hedy Lamarr, Bagieu finds wrinkles in time that render their stories fascinatingly fresh.
And several of the most moving portraits spotlight women whose lives are still being written, including rapper Sonita Alizadeh, who, still barely out of her teens, performs her way out of becoming common female commerce in Afghanistan (she realizes as a child that women are “viewed as merchandise”), eventually becoming the subject of a Sundance Festival-winning film.
Perhaps naturally, Bagieu seems to render the lives of artists especially well, delivering quite an insightful understanding when profiling Betty Davis, the reclusive singer who sparked Miles Davis’s late “artistic revolution” and wrote for the Commodores (not even Prince could score an audience with her); and Tove Jansson, the legendary Finnish cartoonist who created the Moomin family of characters amid the horrors of World War II.
Bagieu is both historian and artist, and having grown both talents, “Brazen” finds her creating her best long-form work since the 2010 graphic novel “Exquisite Corpse.”
But really, the highest praise I can give “Brazen” is that it belongs in most every girl’s — and boy’s — hands by middle school. The book reminds you that too many great women’s stories have been lost to history — and that for the greater good, that must never happen again.
Note: Penelope Bagieu will appear Thursday in Washington; 6:30 p.m. at East City Bookshop.