Thursday, February 21, 2008

Review: A Dangerous Woman

A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
Sharon Rudahl

The New Press


I've been interested in anarchism in general and Emma Goldman in particular for a few years, so I was eager to read underground cartoonist Sharon Rudahl's biography of her life. Rudahl, as best I can tell, leans heavily on Goldman's autobiography, tracing Goldman's life from childhood to death. The first few pages of the book suggest that Rudahl will be using humor to cut against the bleak themes of the book. This was not the case for the majority of the book, which is unfortunate because Rudahl can be funny when she wants. That's not to say, however, that A Dangerous Woman is a slog. It's quite engaging if you're interested in the subject matter.

Rudahl isn't the most polished cartoonist, but she acquits herself pretty well here. Faced with a large cast of somewhat similar looking characters, Rudahl ingeniously distinguishes Emma Goldman by shading her hair with stippling rather than linework. It's an unusual choice, but it works--Goldman always immediately jumps off the page. I was equally impressed by Rudahl's judicious use of historical details--she effectively establishes a wide range of settings in a relatively small amount of space. Unfortunately, several of the compositions were needlessly complicated, laid out in such a way that panel and caption order was unclear. This tendency became absolutely exhausting about three quarters of the way through the book, at which point navigating nearly every page was a chore. Thankfully, Rudahl's delicate ink washes somewhat offsets her confusing layouts, making the book readable even on the most jumbled pages.

As a biography, A Dangerous Woman nicely balances the different aspects of Goldman's career. Rather than downplaying Goldman's anarchist ideology in favor of her crowd-pleasing positions on birth control and the Soviet Union, Rudahl constantly reminds us that Goldman remained a dedicated opponent of the state throughout her adult life. I do wish that Rudahl had emphasized the development of Goldman's ideology--when Goldman boldly states that the division between individualism and collectivism is a false dichotomy, it sort of comes out of nowhere. This is particularly disappointing because Goldman remains an enduring figure in American history precisely because of the complexity (and prescience) of her views. I also would like to have seen a bit more about the effect of Goldman's childhood and adolescence on the development of her unique ideology, but it's possible that the existing sources on Goldman's life don't allow for that kind of interpretation.

Despite these shortcomings, I'd recommend A Dangerous Woman to educators, particularly professors of American history, political theory, or women's studies. Rudahl accurately and engagingly traces Goldman's ideology and career, providing more information than one could fit into a 75 minute lecture. It's a fairly short read, and much less expensive than most academic monographs--two qualities that will surely please students. As a graphic novel, it also has the added advantages which come with a visual presentation of history (such as the subtle depiction of Goldman's aging, an accurate portrayal of the poverty of the era, and the visceral power of symbols such as swastikas or the Statue of Liberty). The book would also be appropriate for advanced high school students, but the R-rated depictions of sex might scare off teachers in the post-Nate Fisher era. As for casual readers, their reaction will probably be commensurate with their interest in Emma Goldman, turn of the century feminism, or the anarchist movement. If any of these things are of interest to you, I'd recommend reading A Dangerous Woman.

5 comments:

Jesse said...

Holy crap. Jane Pekar should sue.

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