“Brazen” Brings Little-Known Stories Of Rebel Ladies To Life

by Erika W. Smith

Here at BUST, we receive many copies of children’s and young adult books that contain dozens of mini-profiles of incredible women. These books are important—as a baby feminist, I read and re-read the 1998 book Girls Who Rocked The World. But there are so many books like these that sometimes it’s hard for individual titles to stand out from the crowd. Illustrator and comic designer Pénélope Bagieu’s book Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World does just that. Told in colorful comic strips, Brazen succeeds because it focuses on the lives of women who aren’t well-known—meaning that I not only enjoyed reading the book, I learned a whole lot, too.

BUST Brazen 4 246b8from “Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba”

Brazen features twenty-nine short comics telling the life story of incredible women. There are a handful of well-known names—Josephine Baker, Hedy Lamarr, Nelly Bly—but the majority of the comics focus on little-known rebel ladies of both the past and the present, from ancient Greek gynecologist Agnodice to Afghan rapper Sonita, who was born in 1996.

BUST Brazen 1 1ce4cfrom “Leymah Gbowee, Social Worker”

Bagieu includes many stories of women of color who are often left out of these sort of collections—we learn about Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba (present-day Angola); Liberian social worker and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee; and singer-songwriter Betty Davis. There’s also a trans woman featured—Christine Jorgensen, whose profession is cited as “Reluctant Celebrity”—showing that Bagieu knows “rebel ladies” don’t have to be cis (though I’d have loved to have seen more than one trans woman included).

BUST Brazen 2 fa718from “Betty Davis, Singer-Songwriter”
The book kicks off with the charming story of 19th century French “bearded lady” Clementine Delait, who embraced her unusual looks as a way to market her café and became a wealthy celebrity. But my favorite story here might be that of painter and comic artist Tove Jansson, who wove coded stories of her experiences with the rise of Nazism and WWII, and her illegal romantic relationships with women, into the adorable yet melancholy Moomin comics. And Jansson has a few things in common with Brazen. Like Jansson, Bagieu handles stories of death and prejudice with respect, while making sure the darker stories—such as that of “Las Mariposas,” the Mirabal sisters who were brutally murdered for their resistance against Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo—are accessible for young readers. As a grown woman, though, I can vouch that Brazen will captivate readers of all ages. 

Brazen is out now. 

BUST Brazen 3 76cf8from “Las Mariposas, Rebel Sisters”

All images from Brazen by Pénélope Bagieu. Top image from “Clémentine Delait, Bearded Lady.” 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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