Wednesday, May 4, 2011

She Did Not Kill Things but Sanctioned It: A Review of "A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman"

Webcomic artist Kate Beaton has made a career out of riffing on history, but when comics mixes with history it isn't always for jokes. In collecting comics outside the superhero mainstream, I've found a couple of good titles that combine comic books and biography, like the anthology Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists, the Harvey Pekar-headed anthology The Beats: A Graphic History and Action Philosophers by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Okay, well, maybe the latter was about jokes as much as education, but I expected something similar to the former titles when I purchased A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman by Sharon Rudahl.

I hadn't known very much about the anarchist leader before reading the comic besides the section in Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation on the killing of William McKinley. In this book about the assassinations of three U.S. Presidents, Vowell describes Goldman's philosophy, and her kind-of-sanctioning-but-kind-of-not of Leon Czolgosz's killing of President William McKinley. Vowell ends up finding Goldman interesting if not likable, and after reading the graphic biography I feel the same way.

The graphic novel, of course, covers far more than just the assassination, following Goldman from her birth to a dysfunctional Jewish family in Russia to her days as an anarchist writer and orator in America to her return and disillusionment in Russia and finally ends with her death in Canada. It gives a great overview of her life and some of her philosophy, often using quotes from her writings. The art can have static expressions, but is also pleasant to look at and serves the stories. Also, there's some sex if you like that sort of thing. Maybe you don't.

But the main point of the book is to highlight the accomplishments and progressive viewpoints Goldman held. They're numerous, and yet ... it's clear Rudhal has a very positive view of Goldman, and maintains that positive and heroic viewpoint throughout. This is a stance that seems incongruous and occasionally even shocking when Ruhal describes Goldman's feelings on Czolgosz or how Goldman plotted with her lover Alexander Berkman to kill American industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Or even when she says first-wave feminists were wasting their time trying to get women the vote.

However, I have to admit that even if the book has a sometimes overly-positive view, it gave me enough of a knowledge base to the point where I came around to the same place as Vowell. It even made me interested in Goldman's autobiography. So if you think you're interested in this book, pick it up. You may like it.

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