The French Cartoonist Bringing History's Unsung Rebels to Life

The French Cartoonist Bringing History's Unsung Rebels to Life

Pénélope Bagieu photographed in a children's bookstore near her home in New York City.

SourceSasha Maslov for OZY

Why you should care

Because Pénélope Bagieu is rendering the lives of female rebels and artists one panel at a time.

Ever heard of Clémentine Delait, Josephina van Gorkum or Annette Kellerman?

More than likely you haven’t, unless you’ve been following the career of Pénélope Bagieu, a French cartoonist living in New York who’s spent the past few years bringing the forgotten lives of extraordinary women to light. Bagieu, who was awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2013, made a name for herself a decade ago drawing the adventures of Joséphine, a French woman similar to the U.K.’s Bridget Jones who became so popular that a film version of her story was made.

Bagieu, now in her mid-30s and sporting a spectacular mop of red hair, has moved into biography. California Dreamin’, her cartoon biography of Cass Elliot (aka Mama Cass), garnered raves — “suffused with delight” said The New York Times — and her blog collaboration with Le Monde, for which she writes short illustrated life stories of obscure women, has been published in two volumes in France and had its U.S. debut last month under the title Brazen.

Her work is unabashedly feminist in tone, and the French comics industry hasn’t always been as open to that, much like the U.S.

Heidi MacDonald, comics journalist and editor of the Beat

“A good half of them I had had in my pocket for years, forever,” Bagieu tells me over the phone, bringing up Katia Krafft, pioneering female volcanologist, as a childhood icon. “Some of the other women were suggested by friends of mine. Once you start opening that box, you find one, then you find another and another.” While other collected biographies of famous women might focus on the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs and Harriet Tubmans of the world, aimed at providing kids with inspiring role models, Bagieu’s work — which is written for adults, though she says she has some ardent younger fans — uncovers the lives of a famous bearded lady (Clémentine Delait), a lawyer who has devoted her career to defending whistleblowers (Jesselyn Radack) and Naziq al-Abid, a Syrian “Joan of Arc” who fought for women’s rights and against French colonialism. The collection was so well-received that a French production company is turning it into a series of mini-biopics for television, and Le Figaro compared Bagieu to Tove Jansson, the reclusive Finnish creator of the iconic Moomin comics — and one of the women featured in Brazen.

Heidi MacDonald, comics journalist and editor of the Beat blog, says she was first drawn to Bagieu’s work for her “instinctive grasp of how to tell a story visually.” She sees an evolution in that storytelling too — from reinvention of a well-known subject, in California Dreamin’, to resurrection (the obscure subjects of Brazen). “Her work is unabashedly feminist in tone,” MacDonald says, “and the French comics industry hasn’t always been as open to that, much like the U.S.”

The Paris-born Bagieu went to art school and became an illustrator before getting offered a chance to do a weekly comic strip for a French magazine. That became Joséphine, which became her career. Three years ago, she moved to New York “for fun, for why not,” she says. In the States, Bagieu has noticed that the comics scene is different — in France, the industry isn’t divided between superheroes and indies, instead consisting almost entirely of small shops with a lot of creative freedom — but she’s found success and fulfillment in her new home. One difference, she notes, is that in the U.S. the publishers decide on a book’s intended audience, whereas in France the booksellers hold sway over whether a title should be marketed to children or adults, women or men, as fiction or nonfiction. In the U.S., Bagieu also no longer gets to play drums in her rock band, which performed covers of the Hives, Weezer and Queens of the Stone Age.

Mark Siegel, editorial and creative director of First Second Books, Bagieu’s American publisher, says he first encountered her work with Exquisite Corpse — a Parisian caper about a girl who befriends a mysterious, reclusive author — and admired her ability to produce writing that’s both personal and accessible to international audiences. “I’ve long hoped to find a bridge builder between France and America,” he says, “and I think we’ve found her.”

That divide is expressing itself in Bagieu’s upcoming work. She doesn’t want to write biographies anymore, she says. Instead she’s turning to science fiction for the Trump era, with a teen comedy about a girl at the top of the high school social ladder whose world gets upended by what Bagieu coyly describes as “crazy coincidence.” Living in a new country — especially during such a tumultuous age — has been a largely positive experience. “There’s an energy here that we don’t have back home when it comes to fighting the system,” Bagieu says. When you live there, you see there is so much more than Trump’s America.”

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