The Anarchist’s Comic Book

October 26, 2007 | , , , ,

A Dangerous Woman
The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman

By Sharon Rudahl

The New Press. 112 pages. $17.95.

Emma Goldman’s life is a writer’s dream—long and sordid, inspiring and debased, full of sex, political courage, and international intrigue. She was, after all, a nice Jewish girl who conspired to break her lover out of prison, inspired a presidential assassin, and penned detailed accounts of her sexual affairs with younger men. Red Emma, as she was known, is widely remembered as the most famous anarchist in turn-of-the-20th-century America, a rebel against conventional morality who crusaded for free speech and birth control, and against exploitation. She’s been an inspiration to radicals for over a century.

Already adapted in novels (like E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime) as well as in movies and plays, treated in Goldman’s thousand-page autobiography and myriad scholarly, commercial, and politically oriented biographies, Goldman’s life has now been translated into the graphic novel medium. The project, Sharon Rudahl’s A Dangerous Woman, has tremendous potential—not only because it promises to present a stylized version of Goldman’s life in vivid pictures, but also because it has been undertaken by a dedicated leftist and feminist fiercely loyal to Goldman’s legacy. Unfortunately, though, A Dangerous Woman doesn’t deliver on its promise.

Sure, the book manages to cover the breadth of Goldman’s long life and to touch on the most fascinating episodes in it—for example when, as a young radical, Goldman prostituted herself, unsuccessfully, to raise funds to a buy a gun with which her lover, Alexander Berkman, could kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick; later, after the assassination failed and radicals accused Berkman of having botched the job on purpose, Goldman appeared at a rally with a concealed horsewhip to tell them what was what.

Rudahl likewise captures the dramatic details of Goldman’s deportation to Russia during the crackdown on civil liberties that followed World War I: wakened in the middle of the night in their detention cells on Ellis Island, Goldman and other subversives were “marched through freezing snow… herded aboard [a] decrepit military transport” and eventually shoved by grumpy Finnish soldiers toward the Russian frontier.

Rudahl is also admirably attentive—more so than some Goldman enthusiasts have been—to Red Emma’s continuing identification as a Jew and connection to Jewish communities and culture long after she rejected religion. Rudahl represents Goldman, a grizzled and unrepentant atheist at age 70, delivering lectures in Yiddish demanding “the right of asylum for Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, including in Palestine,” and later spooning “a bissel chicken soup” into the mouth of an ill anti-fascist.

The main problem with A Dangerous Woman is a simple one, though: it passes muster as a beginner’s biography of Goldman—it relays about as much information as the relevant Wikipedia entry—but as a comic book it just doesn’t cut it.

To be specific, Rudahl overloads her pages with too much text; a glance at any layout in the book would have alerted any professional comics editor that something was going very wrong. As Will Eisner says, “there is no absolute ratio of words-to-picture” for comic books, and the percentage of the page given over to text varies from artist to artist; but many of Rudahl’s pages appear to be choked with lettering, leaving little room for the drawings to perform anything but an incidental function.

Rudahl devotes so much space to the text so as to reproduce verbatim the words of Goldman and her confederates, which she has culled “directly from their own essays or speeches,” or from Goldman’s autobiography. Admirable as this research-heavy method is, in theory, for a biographical comic, the result turns out too frequently to be not much more than an illustrated book of quotations.

A Dangerous Woman‘s other flaw as a comic is more fundamental. Extraordinary biographies and autobiographies have certainly been produced in the comic book form—from Art Spiegelman’s Maus toMarjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. What these extraordinary books have in common with excellent original fiction, and adaptation, in the comic book form—say, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York—is the stylization of both image and narrative.

In a good graphic novel, it seems, things are honed down to their very essences. An eye becomes a circle, a nose a line; the Holocaust or the Iranian revolution becomes the story of one family or one person. If Rudahl had limited the scope of her storytelling, and developed a visual style that captured something essential about Goldman’s milieu—as Peter Kuper does in his adaptations of Kafka and Upton Sinclair, or as Chester Brown does in his biography Louis Riel—she might have more usefully distilled a few choice incidents from Goldman’s life down to comic book dimensions.

With more assiduous editing, Rudahl’s talent as an illustrator and her eye for sharp incidents, as well as her passion for and knowledge of her subject, could have resulted in a graphic novel masterpiece. As it is, A Dangerous Woman isn’t a bad way for an interested novice to zip through a thumbnail sketch of Goldman’s life, but unfortunately it never offers anything more substantial or moving than that.

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