Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dangerous Woman: A Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman

Dangerous Woman is a graphic novel about the life of anarchist Emma Goldman. It’s an accurate title for a book about someone who was thoroughly committed to upending the social order of her time, and there’s plenty to admire about what she did in her time. Reading about her life made me wonder, what am I doing? I’m not making much of an impact on the world, while she was out there changing the world. However, admiring a woman does not necessarily make Sharon Rudahl’s graphic biopic a successful work.

Reading the book, it feels like you’re listening to her breathlessly run through a list of this woman’s accomplishments, like “She spoke at this rally, and then she got arrested, and then she organized the prison into a factory, and then she got out and she’s so awesome.” The book is the equivalent of a 30s Hollywood “great man” biopic, a work devoted to showing us why a historical figure is worthy of admiration. I always felt like the book was telling me about her, it wasn’t showing her story. In the rush to cram many years of life into the slim volume, we lose any sense of the woman herself and who she was. We just get the facts of her life, and though they’re pretty impressive, it’s hard to say what this book gave me that just, say, reading her Wikipedia entry didn’t.

There’s two approaches in biopic, one is to stay in reality and one is to go into subjectivity. Subjective biopics, like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There don’t necessarily convey what actually happened in a person’s life, but they can convey the essence of the person’s spirit in a way that a simple rote depiction of events can’t. Reading this work, I never felt in the moment of her life. There’s no drama or emotional attachment because the people in the book aren’t really characters, they’re just names. It may be sad that her lover is in prison, but their whole relationship is summed up in one sentence, and I’m not emotionally invested in.

Emotions are what matters in a work, hook a reader emotionally and you’ll engage them throughout the work. However, this work is more about informing the reader than making them feel anything. The back of the book features a blurb lauding this book over the “boy’s club of superhero comics,” but this book feels like it’s missed the past twenty years of development in comic narrative form. I haven’t seen this many captions outside of a Stan Lee comic, this is a graphic medium, and I feel like you could take the pictures out of this book and it wouldn’t affect your understanding of it. To me, form is as important as content, and in this case, the form is such that I’m locked out of the present moment of these characters’ lives.

Now, that’s not to say that the book has no merits. The art is really nice, and I wish Rudahl would let it tell the story more. The book should either have been longer, and really delved into her mind and explored what drove her, or shorter and cut out a lot of the details of her life and focused more on exploring the emotions of her life.

But, this clearly wasn’t the agenda of Rudahl. Her motivation seems to be, I really like this woman and think her story is important, so let me tell you about her. That’s a valid choice, but it’s not one that particularly interests me. I think her total admiration of her subject removes some of the potential ambiguities from the book. She was fighting a good fight, but in our post sixties world, the heavy idealism of her movement is hard to deal with. She comes off as a bit shrill at times, speaking about what the movement does or does not stand for. I think her perspective is very Manichean, there’s the people and the power, and they never cross over. It’s a totally different perspective than something like Morrison’s The Invisibles, which relishes the complexity of human power structures and realizes that no one sets out to do bad things, they just get caught up in selfishness and greed.

But, this was a different time. Things were so bad for people, maybe that radicalism was needed. But, where’s the line? Reading the book, I was thinking about my reaction to her, what I supported, what I didn’t, and the sort of shakeup she made to her society. What role could anarchists have in our society today? These are interesting issues, but I don’t think the book really deals with them.

Ultimately, I found the book’s storytelling style prohibitive to emotional engagement with the narrative. I think it’s important to keep in mind when telling a real person’s story that we have no intrinsic reason to care. It’s a shortcut to use historical events as a device to build our sympathy. When constructing a history-based work, it’s best to think about whether this story would be of interest to anyone if it was based on a fictional character. In this case, I don’t think it would. If you want to learn about Emma Goldman, this book is a fantastic resource, if you want to experience her life, this book doesn’t do it for you.


Gavin Burrows said...

I haven’t seen this adaption but I know the sort of stuff you mean. Do you remember that Gilbert Hernandez strip about Frida Kahlo, back in Love & Rockets 28? The text is dryly biographical, but the
illustrations are richly symbolic and allusive. They suggest to us how it might have felt to live out those facts. A panel showing how her leg had to be amputated in an operation sows a foot sticking out of a trash can. It’s almost like a reversal of the standard division of labour between text and art in comics, where the pictures show us the characters doing stuff while the thought balloons clue us in how they might be feeling about it.

Literalism always feels like the wrong approach for comics, if literalism is what’s wanted why not use photography or film. Comics, even if drawn in a ‘realist’ style, will always look drawn and inevitably remind you of their artifice.

There may have been a subconscious motivation to do things straight because Goldman’s a political figure and Kahlo an artist. While one concerned herself with the imaginary world, the selling point of the other is that she struggled to make things happen in the real world. If so I think that motivation is mistaken. Political activity isn’t merely a reaction to events in the real world, but an expression of your dreams and desires and a will to create something. For example to go on a demonstration against the war is on a surface
level purely reactive (“they’re trying to take us into a war we don’t want”), but is also an expression of a desire – to live in a world where warfare can’t
be forced upon us. As they used to say in the Sixties – “let imagination rise to power!”

Patrick said...

In this case, I think it's simply the writer's so enamored of the subject, she thinks simply saying what she did will interest the reader. It's quite a list of accomplishments, but not quite enough to sustain this kind of narrative. The biography genre is pretty tough to do, only Todd Haynes, with Superstar, Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There, has managed to make artistically satisfying, socially relevant and hugely entertaining biographies.

Gavin Burrows said...

That was the problem I had with the genre of autobio comics. The original guys knew what they were doing with it. But a lot of the people who followed thought they got the story free, taking it from life like plucking a fruit from a tree.

Life at best gives you the raw ingredients.