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A Dangerous Woman
posted February 18, 2008


Creators: Sharon Rudahl
Publishing Information: New Press, softcover, 118 pages, 2007, $17.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781595580641 (ISBN13)

It's hard not to root for A Dangerous Woman. The 2007 New Press softcover matches genre and medium to potentially thrilling effect (an always welcome biography in comics form), features a fascinating subject (Emma Goldman) and was created by an intriguing artist (underground cartoonist and women comics pioneer Sharon Rudahl). At first glance, it feels like a hit. Rudahl employs a visually dense style that flatters the material. Her pages bear visual elements that mesh and clash as if bringing to life the swirl of ideas facing the activist and her times. Rudahl's individual life moments are lashed to one another via a series of carefully constructed pages that suggest the crowded cities and sometimes suffocating physical and emotional circumstances in which Goldman lived and did her greatest work. During its finer moments, Rudahl's book presents individual events from Goldman's life with energy and emotion. I suppose if your personal view of the social and political activist matches Rudahl's obvious affection for her, or if you're at least willing to accept her view, it might be easy to get drawn into the churn of a life that blends the personal and public as thoroughly as Goldman's did.

As history and as comics art, however, A Dangerous Woman is more wreck than triumph. In placing vital importance on re-telling events from Goldman's life, Rudahl fails to provide her biography with a compelling through-line. Life events occur that seem to happen just because we're told they happened, not because they're a natural result of events or experiences that preceded it. The press of verbiage crowds out a lot of space that could have provided desperately needed atmosphere -- a lot of the events feel like they could have taken place in the same room. After a while, the feeling that Rudahl's approach impresses upon the reader begins to starve for lack of visual detail that would distinguish one place from another, perhaps even mark a kind of personal development. Rudahl also shifts presentational styles in a way that risk jarring the reader right out the story on several occasions, such as in introducing a few of the Marx Brothers to express a few basic ideas about Marxism and meandering in and out of Goldman's story and an older Goldman commenting on her story. These techniques are fine in general, but Rudahl doesn't employ them frequently enough for either to build its own power and legitimacy within the narrative. They feel arbitrary, not authentic. That we don't get any sort of explanation as to how and why things developed compounds the general failure to provide some sort of insight into Goldman either directly or by the way we receive the information. More importantly, the events and accomplishments themselves lack a tether and all start to tumble to the bottom of the page. This makes it difficult for the reader to sort those items of drama and import specific to Goldman's life from those moments when Rudahl portrays her as a kind of generic Firebrand For The Ages. Instead of showing us a life and providing insight as to how it was lived, A Dangerous Woman tells us about one and provides only the barest hint of a different perspective on those events as they happened. It's a mess, one worth digging into only intermittently and despite itself.