A Dangerous Woman: the Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Emma Goldman is one of the most interesting figures in 19th- and 20th-century American history. In her complicated and interesting life, Goldman touched upon many of the most complex and fascinating events the world has ever experienced. Goldman's life is depicted in a graphic novel by the wonderful Sharon Rudahl.

Born in czarist Russia in 1869 to a father who despised her, Emma Goldman always seemed to carry a both an intense fervor to improve the world around her and a desperate need to find true happiness in the arms of a lover. Goldman always seemed to carry a simmering internal flame at her father's rejection, seemingly steadfast in her determination to prove her father wrong.

That smolkdering fire helped give Goldman her intense energy. She was a tireless crusader for the many issues that were important to her, crisscrossing the country to lecture in crowded meeting halls about the issues that made her both famous and infamous. Through those lectures, Goldman was one of the driving forces for great reforms. Ironically, though, the lectures also led to her tragic downfall.

Goldman's fire was also driven by the martyrhood of her beloved Sasha, Alexander Berkman, an older man and great orator who shared Goldman's beliefs. Sasha also possessed a great dream to help Goldman be a real celebrity in her time. However, Sasha was more a man of action than a talker; in 1892, he was arrested and jailed for 14 years due to his actions during the infamous Homestead Strike, a signal event for the labor and anarchist movements in America.

Sasha's jailing helped to set Goldman's jaw to the battles in front of her. It steeled her to take on unpopular causes, such as the defense of Otto Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley. Goldman also delivered many speeches in favor of free love and on the legalization of contraceptives (which were illegal in America at the time under the Comstock laws). Ironically, these events eventually led to Goldman's exile from the United States during World War I, but it's clear that Goldman always believed that she had done the right thing by taking these actions.

In short, Goldman was a remarkable woman, and it's exciting that Sharon Rudahl has created an insightful and interesting graphic biography of her. Writing a biography can be more difficult than it might seem at first glimpse--and graphic novel biographies may be even more difficult. There are really two choices in composing a biography: Either live inside the skin of the historical figure in an attempt to bring him or her to life, or treat the figure's life as objectively as possible and allow the facts to speak for themselves.

It's rare for a biographer to be able to follow the latter method and be able to bring their subject to life, but Rudahl is quite successful at that method in this book. She is terrific at using thoughtful page arrangements and an intelligent selection of facts to help flesh out Goldman as an actual woman we can care about.

Frankly, it helps that Goldman had such an interesting and complex life--and such an obviously thoughtful inner life. Rudahl competently depicts both the internal and external events in Goldman's life, which is no small task, and all of Goldman's complexities are evident in the pages. For instance, we are able to get a feel for the events and actions of Goldman's exile to Soviet Russia.

Along with her political involvements, I also enjoyed how Rudahl spent a good number of pages showing Goldman's romantic entanglements. These events help readers to have a more rounded feel for Goldman's life. In Rudahl's hands, Emma Goldman isn’t just a political revolutionary; Goldman is also a passionate woman who was attracted to passionate men.

If I have one complaint about the book, it's that it’s too short. Many pages are so packed with words that they almost overwhelm the artwork. Ironically for an experienced cartoonist, Rudahl seems reluctant to allow her artwork to tell too much of the story--as if she doesn't trust her art to adequately convey the thoughts that Goldman is experiencing. For example, I kept wishing that Rudahl would spend more time showing Germany during the Weimar Republic--as well as on the abortive attempts to help Sasha escape from prison.

A Dangerous Woman is a remarkable portrait of a remarkable woman, and Sharon Rudahl delivers a book that is well worth reading by anyone interested in this unique figure in American history.

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