A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. by Sharon Rudahl. edited by Paul Buhle. The New Press. 2007. 115pp. $17.95
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is not an obvious choice for the subject of a graphic novel. Unless you’re into political science, you probably have never heard of her. But since when is it an obstacle to read a book about someone you’ve never heard of? It’s absolutely not an obstacle. More of an invitation. You see, Emma Goldman was a trailblazing anarchist who became known as “Red Emma” and, when she was deported from the United States in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Comic artist Sharon Rudahl brings Emma Goldman to life in her graphic novel. It was a pleasure to review Rudahl’s graphic novel on Paul Robeson. You can read that here. And it seemed only natural to take one more look back to her graphic novel on Emma Goldman.
Emma Goldman lived a truly storied life. Born in Russia, Goldman joined the mass, late-19th century emigration to the United States as a teen, only to be deported back to Russia just as the Bolshevik revolution was tranforming it into the Soviet Union. One of the founders of the feminist wing of underground comix, Rudahl is a wonderful match to depict Goldman’s life and times. You can see the subject shimmer with energy as Rudahl digs in with enthusiasm and dedication. She adds little artful flourishes as needed and she dutifully finds creative ways to digest all manner of information and reconfigure it upon the page in a concise manner.
Creating a graphic novel is no easy task and it sure helps if your subject is not only compelling but also unusual, in some way transcendent. Emma Goldman proves to be a highly distinctive individual with a hunger for knowledge and a need for helping the disadvantaged rise up. Rudahl follows Emma Goldman’s arc: from tentative public speaker to self-assured leader and rabble-rouser. Goldman was a true original, out in the forefront for worker’s rights, women’s rights, free love, anarchism and ultimately an overthrow of capitalism. It was her opposition to World War I that got her deported but, by that time, she’d already well established herself as “a most dangerous woman.”
Sharon Rudahl is one of the female comic artists who contributed to the first underground comix publications of the early 1970s. She was part of the collective that started Wimmen’s Comix in 1972. Rudahl also drew stories for Anarchy Comix #2 and #3 in 1979. In 1980, she published her own comic book, Adventures of Crystal Night.
A close look at Rudahl’s career shows the steady progression of a determined auteur cartoonist moving up the ranks of the indie scene: creating short works of comics that lead to longer work; finally, everything in place, pursuing graphic novel work, A Dangerous Woman and Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. If you take a look at Rudahl’s short works, you’ll see she likes to come back to “old stories,” those nearly forgotten stories from the old country. It is someone with that sort of sensitive touch who is perfect for depicting the life of such a colorful and complicated figure as Emma Goldman.