Cartoon feminists: Sally Heathcote and Woman Rebel

Two recent graphic novels tackle subjects from feminist history. 

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A panel from Sally Heathcote: Suffragette

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
Mary and Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth
Jonathan Cape, 192pp, £16.99

Woman Rebel
Peter Bagge
Drawn & Quarterly, 94pp, £12.95

In 1986, the film critic Roger Ebert dismissed David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for its cruelty, citing the violence inflicted on Dorothy Vallens – the sadomasochistic mother played by Isabella Rossellini. “It’s not how [she] reacts to the fact that she’s standing there, nude and humiliated . . . It’s how I react. It’s painful for me to see a woman treated like that.” His colleague Gene Siskel disagreed with his assessment, pointing out that this sense of discomfort was essential to the film’s affective power, but Ebert was resolute. He didn’t like what the movie showed, so he didn’t like the movie.

It’s an anti-art position, as is the reverse scenario: to like something because it’s compatible with one’s world-view. Critical judgements shouldn’t be dictated by subject matter or politics alone. Of course I’m appalled by spousal abuse but I’d rather watch Arnie gunning down his wife in the 1990 film Total Recall (“Consider that a divorce!”) than sit through the same year’s Bechdel test-approved Happily Ever After. One is a tightly constructed action thriller, while the other is a B-grade cartoon.

Two recent graphic novels tackle worthy subjects, both from feminist history. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, by Mary and Brian Talbot (with the illustrator Kate Charlesworth), tells the story of a Mancunian woman who rises from domestic service in the household of Emmeline Pankhurst to become a fully fledged campaigner. Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel is a true-life account of the American activist Margaret Sanger, who utilised her enormous personality to persuade a reluctant patriarchy to accept the need for better sex education. But I fear that both books, to varying degrees, use their subject matter as a proxy for profundity.

To be fair, Sally Heathcote may prove a good educational tool but the quality that would make it useful in the classroom – its tick-box cataloguing of historic moments – saps it of narrative power. Sally the fictional heroine comes across as a sort of Zelig or Forrest Gump, a close-quarters witness to the marches, the rallies and the internecine conflicts between the pacifist Pethick-Lawrences and the militant Pankhursts; but her spectator status at meetings between the organisers of the movement only draws attention to the perversity of the Talbots’ choice of protagonist. Many of the glimpsed real-life figures, in particular the two Emmelines, are far more compelling as characters.

Sally’s participation in a bomb attack on Lloyd George’s country pile is a rare moment of drama, as is a horrific sequence showing her force-feeding in Holloway Prison. These pages, drawn in expressionistic shadows or vertical panels whose black borders evoke prison bars, seem to have engaged Charlesworth most – which is no surprise, as much of the rest feels like the result of an arduous battle between image and text. Text won: there’s too much telling and too little showing. “Deeds not words”, indeed.

No masters: Sanger prepares an inflammatory newsletter in Peter Bagge's Woman Rebel

No masters: Sanger prepares an inflammatory newsletter in Peter Bagge's Woman Rebel

Bagge’s Woman Rebel is similarly text-heavy but the constraints of biography give it more focus. Sanger was a masterly campaigner and media manipulator; she was also an early proponent of free love whose sexual partners included H G Wells. There’s no need here to adorn the story with a broader historical context than the facts of Sanger’s life and Bagge’s choices of which episodes to include are uniformly astute.

Perhaps Woman Rebel is a belated penance for Bagge’s best-loved creation, Hate’s Buddy Bradley, known for such observations as: “Why is it these so-called ‘feminist’ types are always the biggest sluts?” The often unpleasant Generation X posturing of the Buddy stories was more than justified by Bagge’s knowing humour; happily, there are traces of the old goofy sensibility in Woman Rebel. As a child, Sanger is warned by a teacher about her knack of convincing other people to do her bidding. “I have superpowers!” she thinks. Meanwhile, an endnote refers to Sanger’s 1914 newsletter the Woman Rebel as a “zine”. With its slogan “No gods, no masters”, it could pass at first glance for a 1990s riot grrrl manifesto.

It’s this ability to entertain while immersing the reader in an oppressive world that makes Woman Rebel a success where Sally Heathcote fails: for committed art that fails as art more often than not comes across as dry or one-dimensional. Though I might agree with it, it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.

Yo Zushi's new album "It Never Entered My Mind" is released in July by Eidola Records. The single "Bye Bye Blackbird" is available now

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article appears in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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