Women Discoverers: Top women in science

The cover of this collection of biographies shows a background of mathematical equations and a line-up of women with varying skin tones, dressed in clothing from an astronaut suit to historical gowns, but all with the same slim silhouette and of roughly the same height.

This sets the stage for a series of overviews of twenty women in the sciences, which manage to be largely similar, despite their different backgrounds and areas of study. The collection is oddly unbalanced, starting with approximately 20 pages on Marie Curie, giving a rapid overview of her life, relationship with Pierre and other romantic entanglements, and ending with her daughter Irene continuing her work. This is followed by several more contemporary scientists, with an overview of their lives and accomplishments in text accompanied by a thumbnail image and a single graphic panel showing them with other scientists in a lab or involved in their scientific work.

Several shorter comics, about ten pages each, profile Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin, and Mae Jemison. Lovelace’s narrative is bracketed by a modern teacher introducing her to high school students and ends abruptly with her losing “everything” at gambling and then dying. Most of the narrative with Hedy Lamarr is given over to her personal life, including a full page on her husbands. Franklin’s narrative focuses heavily on her unsuccessful struggle for equality, emphasizing that she was most accepted and happy during her work in Paris. Mae Jemison’s story is upbeat, the only prejudice shown in her family huddling around a televised report of Martin Luther King’s death and a class of smiling white children playfully tossing a paper ball at her head. There are no sources cited or back matter. The longer comics all include what appear to be quotations from primary source material, but also fictional dialogue.

The art, although depicting a wide variety of women in different time periods, has a strong similarity. The women are all shown with the same slim figure and average height. Only Marie Curie is shown to age, with her lightening hair, stooped posture, and a few wrinkles. The backgrounds are also similar, with Curie and Franklin shown against tree-lined avenues in Paris and a few sepia-toned war scenes, Jemison in darkened, indoor areas until she blossoms in the sunny, outdoor spaces of California, and Lovelace in groups of indistinguishable people. It’s ironic that, despite the introduction claiming that the purpose of the book is to bring to light hitherto overlooked female scientists, the five women given the longest profiles are already well-known and their comics focus more on their personal lives than on their scientific achievements. Even Curie’s longer comic is taken up with images of her wedding and later romantic entanglements, while Lamarr’s is mostly a series of images of her in provocative period gowns and bathing suits, with a success of husbands, and later as a recluse in Florida. Her inventions outside of the frequency-hopping idea are not referenced, but her plastic surgery is. Rosalind Franklin is, ironically, erased from her own comic, which transitions from her work with DNA to showing the male scientists laughing about her and her ideas at a pub, and then to their awards, overlooking Franklin completely with a brief mention of her later work before her early death. The comic ends with the belated and posthumous recognition of her work, shown in plaques and a statue. Jemison is depicted in the most upbeat fashion, with an emphasis on her hard work and early achievements and ending with her inspiring girls at a science camp.

The aim of the book is worthy, but it is far from the only reference on the subject and it is poorly designed. The translation is rough, with frequent exclamations, choppy sentences, and the occasional typo. Readers interested in graphic interpretations of women in science will do better to explore Primates by Jim Ottaviani, selected Science Comics that emphasize the contributions of women, like Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, or, for lighter fare, Corpse Talk from DK.

Women Discoverers: Top Women in Science
By Marie Moinard
Art by  Christelle Pecout
NBM, 2021
ISBN: 9781681122700

Publisher Age Rating: 12 years and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  French
Character Representation: African-American, American-Austrian, British, French

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World is a pitch perfect historical graphic novel for anyone who wants to learn about brazen rebel ladies throughout history. Pénélope Bagieu started with a list of 50 women whose stories she wanted to tell and narrowed it down to about 30 for the book. In interviews, Bagieu is quoted as saying that one of the hardest choices was deciding “whose stories I could tell a 200 times without getting bored of.”  She especially wanted to showcase that not all brazen rebel ladies are western, white, educated, cisgender, straight women. At the end of the book, Bagieu does include the rest of her list of fabulous women for further reading.

Spanning nearly 2500 years of history, Brazen gives life to women such as Agnodice, one of the first women gynecologists who lived in 350 BCE Athens, to Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghanistan rapper born in 1996. Bagieu covers doctors, scientists, artists, explorers, entertainers: just about anyone from anywhere through time. Some of the women I knew, such as Nellie Bly, Josephine Baker, Hedy Lemarr, and Temple Gradin, are listed but others such as Nzinga, warrior queen of Ndongo and Matamba, Cheryl Bridges, athlete, and Giorgina Reid, lighthouse keeper, are entirely new to me. I found myself especially delighted Bagieu made sure Mae Jamison was included, the first black woman in space who happens to be a sci-fi and comics nerd.

Typically in anthologies or in music, the placement of the stories or songs are arranged by the artist just so, with a theme or an overarching story told via that placement. I could not find such a theme here and this is not to say that the work is haphazard—rather the thoughtfulness of the placement of the brazen rebel’s lives are listed such that you could read about a rebel from 2500 years ago and the next story is of a brazen rebel from the 18th century. The book does not need to be read in chronological order, but I will warn you that when you sit down with the book you’ll likely finish it one sitting, just as I did.

Bagieu wrote, illustrated, and colored the art marking her as a force to reckon with. In another interview, Bagieu selected a “very simple palette of four colors for each story, chosen carefully regarding the era, the country, the global feeling of the story.” In between each story is a two page highly detailed and colored spread of the brazen rebel in action, whether she is warrior queen or Temple Gradin and her cows.

Pénélope Bagieu is known for her attention to detail and the wit of her subjects. Here she gives these ladies all the attention and voice that they deserve. Each brazen rebel is finely drawn and brought to life, their stories may be told over a few pages but each story is in-depth enough to whet a history lover’s appetite. Brazen is listed as age appropriate for older teens, 16+, and up, but it could easily become the favorite of middle grades and up, especially as a reference book for further study. Highly recommended for any collection especially for history lists as well as lists for LGTBQ+ peoples.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World
By Pénélope Bagieu
Art by Pénélope Bagieu
ISBN: 978-1626728691 1626728690
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

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