Pioneer underground cartoonist Sharon Rudahl left comics early, putting her work on the back burner while raising and home-schooling a family. But her simmering pot has cooked to perfection and chef Rudahl has produced a chef d’oeuvre with her first graphic novel about Emma Goldman, everyone’s favorite Jewish anarchist. Meticulously researched and lovingly drawn, Dangerous Woman (New Press, $17.95) details Goldman’s life from her birth in Czarist Russia to her 1940 death in exile, in Canada. Like blunt-speaking Goldman herself, Rudahl’s Socialist-realist art style pulls no punches. She draws every lump and makes no attempt to beautify anyone, including homely Emma. A feminist and practitioner of what was then called “free love,” Goldman’s plain looks did not keep the boys away, and she had numerous lovers, the last when she was sixty-four years old and he was thirty-six. This led to no end of adventures: she once horsewhipped a comrade who accused one of her lovers of being in league with the bosses. On another occasion, she and a comrade dug a tunnel to break a lover out of prison, but they miscalculated and the tunnel came out in the wrong place. All this, and more, Rudahl manages to tell us about in her comic.
Goldman was fiery and outrageous, and sometimes pretty wacky. At one point in her life, she even took to the streets as a prostitute to earn the money for bomb materials. According to Rudahl, she was a dismal failure as a hooker. When nobody was willing to rent to the notorious Goldman, she found shelter in a brothel, where she sewed dresses for the working girls.
Another time, Goldman dropped everything to rescue a stranded Russian avantgarde theater group, starring future silentfilm star Alla Nazimova. Grateful manager Pavel Orlenoff put on a benefit performance to finance Emma’s literary magazine, Mother Earth, but his many creditors had him arrested after the first performance.
Rudahl tells Goldman’s story with passion and humor. In one panel, she draws Groucho, Harpo and Chico explaining Marxism. She writes that Voltairine de Cleyre and Goldman, both anarchists, were never friends. They appear side-byside at a rally, Voltairine thinking, “Loud! Flamboyant and self-indulgent! Sloppy and dumpy!” while Emma thinks, “Prim and charmless!! Cold and stiff as a board!”
Deported from the United States to Russia in 1919, the uncompromising “Red Emma” soon soured on Communism. In return, Bolshevik Russia soured on Emma. Shadowed by both U.S. and Soviet agents, she left, using a fake passport. She spent the next twenty-odd years living in Sweden, Germany, England, and Spain, a woman without a country. After her death in Canada, the U.S. admitted her one last time. She is buried in Chicago’s Waldheim cemetery, near Voltairine de Cleyre, who had so annoyed her, and near the martyrs of the Haymarket riot.
The world of comics that Rudahl left behind in the 1970s was almost completely male-dominated. Today graphic novelists like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) are proving that woman are a force to be reckoned with in the field of comics. With her graphic biography of Emma Goldman, Rudahl has joined the ranks of women cartoonists who are reclaiming the field, all of them dangerous women.
Trina Robbins, a herstorian, author, and lecturer, has been writing graphic novels, comics and books for over thirty years. She lives in San Francisco, in a moldering 102-year-old house with her cats and books.