Pénélope Bagieu Tells the Stories of Brazen Women — and Wants Others to Do the Same

Credits L-R: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World (First Second); Cosmopolitan France

Pénélope Bagieu seems right at home in New York. A major star in the world of French comics or bande dessinée, this Parisian dessinatrice first came to prominence with the cartoons of her blog, Ma vie est tout à fait fascinante, and comic strip, Joséphine, originally drawn for French magazine Fémina. Since 2015, it’s the Big Apple she has made her home.

Stateside, her most recent project was California Dreamin’, the illustrated origin story of Cass Elliot from The Mamas & The Papas, though she’s more well known for her renowned series, Culottées — illustrated, intimate portraits of fascinating and often little-known women. Its English translation, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, comes out March 6, just two days before International Women’s Day. The book is a deceptively complex creation delving into the lives of its women protagonists in a manner that rests somewhere between fact and fiction.

“I did half really detailed biographical research and half no research at all,” Bagieu tells Frenchly. “I made sure all the elements I had were correct — then I changed reality. I try to imagine how the characters would have addressed events. You’re there to make the reader love the characters.”

This year, Culottées will also become a TV show for France Télévisions. “It’ll be 30 episodes of about 3 minutes each,” Bagieu explains. “The animator is a great woman from Iran. I saw what she did with my drawings and it’s animated in the most sensitive, perfect way.” With women the focus of the show, it only made sense to have a team of women on the script, producing, and directing the show. “All of them are really into the project, they really wanted it,” says the illustrator. “I’ve seen a few images so far because they made a teaser and it’s magic. It’s pure magic.”

Her own magical illustrations of women first appeared in Le Monde after initially facing skepticism from some at the paper. “They said, ‘That’s it? Just portraits of women?'” Bagieu recounts of a conversation with Le Monde. “And I said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘….okay.'” The skepticism didn’t stop at Le Monde; even her publisher was initially doubtful, but the illustrator didn’t waver: “I wanted to show that there were more [notable women in history] than just Joan of Arc.”

Altogether, Culottées features 30 women with interesting and little-known lives. “Many of these women are everywhere but they’re not really the center of attention, they’re the background character in somebody else’s biography. Or the wife of someone. Or the mom of someone. Someone who did all the work but who was a woman so she wasn’t the center of attention. These women are worth books, and movies, and all sorts of things,” Bagieu insists. “But they’re not interesting enough for books and movies, apparently.” Saying that the lack of representation for stories “has to change,” the Frenchwoman sees her depiction of these women as a step in the right direction: “If you label people as heroes, then they are.”

From Joséphine to her work today, Bagieu has gained legions of fans, and not only for her personal style in the medium. “A lot of women have thanked me for giving them and their kids cool role models,” she recalls from her recent tour promoting Culottées. “I really take that as a gift.” As for her favorite moments, “I’m really glad when I have readers say, ‘I’d never heard of these people, they’re amazing.’ That’s what I like best.”

For Bagieu, the act of storytelling is multifaceted and intensely personal. “Whenever you tell a story you’re talking about yourself. It’s the idea that a landscape is a self-portrait,” she explains. “Tove Jansson said that with anything you paint — a landscape, a nature still — you’re just telling [about] yourself.”

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Profile of Tove Jansson, from Pénélope Bagieu’s “Culottées.”