Radium Girls Review

By | Friday, September 30, 2022 Leave a Comment
Cy's Radium Girls came out earlier this year from Iron Circus Comics. It tells the true story of the women who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials in the early 1900s and how the dangers of the radium-laced paint was kept from them until well after several them had died. The book follows the story of a small group of women, and how they carried about their lives both in and out of the factory.

I don't recall when I first heard of the so-called "radium girls." I seem to recall being at least nominally familiar with the tale by the time it was brought up during my MBA when we were discussing corporate malfeasance and liability. However, the end notes make it clear that Cy had only become aware of these events relatively recently, so I honestly have no idea how commonly known they are.

What makes Radium Girls stand out over other iterations of the story that I'd seen/heard, though, is that it was very much focused on the women as individuals. Every other time I've seen them come up, it might cite some of their names, but at most only as litigants in the eventual lawsuit. What Cy does here is humanize them. The story is about them, not so much the horrible consequences they faced at the end of their lives -- though that is here too -- but how they were all people with hopes, dreams, quirks, foibles, and everything else that make us human. They go out dancing. They go to the beach. They gossip. They get into arguments. They raise families. They live their lives and we, the readers, witness them.

And when they do start coming down with initially mysterious illnesses, we see it from their perspective. It's less about the clinical diagnoses and more about how they feel. About everything from their teeth falling out to the betrayal by an employer they trusted. These women weren't their jobs. They weren't their illnesses. They were people. And that's something that's been lacking in all of the accounts I've come across previously.

These women's tale, sadly, is often told in the wrong context. It's often told as a warning to businesses, usually as a scare tactic to convince them to cover their asses legally. It's rarely told as a tragedy but more frequently as a fable. "It's okay if your production line is dangerous to human life, just be sure they can't sue you for it later." You don't often hear of successful cases like these precisely because that was the lesson corporate America took from it. Not "do right by your employees" but "fuck your employees as much as you want, just cover your ass while you do so."

Cy's art isn't flashy; in fact, it's very soft and quiet. Which are further emphasized with her choice of using colored pencils for everything, and a limited color palette of them to boot. But there's a style and elegance to her art that feels reminiscent of art deco -- rather appropriate given the time period the book covers. It showcases the elegance of Cy's linework and the amount of depth you can get with just a few strokes.

The book came out, I believe, a couple months ago initially through a crowd-funding campaign. It's not, as of this writing, available on Iron Circus' site but I expect that to change soon. It retails for $15.00 US.
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