Liberated Review

By | Wednesday, September 13, 2023 Leave a Comment
I am 100% certain that I first learned of Kaz Rowe through comics; however, I am most familiar with them through their YouTube video essays. But the weird part for me is that, in looking back at their comics work as a refresher before talking about their latest book, Liberated, not one bit of it looks or sounds remotely familiar. I even vaguely recall thinking a year or two back that their videos are fine, but I'd personally prefer it if they got back to making comics. Did I think that solely based on my medium of preference? Or had I read some of their more obscure work that they've since decided isn't worth mentioning on their website? I honestly have no idea. So I'm coming to Liberated with some measure of expectations, but I myself apparently don't even know what those are.

Liberated is, as the subtitle explains, about the "radical art and life of Claude Cahun." According to the back cover, she was a "gender-bending Jewish lesibian artist" in the first half of the twentieth century. Normally, I'd just kind of gloss over a string of labels like that for my review, but much of her life -- and certainly much of her art -- was very much about exploring identity through those various lenses. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes several simultaneously. Not surprisingly, though, given her gender and sexuality, and the patriarchial nature of how history is written, she had never been brought up in any of the Art History classes I took in college, despite being part of the surrealist movement led by André Breton and a friend of his. So the vast majority of what Rowe covers in this book was totally new for me.

For those unfamiliar, Rowe's video essays are often about historical people that, while clearly identifying as LGBTQIA+ to some degree (of course using the language of their respective times) are almost never presented as such in mainstream histories. She also covers odd historical events that are also often LGBTQIA+ related in some way. So that Rowe has opted to tackle a biography of Cahun is no surprise. Unlike their videos, though, where their approach is more that of an educator, their approach in Liberated presents the story very much from a first-person point of view, telling her own tale with some measure of reflection and hindsight. Personally, I find this style -- at least insomuch as how Rowe has tackled it -- much more engaging than any of the third-person style biographies on their YouTube channel. While the story remains as well-researched as any of their videos and the book does have large sections that come closer to illustrated prose than comics, it puts a more direct and personal spin on Cahun's life.

One thing I found fascinating were the details of Cahun's life during World War II. Not so much just with the war itself, but how she acted during the war precisely because of her previous years in a non-conforming relationship while working on identity art projects that were so progressive that Breton himself admitted to not understanding them. It was with that background that she instituted incredibly smart and well-executed "stealth" art projects that eventually got the Nazis to consider her a spiritual guerilla fighter, with a greater power and reach than one with firearms. But again, it's not an aspect of World War II history that's ever mentioned because of who writes the histories.

Despite (somehow!?) being new to Rowe's comics, it easily met and exceeded my expectations. Regardless of whether or not you're familiar with Cahun already, it's a fascinating and intriguing story that Rowe executes with aplomb. My only complaint was that it wasn't longer and didn't go into greater detail. The book retails for $19.95 US and came out from Getty Publications yesterday. You should be able to pick up a copy from your favorite bookstore.
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