Julie Birmant (writer); Clement Oubreie (artist)
September 17th, 2019
Isadora is a beautifully drawn and elegant erotic graphic novel for adults which does a fantastic job reimagining the life of the famous dancer, Isadora Duncan, who both conceptualized modern dance and led a colorful, storied life. From the loss of her two children in a tragic automobile accident to a firm last stand against an angry Russian audience outraged by the sight of her dancing with a bared bosom, Isadora reflects the artist’s life without copying it whole cloth.
The surrealistic journey Julie Birmant takes us on visits the themes of Duncan’s life through a lens of fantasy and dream illusions. Using art (Isadora’s form inspires famous sculptor Rodin, with whom she avoids an affair), mythology (Isadora is obsessed with the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche and has a dream while visiting London in which she’s chosen by Athena to bring her legend back to life), and sex (Isadora had many lovers, male and female, some of whom inspire great passion in her, some of whom inspire great anxiety), the story of her life is woven through the classical works that inspired her and she inspired.
Moving back and forth in time between humorous anecdotes and serious, sad moments of contemplation, Duncan is shown on the rise as a neophyte dancer, during her more meteoric moments of success in Europe and America, and in moments of wild adventure, embarrassing scandals, and disgrace. Along with weaving transcendent fantasy, Birmant manages to highlight some lesser-discussed moments from Duncan’s youth and European journeys—memorably, when she realized the banya, a steam bath involving a rough whipping with branches upon the buttocks, provides her with the sexual relief she cannot find elsewhere (men, she notes, can always seek the relief of brothels without the fear of pregnancy or scandal).
The majority of the narrative centers around her relationship with a handsome young Russian poet, Sergei Yesenin, a man eighteen years her junior to whom she was briefly married. Russia’s morally cold environment couldn’t accept Duncan’s daring art; Yesenin hated the shiny modern American world. With no place to make their nest, the union dissolved into a haze of alcoholism and disgust. He would soon commit suicide. None of this is spared from Oubrerie’s pen.
Birmant is very good at distilling dramas like this into verbal feasts, but it’s the powerfully evocative art of Clément Oubrerie that draws the eye to the volume. Resembling chalk drawings filled with moody shadows or ecstatic sweeps of light, the panels have a certain flair for Isadora’s sense of movement that impresses. It’s part Gorey, part Degas, part sunlight and part shadow. To read this book is like living in a particularly impressive ink sketch left out in the rain.
The experience of reading this is a moving one. If you don’t know a lot about Duncan, this is a fine if not perfectly accurate interpretation of her life. If you’re looking for some slightly fictionalized, poetic storytelling, you will be properly enchanted. Isadora is pretty and ugly, horrifying and inspiring, touching and repulsive, delicately flirtatious and bare-bones bawdy, and altogether unforgettable. The way the book interweaves romance, art, mythmaking, the brutal horror of life, the days of wine and roses, and the dirt poor beginning. It’s a unique reading experience that will surprise its captivated and delighted audience.