Marisa Acocella was raised in a devout Catholic family. But one of the Bible’s main teachings seriously bugged her. “I always thought, how could a male God give birth to all this?” Acocella says, gesturing at … everything. “It never made sense to me. There had to be a God the Mother.”
The question nagged her all through her childhood in Roselle Park, New Jersey, her college years studying art at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, her early jobs in advertising in the Eighties. In 1992, while she was working on her first comic strip, “She,” for Mirabella magazine, another idea for a title popped into her head: The Big She-Bang. Which just so happens to be the name of her latest graphic novel, published last fall. “So, I’ve had this idea for more than 25 years,” Acocella says.
The Big She-Bang (subtitle: The Herstory of the Universe According to God the Mother) is a historical corrective that retells the tale of human existence through a feminist lens. A dizzying trip through various wormholes of theology and spiritual ideology, drawn with energetic lines and bold colors, the book highlights goddesses, female divinities, and real women who’ve been downplayed or outright stripped from the record. You’ll meet Sophia, a so-called divine twin to Jesus; Hypatia, a Hellenistic philosopher and mathematician executed by religious zealots; even Pope Joan, who was exactly what she sounds like. Acocella did a year’s worth of research, consulting close to 50 books on everything from Buddhist scriptures to Babylonian texts to inform her work. And her curiosity for the subject is still boundless.
“I loved doing deep dives into Mary Magdalene,” she says. “Did you know she was a princess? Her father was king of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. And then she was sex-trafficked when she’s 16. Crazy, right? The more I dove in, the more I wanted to know.”
Acocella, 58, has been a modern, have-it-all kind of feminist her entire life. “She” was a Sex and the City precursor that followed Acocella’s alter ego through her time as a high-powered but unfulfilled Manhattan ad exec dating cute but unfulfilling men and wearing expensive but very fulfilling shoes. (She comes by that love honestly — her mother is a shoe designer who handcrafted the heels Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration.) That strip begat a book, Just Who the Hell Is She Anyway?, which led Acocella to pursue cartooning full time. Soon after, she was landing spots in the New Yorker, where her work is still featured regularly.
Acocella’s second book, Cancer Vixen, is an illustrated memoir that kicks off with the discovery of a malignant tumor in her breast at age 43, three weeks before her wedding. A frank, warm, and often hilarious account of the months of doctor’s consultations and chemo sessions that followed (and, as ever, the fabulous shoes she wore to her appointments), it also charts a fairy-tale love story that ended in divorce 12 years later. While married, she wrote a third graphic novel, Ann Tenna, centered on a gossip columnist who has a brush with death; it was a New York Times bestseller. But it was the split that led her to finally write the book she’d been musing about for a lifetime.
“Going through the divorce, it was hard for me to find my voice,” Acocella says. “I was trying to find my footing, trying to figure out who I was as an artist, what kind of stories I wanted to put out there. That’s when I went back to these stories. And the more I dived into the stories of the women being gaslighted, scapegoated, marginalized, minimized, the stronger my voice got. That was definitely therapy in a way.”
She-Bang is hardly a condemnation of the opposite sex. Acocella found the divorce traumatizing, but she harbors no animosity. When her cartoon avatar learns about a goddess who sacrificed men, she banishes her from the story. “This is a book about women,” she says, “but I didn’t want to hate on men. I love men!” Throughout, she explores the notion in many creation myths that a balance of male and female is essential to the stability of the universe. “The idea of the divine male and the divine female, I didn’t know how far back that went,” Acocella says. “[The Bible tries] to do that with Mary Magdalene and Jesus, that’s what that was about. I’m still finding stuff out. I’m going to have to do another volume.”