Che: a Graphic Biography by Spain Rodriguez (edited by Paul Buhle)
Verso Books. Reviewed by RON JACOBS
Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up on comic books. From the mainstream graphic fiction starring Billy Batson and Archie to the alternative realities of the Zap Comix universe and the Freak Brothers, those stories with pictures entertained me and enhanced my world. Nowadays, comic-styled tales and interpretations of classic novels claim a popular space in libraries and bookstores across much of the world. Many of the graphic novels are geared towards a youthful audience and deal with teen angst, vampires and such. Others are designed to convince the reader of a certain point of view and are often published by an organization or group with a particular point of view. Then there are those that stand alone.
The recently released Che: a Graphic Biography stands among the latter. Drawn by one of the most political of all the underground comix artists from the 1960s and 1970s – Spain Rodriguez – Che is the story of the revolutionary Che Guevara. Spain’s detailed drawing and direct storytelling is more than an introduction to Che Guevara. It is a classic of the graphic genre. In the past, Spain used his radical passion and artistic skills to tell the story of the Spanish anarchist military hero Buenaventura Durruti. He created one of the most interesting characters and scenario in comix fiction in his Trashman series and drew some of the most intricately beautiful singular panels that ever appeared in the Zap Comix series. The editor of the text in Che is Paul Buhle, a longtime radical, a founding member of the defunct journal Radical America and a writer who has at least two other radical comix to his credit: the 2007 release Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History and Wobblies.
Che is drawn in a manner quite similar to the Trashman comics. Quasi-proletarian in its styling, the story is told in a shorthand that emphasizes landmark moments in Guevara’s personal and political life. The reader follows the journey told in Che’s Motorcycle Diaries and watches as Spain points to incidents and people that educated Che to the ways of the capitalist world and moved his worldview towards revolution. From there, the reader is taken to Mexico where Che begins a commitment to the Cuban revolution. Key moments in that revolution and Che’s role in it are drawn and told. From there Che goes to Africa and then to Bolivia where he meets his end at the hands of the CIA.
Spain was always the most politically radical of the underground comix artists. His work never shied from putting his belief in the need for revolution and freedom on the page. There’s a panel in (the first?) Trashman comic that features a billboard in the dystopian future inhabited by Trashman and the humans he fights for and against. The message on the billboard reads – in a clear reference to the behavior modification theories of B.F. Skinner made popular among some in the power elites in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity – “Beyond Freedom and Dignity Lies Fascism.” That message, delivered in the offhanded manner that it was yet in the context of the proletarian counterculture superhero Trashman fighting those who would use their money and power to control us all in their pursuit of profit, has remained with me as much as Marx’s admonition to lose our chains.
Che was not a superhero. He was a man. Despite the current fascination with his image and its use by many around the world, that is the most important lesson of his life. He worked constantly to change himself into the new man he hoped to create in the world, but he existed still as a human being like the rest of us. Spain’s comic biography of him reminds the reader of that fact. Simultaneously, it reminds us that we too are capable of creating similar change in ourselves and the among our fellow humans.
Comics like Spain’s Che are more than pictures. They are more than the words put sparingly on the page. They are a medium designed to help their readers imagine a world defined by the ink lines of the artist in an effort to bring the story alive. In the case of Che Guevara, the dynamism of the story is more than enough to turn those lines from two dimensions into three. Combined with Spain’s comparably dynamic artistic style, the contradictory force that was Che Guevara is truly brought alive in this work.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This review first appeared on CounterPunch and is re-published with the kind permission of Ron Jacobs.