Thursday, November 20, 2008

"CHE"-The Comic Book!

Book Review by John Pietaro
Che: A Graphic Biography by Spain Rodriguez
Edited by Paul Buhle
2008, Verso Books

After the cult success of “The Motorcycle Diaries” and an endless assortment of products brandishing the image of iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, what possible biography of the man can live up to his celebrity? Comic book artist and writer Spain Rodriguez attempts to answer this question in a new graphic biography. Edited by historian Paul Buhle, Che offers an exciting visual component via the language of the underground comic. Its befitting that Rodriguez would present a biography of Che, as the former was as active within the counter-culture of the late 1960s as the latter was within a political revolution leading up to that same period.

Ernesto Guevara was born on the Bastille Day, 1928, to parents who were strong Leftists and supporters of the Spanish Republic in its battle against fascism. Raised in Argentina, he would attend medical school and then embark on several trips throughout Latin America, offering medical services to destitute communities and seeing for the first time the powerful connection among the Spanish-speaking people, as well as their grief at the hands of global capital. Nicknamed Che, or “Kid”, along the way, Guevara came to understand the impact of poverty and oppression on the people who shared his heritage. Che began to advocate for the struggle for freedom against imperialistic forces that had invaded Latin America, raping the land and abusing the citizenry. He began to see the need for a united South America as a means to stand up to the forces of military and corporate rule.

This graphic biography brings the story of Che into dazzling visuals, as the art of Rodriguez leaps across panels and pages into the reader’s own desire for social change. From the cover’s underground comic depiction of the most famous photo of Che—eyebrows arched and black red-starred beret tilted slightly—throughout the hundred-page bio within, one comes away from this book with a real sense of knowing Guevara. We see his childhood rapidly progress into his young adulthood and then lead right into the period in which he wrote the Motorcycle Diaries, that which was composed while on a sojourn throughout the region. This segment of his life easily compares to Gramsci’s Prison Diaries, as both offered a picture of the revolutionary in progress. Naturally, Che’s diary encompasses the visions of an outdoor trip, while Gramsci’s was written from within the somber grey walls of a fascist prison. But Che’s sense of captivity was empathetic, realized via the oppression of the people whose homes and work places he visited. Often, he and his companion were the first doctors any of these people had ever seen, even as the wealthy jet-setted their way through the casinos, country clubs and high-priced brothels of Latin America.

Rodriguez also offers the connection Guevara developed to the fledgling Cuban liberation movement. Clearly depicted is the bond he had with Fidel Castro, and how the two went from being leaders of a populist uprising to becoming leading Marxists and the core of Cuba’s communist movement. Nakedly, Rodriguez exposes the greed and brutality of the Batista regime and the response of the Cuban poor. He is also sure to explain how corporate America reacted to the Cuban revolution and the many years of manipulation and demonization that followed on the part of the US government. One can see the parallel of the US treatment of Castro’s Cuba and that of Lenin’s Soviet Union, regardless of the approximately 50-year span of time. Neither the money changers nor military industrial complex has ever offered the slightest tolerance to socialist nations, near or far.

Closing out this book is an all-text segment co-written by Paul Buhle and Sarah Seidman which explores Che as an icon within the realm of the turbulent 1960s, and beyond. More than forty years after his assassination, Guevara remains a larger-than-life figure and his story is simply a fascinating one. This latest addition to the radical icon series of book-length underground comics edited by Buhle is welcome and just in time for a holiday present. Buy it for every angry young man and woman on your gift list. But don’t forget to keep a copy for yourself so you can relive, recall or just find out why ‘El Che’ remains so vividly in our revolutionary hearts and minds.

John Pietaro is a labor organizer and cultural worker from New York –