Review: Che: A Graphic Biography

Spain Rodriguez is among the giants of underground cartooning, right behind R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Robert Williams. He has never made a secret of his socialist leanings. His first creation was Trashman, “a hero of the working classes and champion of the radical left causes.” Go to spainrodriguez.com and you are greeted by, “Fight the oppressor!”

Spain doing Che Guevara’s biography is a marriage made in Worker’s Paradise. As a narrative, Spain makes Che’s story gripping through his unique graphic style honed on Great Leap poster design, cycle mags, and Steve Canyon. Visually, Che is a pulp masterpiece offering page after page of Spain’s evocative, neo-noir art. His scenes of Havana and Caribbean ocean towns are just detailed enough to evoke a sense of place.

Being a motorcyclist himself, Spain renders “La Poderosa” (The Mighty One) with love and conviction. His airplanes and automobiles have as much personality as his people. His drawings engage the eye rather than turning it away.

With such credentials it’s no wonder Che is hagiography, glossing over some of the uglier aspects of Che’s appeal. Indeed, up until the time he meets Fidel, Che was an altruistic wanderer, trained in medicine and willing to pitch in wherever indigenous peoples needed help. The bio shows how Che’s travels through the grimmer aspects of Latin America instilled in him a “social conscience.”

Jargon follows social conscience as surely as night follows day. “On a starry night in a Caracas slum he encounters a world traveler.” And that traveler says, “You and I, for example, will die cursing the power they helped with great sacrifice to create. Revolution is impersonal. My sin is greater because I, more astute, will die knowing that my sacrifice stems only from an inflexibility symbolizing our rotten civilization.”

Unspoken but clearly illustrated is Che’s adoption of a “means justifies the ends” philosophy which is the hallmark of “progressives” worldwide. One need look no further than William Ayers and his sympathizers among journalists and academia.

Spain keeps smackin’ that iconic head down on the page so that after awhile it has the impact of a Customs stamp. The editors argue in a long afterward that Che Guevara is the most recognizable man on earth and has had his picture reproduced more often than anyone else. Could be.

In the middle of the revolucion Che declared his emancipation from the fascist institution of marriage and took up with a fellow freedom fighter. “His beautiful black companion was soon helping him ease the harshness of camp life.”

Spain is not totally in the tank. On page 62 he shows and writes, “A newspaper office was wrecked when it called Castro ‘The Anti-Christ.’ Other opposition papers were soon closed down. There was no longer freedom in Cuba for those who owned the presses.” Considering what the story glosses over, that is an incredible admission and Spain is to be applauded for his fair-mindedness.

The depiction of the Cuban revolution is mostly accurate including the famous incident where the invaders diverted an entire Cuban column with a radio in a raft playing battle sounds. It doesn’t mention that Che led that column.

Spain’s depiction of Kennedy is a little creepy. We’re accustomed to seeing JFK as the matinee idol, not the villain. Spain plays straight with certain Cuban blunders. “Attempts were made to diversify crops to reduce the dependence on food imports. More land was confiscated, but inexperience and over-centralized decision-making led to other problems.” Never mind that the confession is mealy-mouthed due to its passive tone. The admission that over-centralized decision-making is a problem doesn’t gain much traction in the theoretical Marxist universe.

Che’s story ends in Bolivia where an attempt to foment revolution met with indifference. The Bolivian Army caught him and shot him.

Here’s what’s missing from Che’s biography: “Here’s a cold-blooded murderer who executed thousands without trial, who claimed that judicial evidence was an “unnecessary bourgeois detail,” who stressed that “revolutionaries must become cold-killing machines motivated by pure hate,” who stayed up till dawn for months at a time signing death warrants for innocent and honorable men, whose office in La Cabana had a window where he could watch the executions – and today his T-shirts adorn people who oppose capital punishment!” –Humberto Fontova

There’s much more of this sort of thing for anybody who bothers to look.

Che: A Graphic Biography

By Spain Rodriguez

Edited by Paul Buhle

Verso Books

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