Steven Grant reviews Che, A Graphic Biography

Posted by on December 28th, 2009 at 9:00 AM

Spain Rodriguez; Verso Books; 106 pp., $16.95, B&W, Softcover; ISBN: 9781844671687

A tip for those who’d off their enemies to spare themselves trouble: murdered revolutionaries engender posthumous personality cults. Lenin may have fathered Soviet Communism, but his strategist Leon Trotsky, banned by Stalin and eliminated with an ice pick in Mexico City, was the one who became an international byword. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara co-masterminded the Cuban Revolution, but today Che, executed in Bolivia in 1967, is a pop icon while Castro is just Castro.

As if the publisher incorrectly felt academic justification of the project was needed, an essay concludes Spain Rodriguez’s excellent “graphic biography” of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Sarah Seidman and Paul Buhle discuss both the influence of Che’s ideas and personality on ’60s U.S. political counterculture and beyond; the co-opting of his decontextualized image in the decades after his death; and praise Spain for taking back Che’s image from the T-shirt makers and poster nostalgists, to “reclaim its power to harness these transformative social forces at work around the world today.”

This seems not at all what Spain intended. Though filled with good ancillary information on the uses of Che’s legend and face following his death (Spain barely touches on it, as a springboard for the book’s framing sequence), the essay translates into something of a rationalization of the comics format. No rationalization, or apology, is necessary. In fact, the book is an argument for many such biographies, since Spain demonstrates how well the comics form can bring history to life yet focus on the factual in ways prose and film usually don’t.

“Spain” is the professional name of Manuel Rodriguez, who started his illustration career at New York City alternative paper The East Village Other, roughly concurrently with Che’s assassination. He quickly became a key player in the exploding underground comix scene, generating one of the earliest comix, Zodiac Mindwarp, and collaborating on the Other’s “comix supplement,” the pivotal Gothic Blimp Works, which also published early works by prominent cartoonists such as Art Spiegleman, Vaughn Bodé and Trina Robbins. Shifting base to San Francisco in the late ’60s, he hooked up with the loose collective producing the seminal Zap Comix, and contributed to numerous undergrounds until that movement was effectively suppressed by a Supreme Court ruling that declared open season for prosecutors on the often explicit content of underground comix and other adult materials. Despite largely falling into eclipse with most other underground cartoonists where the public was concerned, Spain has continued to produce steadily over subsequent decades and rarely gone long without publishing.

Popular impression has reduced the ’60s Left to a monotonous parody: hallucinogens, jargon, wild sex, political rhetoric, tie-dye T-shirts, long hair and zero personal hygiene. The reality is much more complex and nuanced. Cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton came out of greeting cards, humor magazines and college press. Almost alone among his contemporaries, Spain was counterculture before the ’60s, spending much of his youth in biker culture. Their style infuses much of his early work, but he’s also among the most traditional cartoonists of underground comix, and it’s not difficult to see Kirby’s and Wood’s influence. There’s little about his early comix to suggest a temperament for biography. His stories — especially of Trashman, a near-future revolutionary biker in a near-apocalyptic culture of fascistic overseers and factioned resistance who receives information from inanimate urban objects — are a whirlwind of pulp imagery, abrupt gunplay, rough sex, often brutal S&M, military and paramilitary fetishism, politics and crazy violent energy matched among his contemporaries only by S. Clay Wilson, whose influence on Spain is evident in the increased detail in Spain’s work following their meeting. It’s more a formula for exploitation films (and many of Spain’s fiction strips play like one) than biography.

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2 Responses to “Steven Grant reviews Che, A Graphic Biography

  1. My views of Che are quite negative, and I can’t tell if the reviewer shares my view or that of the author of the biography (whom is described as sympathetic to Che). The review seems to focus more on the actual content of the biography and puts aside the conflicting views of Che. That makes this review both professional, but also a bit dry. I’d have liked to see some inflammatory “Che was a murderer and a coward” I could agree with or, “Che was a wondrous man of peace and vision,” people could get angry at. I guess I am both complimenting the review for its professional nature and expressing personal disappointment that things didn’t get ugly…but I’m kind of a troublemaker so just ignore me.

  2. SD Grant says:

    I’m ambivalent about Che the man. From my perspective he was a man who started out with a genuinely benevolent viewpoint that became harder and (much, much) less benevolent as it was run through the ringer of reality, as these things often do. I think that’s commonly the arc when you start from a romanticized perspective. Conflicting general views of Che weren’t my interest in the review, or important to it. Spain’s view of Che was. While Che obviously had a big influence on Spain, Spain is more than happy to present Che’s failures and shortcomings, and I’d hardly call it a hagiography. He doesn’t romanticize Che, though he speaks about the romantic effect Che had on him back in the day and gives it context. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a flat condemnation of Che, probably not your best bet.

    – Grant