The Spanish Civil War, Cartooning, and the Cultural Imagination: No Pasaran!, The Black Order Brigade, and Wolverine Part 3 of 4

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part 1, Part 2

Part Three: Defeated Idealists, Undefeated Idealism

Giardino’s illustrations for No Pasaran! highlight the art of the war — the propaganda posters on every available wall, war photography in the art galleries, and herds of journalists hiding in hotels, drinking all the wine and phoning their editors with rumors. His faux-photos of Friedman as a militiaman are reminiscent of the quiet, dramatic realism of Robert Capa’s work. Surely it’s not a coincidence: some of Capa’s photographs appear in the pages immediately following. Later Max claims to know Capa personally. Perhaps they’re related: in real life, Capa’s legal name was Endre Friedmann.

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drawing based on Capa photo

There are also nods to Giardino’s own chosen medium: Friedman’s daughter reads comics in Geneva; Republican airplanes are decorated with images of Mickey Mouse and Popeye the Sailorman.

In general, Giardino’s art carries the perfect balance of clarity and graceful detail. It is a pleasure to view, and one can, if one wishes, linger on the individual frames, savoring the subtle elements of the composition. At the same time, the comic is always altogether readable. The images communicate quickly, and never confuse or distract. Giardino’s restraint is such that he never lets the art get in he way of the story; he doesn’t show off, or overreach. And yet — his landscapes, his backgrounds, and his attention to the particulars of representation regularly reveal his art to be far less simple than it first appears.

The selection of the hero — not a Spaniard, but a foreigner — is also significant. The best-known writers of the war, and their best-known characters, were not Spanish; and Giardino continues that tradition.

Furthermore, at times, the International Brigades have held a special place in popular culture, as the symbol of defeated idealism. And so, a Spanish Civil War back-story has often served as a quick way to establish a character as a certain sort of hero — a man who has given up on “causes” not out of cowardice but out of disgust, who has seen his humanitarian ideals crash up against the realities of war and either be crushed or tarnished as a result. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca is the best-known example — an idealist who has turned to cynicism as a kind of self-defense. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he lies. “I’m not fighting for anyone anymore except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”

As a story, Orient Gateway owes a lot to Casablanca: A political dissident, in an exotic city on the eve of war, seeks safe passage and never knows whom to trust. In this case the refugee is a Trotskyite fleeing Stalin, and the city is Istanbul — but the basic premise is largely the same. Early on, there’s even a chase through the bazaar that, visually, is strikingly reminiscent of a similar scene in the film.

There are plenty if other examples available for anyone who wants to find them: Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai, Kit McKittrick from The Fallen Sparrow, and — to bring the conversation back to comics — Wolverine. In “Blood, Sand, and Claws “ (Wolverine #35-37), Logan is pulled into a “time vortex “ and transported back in time to write himself into the history of the Spanish Civil War. There he (rather improbably) fights alongside both Orwell and Hemingway, andwitnesses the bombing of Guernica. (“Sure don’t look like the way Picasso painted it, “ Logan says.) In the Marvel universe, writers are built like heavyweight boxers, and the milicianas have big boobs and bigger hair; but there are some really great scenes of Wolverine fighting fascists. Unfortunately, he’s pulled back to present-day British Columbia just as abruptly as he left — which I suppose accounts for the fact that the good guys lose.

The flaws of the Wolverine story are themselves a part of the literary tradition of the war. In Say That We Saw Spain Die, John Muste cites Upton Sinclair’s novel No Pasaran! —which has no relation whatever to Giardino’s comic — as an example of this sort of moralistic/adventure propaganda literature:

The conventions of this kind of novel are simple: The hero is strong, brave, handsome and immortal; the action must be interrupted from time to time so that the author can explain to the moron in the back row the political implications of this action; the hero is able to perform such incredible feats as bagging an aeroplane with a rifle, or standing off an entire column of the Foreign Legion single-handed . . .

These are, without exaggeration, exactly the conventions of the Wolverine story. It’s hard to think of a hero more “strong, brave, handsome, and immortal” — and, as it happens Logan does hold off a battalion of Germans all by himself, and brings down an aeroeplane, not with a rifle, but with a sword!

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