Che: A Graphic Biography
The latest installment of Che-inspired popular art is veteran cartoonist Spain Rodriguez’s Che: A Graphic Biography, a frenetically-paced account of the South American revolutionary’s life. Armed with iron-clad principles and an enduring love for the “little guy,” Ernesto “Che” Guevara jackboots his way through these pages with the moral urgency of a missionary. But don’t be fooled by the title—this Che is every bit the comic-book superhero as Rodriguez’s other ass-kicking Marxist, Trashman.
From Hollywood to hip-hop to guerrilla art, Che’s status as history’s most photogenic freedom-fighter continues to, quite literally, gain currency. And like most art that takes on the Che legend, Rodriguez’s effort ends up being more of a tribute, not only to the man, but to the heady times that created him.
Beginning with Guevara’s birth into a middle-class Argentine family and ending with the aftermath of his death, Che is an ambitious overview of the now widely known periods of the man’s life. All the requisite biographical elements are here: Guevara’s formative experiences during his road trip with Alberto Granado; his often debilitating asthma; his rapid rise as an officer in Fidel Castro’s insurgent army; his disappointed hopes for a South American uprising; and his capture—though, conspicuously, not his actual death—at the hands of Bolivian forces.
Packed into a hundred pages without chapter breaks, each page thick with images, the effect is disorienting. And the text doesn’t help. Rodriguez narrates with an odd mix of terseness and bombast, occasionally lapsing into incoherence or silliness with sentences like, “The engineer sounded his whistle long and long. The armored train from Camajuani was stopping for nothing or no one.” Elsewhere, the constantly evolving Guevara waxes philosophic with the verbal finesse of a foreign-language student who doesn’t quite have the rules down. We get that he’s full of ideas; it’s just not always clear what they are.
Still, Rodriguez’s flat-footed narration is more than redeemed by his prodigious powers of illustration. The visuals are a roiling, kinetic spectacle of human emotion. Rodriguez’s pen animates crowds of moving bodies against urban and jungle backdrops with stunning artistry, playing with angles as though he was there, camera in hand. As a result, every frame is cinematically conceived and self-contained, deserving of a slow, attentive read.
But admirers of Che’s politics—as well as longtime fans of Rodriguez—will be thrilled by more than just the pictures. There’s little room for subtlety in a work like this, where shadowy American politicians plot against a nobly grim-faced Fidel Castro, and anti-Castro “Miami exiles” are vicious traitors, disgruntled at having to give up their lion’s share of land. As for Cuba, Rodriguez opts to focus on its many successes, rounding out the biography with a few words on the first-rate healthcare system and burgeoning economy. And Guevara, beloved dreamer and warrior, never takes off his uniform, except maybe to combat the loneliness with a buxom fellow fighter for the cause.
Such a rendition of his story surely has its critics. But the continued use of Che’s face to sell endless product lines shows that it’s the superhero version that people clearly prefer.