Che: A Graphic Biography

by Peter Wong on October 22, 2008

Spain Rodriguez’ “Che—A Graphic Biography” is graphic biography as alchemy. On the most basic level, it’s a recounting of the life of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. But the veteran graphic artist does more than present biographical detail. His new work also discusses such subjects as the political clash between pragmatism and idealism as well as the American government’s history of removing foreign democracies that refuse to be US boot-lickers.

Rodriguez is the perfect artist/writer to tell the tale of Ernesto Guevara’s life. Left-wing politics provides the beating heart for the San Francisco resident’s decades of graphic work. His most famous character, Trashman, is an urban guerilla fighting the forces of a near-future fascist America.

Rodriguez’ newest project makes a very timely arrival. Were Che still alive today, this year would have marked his 80th birthday. Steven Soderbergh’s 4-hour film biography of Guevara has played to acclaim on the film festival circuit but has not yet had a commercial release. Then again, given that the Soderbergh film is a Hollywood production, it’s not terribly likely that it will challenge the American media’s disinformation regarding the Cuban revolution.

Even without the presence of Soderbergh’s filmed opus, Guevara’s life needed to be re-told anyway. Sarah Seidman and Paul Buhle’s afterword to Rodriguez’ graphic biography describes how the passage of decades has changed popular perception of the famed revolutionary. Guevara’s 1960s contemporaries saw him as a political Prometheus whose successes in Cuba provided inspiration for their struggles against socioeconomic oppression. Outside of Cuba, the most common meaning attached to Korda’s iconic image of Che is that of shill for Apple or Nike. Guevara’s politics are of course quietly ignored.

Rodriguez’ graphic novel literally re-unites Che’s image with the ideas and experiences that made his image a symbol of successful revolution. However, that union is not achieved through the traditional biographical approach of the great man coming into the destiny he was somehow born to achieve. The writer/artist instead shows how wider political forces (i.e. U.S. exploitation of Latin America) and personal influences (e.g. Hilda Gadea, Guevara’s political activist wife) played significant parts in shaping the revolutionary’s life.

Seeing how the mind of the future revolutionary is formed does not come at the expense of dehumanizing the tome’s subject. Che’s spartan approach to both the Cuban Bank and his household didn’t dim his ability to write passionately erotic letters to his wife while away on business. A smile can’t help but play over a reader’s face on learning that the man who inspired the Black Panther Party’s political education had a nickname that could mean “Hey you.” If anything, the book’s bits of levity balance out the grimness of such moments as CIA involvement in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz’ democratically elected government.

Arbenz’ fall is ironically not that far removed from a notorious act of public urination. That act of public peeing occurred in Cuba around 1934, when a drunken American sailor gifted the head of the statue of Cuban hero Jose Marti with his urine. One could say that the history of the American government’s relations with Latin America’s governments is marked by a similar degree of public contempt.

This far from benevolent treatment of other democracies will disturb those who unquestioningly consider America an uncompromised force for good. As Rodriguez shows, the American government’s cries of fighting Communist infiltration often masked protection for the interests of the wealthy elite. What is Miami’s Cuban “exile” community, after all, but an enclave founded by the privileged class who grew fat off the injustices perpetrated by Fulgencio Batista’s regime?

On the other hand, Rodriguez is also unsparing of the shortcomings of leftist revolutionaries. Lack of talent didn’t doom Guevara’s efforts to form an effective fighting force out of Laurent Kabila’s Congolese rebel army. Rather, bureaucracy or tribal allegiances proved stronger than the desire to form a national identity.

Even Che himself displays some serious failings. The ruins of Machu Picchu may have made the concept of class differences concrete for Guevara. But that awareness doesn’t stop him from making a racist observation about blacks during a visit to Caracas, Venezuela. The incident that truly evokes a painful wince, though, would have to be Che’s willingness to favor Cuban sovereignty over the ignition of World War III.

Despite these listed shortcomings, Rodriguez concludes that Che’s legacy left a positive impact on humanity in the long run. Personal jockeying for power or ambitious overreaching may have prevented the realization of the Argentinian’s dream of ending institutionalized injustice through revolution. Even Cuba may not have reached the degree of financial independence Che wanted for it. But Che’s example showed the world that another destiny was possible for the producers of the goods that maintain others’ wealthy lifestyle. Why is it that malnutrition has been eliminated in Cuba while Latin American governments far “friendlier” to the United States still face it as an ongoing problem?

Rodriguez’ graphic biography ultimately challenges the average reader’s concept of political change. The current (and soon to be concluded) presidential campaign has produced two major party candidates who each claim to be heralds of change. Yet absent in the details of their many words are specifics regarding what each seeks to alter in the current power relationship between people in different societal strata. Before Castro and Che ousted Fulgencio Batista from power, leaving Cuban sugar farmers in poverty while letting the urban professional class prosper was considered part of the natural social order. If change is to be more than a rhetorical cliché once the November 2008 presidential elections finally conclude, the American people need to display the vision of a Che Guevara of a social order far more just than that built by the neoconservatives.

Spain Rodriguez will be signing copies of “Che—A Graphic Biography” tonight at Modern Times Bookstore, 888 Valencia Street at 7:30 PM.

Filed under: Book Reviews

Translate »