Considering that nowadays you can find Che Guevara’s face stamped over virtually any commercial item imaginable, it’s not surprising at all to run into good ol’ Ernestito at the graphic novel section of your local bookstore. Old-school underground comix legend Spain Rodriguez was assigned by leftist-literature publishers Verso Books to recreate Che’s biography in comic book format in the recently published Che: A Graphic Novel and the results, if my opinion counts, are rather disappointing.
I’m not complaining about the art, which is quite good, within the standards of underground comix. It will satisfy any aficionado such as myself of the 1970’s zine Zap, where you could find Spain’s art along Robert Crumb’s and many others.
Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez, son of a Spaniard born in Buffalo, New York, was part of that 1970’s avant-guard of comic book artists who rebelled away from the superhero comic standards of the times, and used sequential art format to tell personal adult-oriented stories, in many cases based on the real life of the authors. During the golden-age of underground comix, Spain was known for portraying, in rectangular frames, anecdotes of his own life as a motorcycle gang member.
Thirty years later, Spain comes out with his most ambitious project to date and it’s not based on his own experiences but on the life of another rebel on a motorcycle, the Argentinean Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna who’s better known to the world as El Che. A self-proclaimed admirer of Che’s political ideas himself, Spain says that the book, even though not based on his first-hand experiences, represents his own ideology. “It’s all my political views. I take complete responsibility,” he said during an interview at a signing event at Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, where he currently resides. He then added, laughing “I generally agree with him, I might have disagreements on a few things. Like when he stopped cock fighting when he took over in Havana, I don’t agree with that!”
The graphic novel format makes Che’s biography easier to digest for beginners, almost like a Che Guevara For Dummies. But as a history book, it sheds little or rather no new light on Che’s life. Spain’s work consisted in simply following step-by-step Che’s diaries and drawing one picture for each of those steps, so the story reads in a easy, linear way that pretty much goes like “and then Che went here, and then he did this, and then he said that…” for 100 pages.
“I think comics are good to teach history. There is all this interest in Che. Most people have some general knowledge in Che but they don’t know the details. And of course, you can get in the story in a more detailed way that I was able to do. This is an introduction, just to give you a general framework,” explains the artist.
The thing is that after having read amazingly compelling stories in graphic novel format like Maus, by Spain’s college and friend Art Spiegelman, we tend to expect a lot more of these funny books. More recently, Joe Sacco elevated the genre standards even higher with his non-fiction graphic recounts of the armed conflicts in Palestine and Bosnia. Spain’s Che is far from those works, plus it has quite many misspellings when he uses the Spanish language (ouch!) and too many one-sided point-of-views over controversial events (Cubans in Miami will hate his guts).
If you are already versed in Che’s biography, you can totally skip this one unless you just wanna look at the pictures. If you are not a Che scholar, and you want a fast, easy read to understand the basics of his life you can either read this book or just type “Che Guevara” on Youtube. If you happen to be in Argentina, pick up instead a copy of Che, a comic biography done in 1968 by father and son Alberto and Enrique Breccia with text by H.G. Oesterheld, which was recently republished. If you were expecting the next Maus, keep waiting.