Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Life of Che’

“Gonna start a revolution from my bed, ’cause you said the brains I had went to my head”

Fantagraphics has been releasing works by Alberto Breccia, of which this is the fifth. That’s good, because Breccia was a superb artist, and we get to see that! Life of Che is drawn by Breccia and his son Enrique, and it was written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld. This book was translated by Erica Mena.

The history of this book is fascinating, because a book like this coming out during Argentina’s military junta days is probably going to get some people in trouble, and it did. There’s an interesting essay in the book about the comic’s publication history – it came out less than two years after Guevara’s death, and while the publisher claimed it was simply part of a series of biographies of influential twentieth-century people, the Argentine government, which had taken over in a coup in 1966 and was already teetering, didn’t take too kindly to a book about a noted revolutionary who was still very popular. The book was suppressed and the original art destroyed; a copy showed up in Spain in 1987, made from existing copies, and presumably that’s what we have here, because nowhere in the essay does it say they discovered originals. So even the journey to publication is fascinating!

I’ve never been a big fan of Che, and this book, despite being a bit of a hagiography, shows why. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, and it’s definitely worth a look, both for the art and for the way Oesterheld creates the story, but toward the end of the story, we reach the point that always bugged me about Guevara: he was a professional revolutionary. Basically, he liked fighting oppressive regimes, but didn’t know what to do when he finished the job. He destroyed, he didn’t build. When he had the chance in Cuba, he abandoned the struggle to go fight elsewhere, which led to his death. He always seemed to me like the kind of person who just liked to fight, and while he generally found fights worth fighting, Oesterheld tries to show that he cared about the people, not the struggle, and it just never seemed that way to me. He cared about the fight, and whether the people benefited or not was incidental. He abandoned his family to go to Bolivia, where he was killed, and it just seems like he was not a terribly admirable man, even if he fought against the “bad guys” of the mid-20th century – military juntas aligned with the CIA. That’s noble, sure, but man, don’t have five kids if all you want to do is kill soldiers.

Oesterheld does an interesting thing with this, because, as the subtitle tells us, it’s “an impressionistic biography.” He begins in Bolivia and returns there throughout, in sections drawn by Breccia the Younger, and tracks the final few months of Guevara’s life. In the “flashback” sections, drawn by the elder Breccia, he uses staccato sentences to show Che’s mindset as he matures: “… the Calchaquí valleys, little white chapels of native faith and colonialism, how the ancient stones have fallen. If not a doctor, he would be an archaeologist. There’s more, much more, to see: farms of solitude, of hunger, of lice, of kissing bug, of Chagas disease, and the whole cursed repertoire.” This kind of narration has both its good and bad points. On the one hand, it feels immediate and urgent, as if Guevara is living his entire life frantically, desperate to figure it out and make an impact, and Oesterheld gets that across quite well. With a man like Guevara, who, it seems, was always looking for action, this kind of narration gives us a good sense of the man. It doesn’t allow for much depth or reflection, though, and it gives the impression (see what I did there?) of someone without much depth. We never learn, really, why Guevara became a revolutionary. His parents were left-leaning, true, but so are a lot of people, and their kids don’t become revolutionaries. When he and Castro take over Cuba, we don’t learn a lot about the campaign (which, to be fair, is probably beyond the scope of the book) or about Guevara’s attempts to secure the revolution from behind a desk as Castro’s Minister of Industries. Oesterheld gives us a sense of his disillusionment with the Soviet Union and China and even with Cuba itself, but nothing concrete and, again, there’s the implication that he doesn’t want to do the work to create his better world. In the “present” sections in Bolivia, the sense of urgency is necessary, as we’re hurtling toward Che’s death. It can be effective in the other sections, but it is a bit frustrating, as well.

The art is terrific, which isn’t surprising. Alberto, at this point in his career (he would later become more impressionistic himself), was more traditional, using thick lines but still having a slightly cartoonish aspect to his art, especially in some of the faces. However, in this book, he used more chunks of black, more negative space, and a bit of mixed media to create some beautiful collage-type panels. Given that he’s drawing actual people, this helps, as it places Che in a more “historical” context – in some panels, Breccia uses photographs to create the drawings, and it adds to the immediacy of the story (the panel showing Castro and Guevara in triumph is obviously taken from a photograph, for instance). His use of blacks, especially in the combat parts, adds a heaviness to the work, making Che’s efforts to help the oppressed that much more difficult. Meanwhile, Enrique’s art in the Bolivian sections is interesting – it’s less realistic and feels more like Crumb or Corben (Crumb was already doing some high-profile work at the time, but it doesn’t appear Corben was, so it’s probable Breccia wasn’t influenced by him as much), with ghoulish faces of soldiers marked by beady eyes, beak-like noses, and sharp-ish teeth. Breccia the Younger uses blacks even more liberally, creating cavernous spaces on the faces of his characters where eyes and mouths should be, turning them into shadowy creatures living on the edges. The final few pages of the book are haunting – Che’s executioners become even less human, and the blacks overwhelm Guevara as he’s shot, until we get a final image of him staring out at the reader. It’s really well done.

The book reminds us that freedom is a fragile thing, not only because Che was murdered by a CIA-backed government, but because its very existence was a threat. Guevara was Argentinian, after all, and an Argentine writer creating a book about an Argentine revolutionary at a time when the right-wing government of Argentina was on shaky ground and presumably looking for scapegoats is a volatile combination. Lest we forget, Oesterheld himself was “disappeared” in 1977 under the next junta (after a brief period in the early 1970s when Argentina had a semblance of democracy) and murdered, probably in 1978. By that time he was involved in left-wing politics more than he had been in the late 1960s, but his work had always bent leftward, so the hard-liners in the government couldn’t have been too pleased with his writing even at this time. The book is good enough, but its subject matter – Guevara always fought for the oppressed, even if his motives were unclear and his commitment to actually bettering their lives was suspect – and its publication history make it an even more interesting historical document. There are always people who fear freedom and want to control others. This book shows the consequences of that. Now is a good time to be reminded of the importance of freedom.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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