The Genius of Spain Rodriguez
Che Guevara Meets Trashman
By RON JACOBS
November 14 / 16, 2008
Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up on comic books. From the
mainstream graphic fiction starring Billy Batson and Archie to the
alternative realities of the Zap Comix universe and the Freak
Brothers, those stories with pictures entertained me and enhanced my
world. Nowadays, comic-styled tales and interpretations of classic
novels claim a popular space in libraries and bookstores across much
of the world. Many of the graphic novels are geared towards a
youthful audience and deal with teen angst, vampires and
such. Others are designed to convince the reader of a certain point
of view and are often published by an organization or group with a
particular point of view. Then there are those that stand alone.
The recently released Che: a Graphic Biography stands among the
latter. Drawn by one of the most political of all the underground
comix artists from the 1960s and 1970s--Spain Rodriguez--Che is the
story of the revolutionary Che Guevara. Spain's detailed drawing and
direct storytelling is more than an introduction to Che Guevara. It
is a classic of the graphic genre. In the past, Spain used his
radical passion and artistic skills to tell the story of the Spanish
anarchist military hero Buenaventura Durruti. He created one of the
most interesting characters and scenario in comix fiction in his
Trashman series and drew some of the most intricately beautiful
singular panels that ever appeared in the Zap Comix series. The
writer of the text in Che is Paul Buhle, a longtime radical, a
founding member of the defunct journal Radical America and a writer
who has at least two other radical comix to his credit: the 2007
release Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History and Wobblies.
Che is drawn in a manner quite similar to the Trashman
comics. Quasi-proletarian in its styling, the story is told in a
shorthand that emphasizes landmark moments in Guevara's personal and
political life. The reader follows the journey told in Che's
Motorcycle Diaries and watches as Spain points to incidents and
people that educated Che to the ways of the capitalist world and
moved his worldview towards revolution. From there, the reader is
taken to Mexico where Che begins a commitment to the Cuban
revolution. Key moments in that revolution and Che's role in it are
drawn and told. From there Che goes to Africa and then to Bolivia
where he meets his end at the hands of the CIA.
Spain was always the most politically radical of the underground
comix artists. His work never shied from putting his belief in the
need for revolution and freedom on the page. There's a panel in (the
first?) Trashman comic that features a billboard in the dystopian
future inhabited by Trashman and the humans he fights for and
against. The message on the billboard reads --in a clear reference
to the behavior modification theories of B.F. Skinner made popular
among some in the power elites in his book Beyond Freedom and
Dignity--"Beyond Freedom and Dignity Lies Fascism." That message,
delivered in the offhanded manner that it was yet in the context of
the proletarian counterculture superhero Trashman fighting those who
would use their money and power to control us all in their pursuit of
profit, has remained with me as much as Marx's admonition to lose our chains.
Che was not a superhero. He was a man. Despite the current
fascination with his image and its use by many around the world, that
is the most important lesson of his life. He worked constantly to
change himself into the new man he hoped to create in the world, but
he existed still as a human being like the rest of us. Spain's comic
biography of him reminds the reader of that fact. Simultaneously, it
reminds us that we too are capable of creating similar change in
ourselves and the among our fellow humans.
Comics like Spain's Che are more than pictures. They are more than
the words put sparingly on the page. They are a medium designed to
help their readers imagine a world defined by the ink lines of the
artist in an effort to bring the story alive. In the case of Che
Guevara, the dynamism of the story is more than enough to turn those
lines from two dimensions into three. Combined with Spain's
comparably dynamic artistic style, the contradictory force that was
Che Guevara is truly brought alive in this work.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the
Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs'
essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's collection on
music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short
Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at:
Review: Spain Rodriguez' 'Che: A Graphic Biography'
Revolutionary receives straight-forward treatment
Sep 21, 2008
by Mike Gold
"Spain" Rodriquez and "Che" Guevara. Manuel and Ernesto. Two legends,
one living, the other, well, not so much.
Spain has been a cartoonist for more than 40 years, one of the first
and most visible and influential storytellers of the underground
comix movement. While others were preoccupied (often brilliantly)
with their X-rated tributes to Harvey Kurtzman, Max Fleischer and
other visionaries of their childhood, Spain was telling adventure
stories of urban America, often featuring his character Trashman. His
works have a strong left-wing tilt. He continues to be active,
contributing to American Splendor, Blab! and Tikkun, and he produced
the highly acclaimed graphic novel Nightmare Alley for Fantagraphics.
He's been fairly active in recent years on the comics convention
circuit, often appearing with S. Clay Wilson.
Che was a handsome medical doctor (specializing in leprosy) and
revolutionary, part of the insurgency force that overthrew the Cuban
puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista and his American mobster masters,
Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. When, in 1967, he was killed as he
was organizing in Bolivia, Che became more than a mere martyr: he
became an icon. Today, his likeness (inspired by Jim Fitzpartick's
classic illustration) is well-merchandised by capitalist clothing
manufacturers in America. He even had floor space at the New York
Licensing Show a couple years ago.
It was only a matter of time before Spain turned his professional
attentions to Che. Actually, I'm surprised it took this long.
If you're one of those people who reduce Dr. Guevara's work down to
that of an evil godless Commie, then this graphic novel is the exact
right thing for you, as long as your life insurance is paid up. If
you think the left might have had legitimate cause for their actions,
you'll like this as well. If you're open-minded and curious about the
events immediately to America's south during the 1950s and 1960s that
had such an overwhelming impact on our society and our political
system, then this book is essential.
On the other hand, if you're a fan of the comic art form and are
curious as to how such a powerful biography can be told in this
medium, then Spain Rodriguez' Che: A Graphic Biography is absolutely
critical. Yeah, it's a bit didactic in places – Spain's got a point
of view and he's going to share it, but it never takes over the
story. Indeed, he's quite open about the Castros' shutting down
critical newspapers and disenfranchisement of political moderates.
Che suffers from some unfortunate production issues. The lettering is
overly pixilated and overall there's a slightly fuzzy look to the
material. It's minor, but it was avoidable and the material deserved
If this graphic biography inspires you to Google around a bit and
study up, then I smile upon you and Spain alike, pleased that you
both have accomplished your mission.
Che: A Graphic Biography
Written and drawn by Spain Rodriguez.
Verso Books, 116 pages. $16.95 US