Thursday, 20 September 2012

Castro (Graphic Novel) Review

Reinhard Klest
Self Made Hero

I come to this graphic novel telling of the life of Fidel Castro as someone fairly interested in the Cuban Revolution, Left-Wing politics and the characters of Fidel and Che. That interest was great enough to take me to Cuba to try and find some answers to the most basic of questions; was the revolution a good thing? What is life in Cuba really like? What is it like to exist in a Communist country?

This hefty tome tells the story of Castro from young man to aging, bedridden retired dictator, naturally focussing mainly on the days of the battle he led for three years against the former Cuban dictator, and US puppet, Fulgencio Batista. With such a vast stretch of time to cover, it’s no surprise the pace is quick with heavy detail skipped over. It’s a story of the journey from start to end, with the expected milestones (Bay Of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Collapse Of Soviet Union) joining the dots together.

The actual narrative is expressed through the experiences of a German journalist / photographer who is a composite of many different people that possibly existed in real-life. The idea is to tie this lumbering story together and give it a human, everyman perspective. It also navigates issues involved with dramatising the life of a world figure and a fear of misrepresentation; the majority of Castro’s speech bubbles are culled from actual speeches, letters and recorded engagements and as such is quite restricted in the telling of a wider story. The inclusion of this mainly fictional protagonist allows the wider story or Cuba to be told. Because the story of Castro cannot exist without Cuba, and visa versa.

The book works best as a lesson in history. If you are looking for an introduction to Castro; what he did, when and how, then this is a good place to start. The first half of the book seems incredibly pro-Castro and, given what he did and what he stood up against, it would hard for it to be any other way. Early experiences as a student protestor highlight his uncompromising, often suicidal attitude, whilst the actual overthrow is a typical, but rewarding, story of David destroying Goliath.

Interestingly, the last third of the book opens up and begins to cast a darker shadow over a now Communist Cuba (the original revolution was very much a patriotic / nationalist movement) and the harsh realities of existing there. Simple moments, like the journalist having to give up half of his apartment under government orders and queuing hours for bread whilst tourists take what they want, ram home the realities of this supposed socialist utopia and clash nicely with Castro’s grand speeches.

However, for the majority of the book, the narrative feels clumsy and hacked together. The German journalist is telling the story from the modern day, looking back at his early visits to Cuba in the ‘50s. But he then speaks to people in flashback, who then themselves flashback to Fidel’s younger days. Then mix this up with the twin tales of the journalist’s romantic involvement with a rebel and the more political stuff and it becomes a bit hazy. As someone who already has a basic knowledge, the political stuff didn’t delve deep enough, whilst the ‘human’ side of the story seemed pointless, at least until that last third.

Writer Reinhard Kleist was also responsible for the graphic novel Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness which I have not read but is very well regarded. I can’t help but feel in this case however that the graphic novel was simply the wrong medium for this story. For one, a black and white art-style is so unsuitable for a story set in the beautiful and brash surroundings of the Cuban jungle and Havana. From my own journey there, it is the colours of the buildings, plants, trees and people that stand out. Communism usually brings to mind dull grey towerblocks, overbaring stone monuments and vast, empty tarmac rally squares. Artistically, Castro is such a great opportunity to play on this; a Caribbean Communist Island! It deserves so much more and the great front cover gives an indication of how it could have worked.

The visual style does not flow on many occasions. It works best during action sequences; a mad scramble for a boat heading for Florida for example. The rush and madness are accurately represented. Battles too in the Sierra Nevada are caught in their rushed, frantic manner. But these times – in fact, anything from 1956-59 – just made me want to watch Che Part I & II again. Certain stories benefit from this medium, but I simply don’t feel this one does.

Perhaps worst of all, I simply don’t get an insight into Castro as a man. I see him as a political leader, a strong willed, passionate man full of fury and righteousness. But I’m not sure I fully appreciate his motivations or his character. Of course, applying this treatment to any dictator would be equally difficult. And perhaps there are no answers. I travelled to Cuba to find answers and came back only with more questions. That was my naivety, I think. That there would be a definitive answer.

Still, Castro lacks a deeper insight. Most of Castro’s conversations are to crowds or with political leaders. Moments where you feel we are ‘off-script’, like a private conversation with Che Guevara about him leaving Cuba suddenly bring the story to life. But only the epilogue offers a different approach to the man and perhaps we will have to wait until after his death, and perhaps that of his brother Raul, to ever dig deeper.

The aforementioned Che I & II are the best insights into revolutionary Cuba I have come across. I hoped this book would offer a similar insight into one of the most divisive characters of the 20th century. Instead it offered a very well researched and compiled collection of the key moments in his life, with some elements of contextualisation offered by a parallel narrative. I enjoyed the journey, but as someone with an established interest, it felt like a reminder, rather than a fresh journey. For the action and passion and drama, watch Che, for the deep history and analysis, read countless books, including My Life partly by Castro himself. As it is, this sits frustratingly in the middle.

Dean Freeman

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