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A 50-Year-Old Graphic Biography of Che Guevara That Still Feels Fresh

LIFE OF CHE: An Impressionistic Biography, by Héctor Germán Oesterheld | Translated by Erica Mena | Illustrated by Alberto Breccia and Enrique Breccia

Ernesto “Che” Guevara may be a timeless revolutionary icon, but that doesn’t mean his biography is necessarily a story for our time. If Héctor Germán Oesterheld weren’t a remarkable writer, it probably wouldn’t be. Revolution was an inherently Marxist concept for Guevara, who gave up his key role in building Fidel Castro’s new Cuba to fight for global communism, guerrilla-style. His outlook doesn’t translate very well to a world that’s watching Ukraine — a republic that won independence when the Soviet Union fell — attempt to defend itself from an authoritarian Russia.

Or does it? As told by Oesterheld in the graphic biography “Life of Che,” Guevara’s story is about values far deeper than communism — the same values that, in fact, have inspired people around the world to express support for Ukraine. Oesterheld’s Guevara calls for economic and political fairness, self-determination for little countries and the need to keep big countries in check. Those values transcended even his commitment to global communism, as Oesterheld shows. At first inclined to view the United States as the main enemy, Guevara grew disillusioned with imperialism hiding under the guise of communism in the U.S.S.R. as well as Chairman Mao’s games of international chess. Other biographers have grappled with Guevara’s brutality and ruthlessness, condemning or excusing him according to their own ideological predispositions. Oesterheld crafts an ode to a larger-than-life figure and the principles he believed in — even if Guevara didn’t always embody them.

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This approach might seem jejune, even inhumane, were it not for Oesterheld’s own life story and the story of this book. “Life of Che” was first published in Argentina in 1969, barely a year after Guevara’s death. Oesterheld teamed up with the artist Alberto Breccia, with whom he’d created the acclaimed “Mort Cinder” in 1962, and Breccia’s son, Enrique. As Pablo Turnes notes in a terrific afterword, it was the publisher J. Álvarez who suggested that the father and son illustrate alternating sections of Oesterheld’s narrative.

Both artists work in black and white, with no shades of gray. Alberto’s style is formal, his compositions expert. He combines woodcuts, collage and wild scrawls of ink to depict Guevara’s biography from his youth up until he launches his guerrilla campaigns in Congo and Bolivia. Alberto’s panels don’t have the propulsive “bam, pow!” commonly associated with comics. They’re a sequence of separate artworks, each vibrating on its own frequency. Enrique’s compositions are more youthful, reflecting the influences of Pop Art, German Expressionism and ’60s advertising. His panels are unnerving, full of depersonalized soldiers and treacherous peasants with weird, rictus grins. The ferocity of the Breccias’ art serves as an ironical counterweight to Oesterheld’s and Guevara’s idealism.

The first printing of“Life of Che” sold out immediately, but soon after, the Argentine government raided its publisher and apparently destroyed the original pages. It was unavailable for many years, and never — until now — in English. Oesterheld’s fate was bleaker still. After a military junta seized power in Argentina in the late 1970s, he saw his four daughters (who, along with him, were involved in an armed leftist resistance group) “disappeared” or killed outright. He was himself kidnapped on April 27, 1977. After he spent time in different detention facilities, Turnes reports, “it is suspected that he was executed in 1978, in a field outside the town of Mercedes.”

Oesterheld’s depiction of Guevara is too forgiving, a hagiography rather than a proper work of history. Still, at a moment that eludes any ideology Guevara would recognize, the ideals underlying this 50-year-old book are stubbornly affecting. Take, for example, Guevara’s farewell message to his children (before he abandoned them to go join various ragtag resistance movements): “Above all, be always able to feel in your depths any injustice committed in any part of the world. It’s the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary.” Actually, it’s a beautiful quality in anyone, revolutionary or not.

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Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly about comics and graphic novels for NPR.

LIFE OF CHE: An Impressionistic Biography, by Héctor Germán Oesterheld | Translated by Erica Mena | Illustrated by Alberto Breccia and Enrique Breccia | Fantagraphics | 88 pp. | $19.99

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