As awareness of comic books and graphic novels continue to grow among mainstream audiences, one of the biggest challenges creators face is choosing the right projects and topics to tackle in their medium. There are stories that are ill-suited to the format, and it’s always disappointing to encounter one. Che: A Revolutionary Life (Penguin Press) isn’t necessarily that, but reading the book leaves a lot of questions about why it was made. It’s a graphic novel adaptation of Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, and Anderson himself was involved in the production of this book. The art by José Hernández is painterly and beautiful, he does an excellent job of capturing the likenesses of familiar faces like Che himself as well as his comrade Fidel Castro. But the whole book feels more like a series of extremely detailed storyboards than a graphic novel. Panel sequences that would read well on a screen feel lifeless in a book. There are very few truly dynamic panels, and with a few exceptions little is done in the way of leveraging panel layouts or page turns to tell a visual story. The book reads fairly gracefully, but the pacing is awkward and slow. Large swaths of the text is letters written by or sent to Guevara, which heightens the sense that the art isn’t being leveraged to the fullest extent, and not trusted to contribute to the storytelling. Pages are filled with mundane activities like writing or reading these letters, getting dressed, or eating dinner while Che’s words overlay and overshadow the visuals.
That’s not an inept description of the book as a whole. Guevara’s personality and history overpower most of the story that Anderson and Hernandez appear to be trying to tell, and his ego gets in the way not only of his own efforts but also the creative team’s. His treatment of the women in his life in particular paints him as an unsympathetic and overly ambitious man, quick to dismiss his wives and children as secondary to his mother, the only women he seems to have true affection for, and his revolution. It is framed explicitly as Che’s revolution, no matter how he tries to argue that it’s a revolution of the people. He defies orders and wise advice with big-headed cockiness, and it leaves the impression of a man who seems both deeply self involved and not nearly as smart as he thinks, and everyone tells him, he is. People with even a passing knowledge of Guevara’s life know the level of violence he is guilty of and dogmatic devotion he demanded of the people around him. The former is only mentioned in passing, but the latter is on full display.
What makes Che fall even flatter than the beautiful but dull art is Anderson’s foreword. His adoration for Guevara is unquestioning, and without irony he accuses young people of disliking Che because they’re not willing to kill others for their own liberation. There’s no self reflection or sense that Anderson understands the number of young people who are putting their own lives in danger for new revolutions instead of inflicting violence on others, and that the willingness to sacrifice one’s self instead of someone else might be why modern revolutionaries don’t identify with Guevara as much as Anderson seems to want. If not for the foreword, the book would have been a moderately accurate, unflattering portrayal of an often misunderstood and deeply problematic man. But knowing that Anderson’s goal was to make millennials sympathize more with Che, the book is a failure. It’s a boring graphic adaptation of a preexisting novel that misses the author’s mark entirely. One of the most telling anecdotes that Anderson includes in the book is when Guevara drops his pistol and shoots himself accidentally; similarly, Anderson injured his own stated cause. There are real criticisms to be made about American imperialism and the devastating effects of colonialism and capitalism in countries like Cuba and Argentina, but he failed to do that and lost whatever impact he may have been able to make.