Twists of Fate, Spanish cartoonist Paco Roca’s follow-up to his 2016 graphic novel Wrinkles, contains a short prose epilogue by historian Robert S. Coale--a history historian rather than a comics historian. In it, Coale writes that the role of Spanish volunteers in a particularly-decorated French unit in World War II is “virtually unknown in the United States.” That made me feel rather relieved that the amazing story that Roca tells in the 300+ pages that precedes Coale’s epilogue, a story set in and around some of the most pivotal events of the 20th century, was all brand-new to me. I felt more relieved still when Coale writes that his initial introduction to World War II was in the pages of DC’s war comics, for a tank battle late in Twists of Fate recalled those in “The Haunted Tank” feature of the 1960s G.I. Combat comic.
Future generations who first learn of World War II in the pages of comics will get a far better education than Coale and I got from our war comics, thanks to works like this one. Roca begins his story in 1939, in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, with a scene of thousands trying to escape from a port before the fascist forces arrive. Among them is a young veteran of that war by the name of Miguel.
He is the character Twists of Fate follows through a five-year odyssey, from aboard a coal ship filled to near-sinking capacity with Spanish refugees to the Port of Oran in Algeria, from a work camp in the Sahara to fighting the Axis in Africa as part a volunteer force there and, ultimately, as part of “La Nueve,” the company that fought its way through France and to the liberation of Paris. That’s where Miguel’s war ended; his company would go on to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, and he himself dreamt of returning to Spain to free it from fascism as he and his comrades fought to free France, but that would not be his fate.
The events of the war, as experienced by Miguel Ruiz, are Roca’s subject, but the artist moves back and forth from the war to the present, with the narrative split between a dramatization of Ruiz’s story and the story of a cartoonist tracking the taciturn, reclusive 94-year-old veteran now living in self-imposed exile in France, his war-time exploits unknown even to the neighbor who looks after him.
It seems, at first, a curious way to approach the story, and one could uncharitably view it as a way for Roca to insert himself, or the story of the creation of his graphic novel, into the story. That, or to imagine that Roca did it because that’s what Art Spiegelman did with Maus; the back cover does note, after all, that Twists of Fate “has been called ‘the Spanish Maus.’” The truth is that I can’t guess with any real accuracy why Roca employed this particular strategy of storytelling, jumping back and forth from a fully colored war, to a white dominated monochrome present, with the book divided into chapters, each of which covers a day that the cartoonist and Miguel spent talking together. I can, however, tell you the impact that this strategy has.
Miguel isn’t the young, idealistic anarchist warrior, suffering and fighting in the hopes of avenging his country against fascism. Nor is he the old man anxiously awaiting a chronic liver disease to claim his life, walking with a crutch to and from the cemetery every day and griping at his younger neighbor. He’s both of those, and more, and by telling his story, and telling the story of him telling his story, Roca creates a fuller, more accurate portrait, giving Miguel an active role and ownership over the graphic novel, even if he never draws a single line of it.
Aside from that, the split focus allows for various dramatic pay-offs, as the reader sees how the events of the war altered the direction of Miguel’s life and how some of them continue to shape and haunt him, even when he seems to have sealed them away from his day-to-day life. (In perhaps the most striking example, Miguel grows furious with the Roca character when the cartoonist asks him about killing German soldiers “in cold blood,” but, the next day, he tells a jarring story about a time he did more-or-less murder three captured soldiers in cold blood; “I’ve regretted some things,” he says, “But I would do them again if defeating fascism depended on it.”)
It also allows for a few Hollywood-perfect moments, including the revelation of who Miguel visits in the cemetery every day, and a symbol of how much the young artist and the old veteran ended up bonding in their week together.
Despite all the battles--the aforementioned tank battles, the fire fights, the street-by-street urban warfare, even a car chase--Roca’s visuals precede with a controlled, almost stately patience. War, Miguel tells Roca, is mostly about waiting, and there are many scenes set during the war that seem to involve as much sitting around talking as the modern day scenes set in Miguel’s kitchen or at a doctor’s office.
This isn’t to say that they are boring. Roca’s art features a graceful line and keen sense of design. The story keeps a respectful visual distance from the characters, keeping readers in the position of observer rather than participant, and he’s quite masterful at subtle changes in sequential images, so that a half-dozen panels might pass as the two men talk on the sofa, but their gestures and expressions are dynamic, and a third character moves about the room, all of their emotions clearly illustrated in the small differences of the panels.
The comic takes its title from Spanish poet Antonio Machado, who died near the end of the Spanish Civil War, and briefly appears in the comic, as one of the Spanish men in the Algerian work camp tells of seeing Machado days before his death, marching with his family to escape the Nationalist forces. When Roca’s character marvels that people could be separated in one country, only to run into one another several years and several hundred miles away in another country, Miguel shrugs, “It’s hard to believe, but it happens… ‘These twists of fate,’ as Machado said.”
If there’s anything more that I wanted from Roca’s book, it would have been to know which elements of it were twists of fate, and which were the cartoonist’s manipulations. In Coale’s epilogue, he writes, “Of course, Paco has added fictional elements to the storyline, but some of the most incredible anecdotes, perhaps those which seem the most unlikely, actually represent real historical events.”
End notes making an account of which elements were fictional, or which elements were extrapolated or hypothesized and which are based on which sources would have been welcome, but only to satiate curiosity about process. Twists of Fate is a great story, and, so I’m just now learning, a true story; the exact degrees of greatness and truth of each and every scene isn’t nearly as important as that fact.