“I Was Terrified – And Therefore, I Accepted”: An Interview with José Hernández

José Hernández has been an award-winning cartoonist for more than two decades in Mexico. He contributes to the newspaper La Jornada, the weekly Proceso, and El Chamuco y los Hijos del Averno. He’s had a number of collections of his cartoons and portraits published over the years, and drew the graphic novel September Zona de desastre written by Fabrizio Mejía Madrid about the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake.

His second graphic novel is Che: A Revolutionary Life. The book was released in Mexico in three volumes between 2015-17, and late last year Penguin Press released the book in an English language edition in the United States. Based on the definitive book about Che Guevara by Jon Lee Anderson, Hernandez focuses on a handful of moments in Che’s life, while also spending time exploring the relationships that Guevara had with his mother and his first wife.

Colleen Boyle at Penguin Press arranged for me to talk with the artist about how he approached the book, depicting one of the most recognizable people in the world, and what Che Guevara means to him.

Mr. Hernández, you will forgive me, because I know where you’ve worked, some of the awards you’ve received, but I know little of your career. How did you became a cartoonist?

I began as a cartoonist in 1994, for a magazine called El Chahuistle, directed by one of the most important cartoonists in Mexico: Eduardo del Río, Rius. Rius has been one of the most influential cartoonist in the last three or four generations of political caricaturists. He is the creator of a series of books, in Mexico and all over the world, called For Beginners. In these books, Rius explains a tremendous variety of topics – Marxism, religion, vegetarianism– through caricatures in comics. Starting my career beside Rius was the best school I could possibly have had.

What’s the first memory you have of learning about Che Guevara?

In fact, the first memory I have of Che Guevara is in a comic magazine drawn by Rius. In 1972, five years after Che’s death, Rius made a comic in a magazine called Los Agachados, explaining the importance of Che Guevara. I remember very well the cover of the magazine: the famous face of Che in the Korda photograph and the phrase: “¿Conoce Ud. a este señor?” (“Do you know this man?”) I was about 7 years old.

Why did you decide to make a graphic novel about Che? And why did you decide to use Jon Lee Anderson's book?

Actually, it was Eduardo Rabasa’s idea. Rabasa is the Sexto Piso’s Publisher. He talked to me about his idea of adapting Jon Lee Anderson’s book into a graphic novel. I was more than enchanted, I was terrified – and therefore, I accepted. I could not imagine how Anderson's book could be adapted into a graphic novel, and that's why I decided to do it. In the end, you can see the result. Che is an exciting figure, regardless of his ideology. A character out of the ordinary, a bloody Quixote, a symbol that leaves no one indifferent. And trying to tell his story from within, without the historical perspective, but from a personal point of view, was a challenge I could not refuse.

How did you approach and structure this graphic novel because it’s not his life or an adaptation of Anderson’s biography, but a few scenes from his life?

The first thing I asked myself was whether it was pertinent to make a graphic novel about Che, and the answer was obtained by reading the book by Jon Lee Anderson again – with the eyes on the probable adaptation. It is such a well written book, with undeniable literary qualities, that I immediately saw that it was worth trying the partnership with Jon. Weeks later, I met Jon. We talked a lot about the project, about his vision of Che, and then I proposed adapting it by dividing his book into three great moments to be told in three different volumes: Che in Mexico – which includes his trip through Central America, Che in Cuba, and finally Che in Bolivia. 

Indeed, it is not just an illustrated biography. From the beginning, I was clear that what I wanted was to tell a story, not from the historical point of view, but personal. In that sense, the criterion for selecting which passages to include was always a dramatic criterion. There are scenes that historically have no relevance, but dramatically were very effective to know more intimately the character and his motivations.

Che is such a well known figure, but people know relatively little about him. I made a note at one point while reading the book – “drama within the history” – which I think speaks to what you were just saying. Can you talk about finding ways to do that?

Che is a well-known figure, his face is perhaps the most famous image of the twentieth century. Literally everyone has seen that two-dimensional image in high contrast. But very few know the three-dimensional character, full of chiaroscuro, the complex human being who was Ernesto Guevara. My intention in telling this story was to do it in such a way that the reader gets totally in the pages. Create the necessary atmospheres – narratively and visually – to make history as plausible as possible. Telling events without the distance that has made them historical, but seen within the daily immediacy of the moment. As if the reader was there, in the Sierra Maestra while Che is wounded in the neck, or there in Buenos Aires while his mother is distressed by not having news of her son.

As part of that, you really focused on Che's relationship with his mother and with his first wife. What made you interested in exploring those relationships and how do you think they help to explain who Che is?

Before I started doing the adaptation of Anderson's book, I reviewed the graphic novels that have been made about Che. I found that none of them gave importance to the strong relationship that Che had with his mother. And in the case of Hilda Gadea, his first wife, she was hardly mentioned. It seems to me that, especially in the case of his mother, they are very important figures. Young Ernesto’s ideas, his revolutionary commitment, and his passion for reading are thanks to the strong influence that his mother had on him.

Could you walk through your process and how you made the book?

As I said, the idea terrified me, and to try to face it with less panic, I counter-proposed not to make one book but three. Which terrified me even more – but the terror could be distributed over more time and more pages. Paco Roca, a great Spanish cartoonist whom I admire, once said that he didn’t know how to make graphic novels and that’s why he makes them; to find out how to do them. And so that’s how I worked on each of the volumes of Che's trilogy, I started them without knowing how I was going to finish them. Despite having an original text on which the graphic novel is based, there were moments, scenes, and situations that were asking to be counted more than others. Fortunately, Jon gave me all the freedom to take his book and translate it into these graphic stories. Of course this took place under his continuous supervision. I was working, and every time I sent him a package of completed pages – I in Mexico and he in England, or where his journalistic work would take him – he made me corrections, suggestions, and observations, all very relevant and very precise.

At times when we did not agree on how to approach any point of the story, I tried to convince him of my vision. Fortunately, I never managed to do it.

The whole novel was drawn in pencil and digitally colored. This is my first long-term graphic novel and to make it I used the tools I learned in film school. It is perhaps because of this that the result, for many readers, has something cinematographic.

People know that famous image of Che, but how do you draw his face hundreds of times and find the right way for him to look over the course of his life? Was this a long process?

Fortunately, Che was photographed often, especially during his time in Cuba. This allowed me to have a lot of graphic material. I also resorted to a lot of newspaper and period research to try to portray as best as possible the environments and historical references in which the story unfolds. In the other graphic novels about Che that I reviewed, I realized that they had very little rigor regarding the portrait of the time. I wanted the images to be the most accurate, historically speaking, so that the result was as credible as possible.

The book is out now in English and in the United States, but it’s been out in Spanish before this. What has the response been like?

The response in Mexico and, above all, in Latin America and Spain, has been very positive. Reviews in Spain have been very complimentary, which gives me great pleasure, because nobody in Spain knows me, and the criticism they have made is directed only to my work without any prejudice, for better or for worse.

What do you hope that people my age and younger people take away from this book and from Che's life?

The character of Che comes and goes. Dies and resurrects. They have tried to kill him several times and has managed to survive all those deaths. He was killed just when he arrived in Cuba with Fidel and survived. He was killed when he left Cuba and was disappeared some time and survived and appeared in Bolivia. They killed him – literally – in Bolivia and wanted to disappear his body to prevent creating a martyr and survived and became a world symbol. They killed him and tried to empty the content and turn it into a pop culture image and he survived.

In recent years, certain sectors of the most reactionary right, which can not bear to see a character clearly identified with the left as a dictator or tyrant, having eternalized in power, as Stalin or Fidel himself, have tried to kill his legend accusing him of bloodthirsty, terrorist, homophobic, misogynist, racist and other epithets. I'm sure he's going to survive.

History is always cyclical. The last revolutionary cycle took place in the 60s. For three decades now, we have been bogged down in a counter-revolutionary cycle that has long seemed to be exhausted, but has not just died. In this cycle, individualistic, selfish, anti-solidarity, it seems that a character with the characteristics of Che is obsolete. But I think it's precisely for these reasons, that a character like that, in the current circumstances, is more than necessary.

How has making the book changed your understanding and feelings about Che? Or has it?

More than change, the idea I had of him was reinforced. There are things that I share with Che and others things that I do not. I don’t believe in the armed way to achieve change, and he was convinced of it. Che believed in the construction of the “new man.” I don’t think there is a new man; I think Che was wrong. Man has a contradictory nature that he cannot avoid. Even Che, who demanded of himself what he demanded from others and had an impressive degree of congruence, even he had the human contradictions. For example, he assumed that at any moment he could die, however, in several circumstances he could not avoid it and he felt the need to live (“That, we must correct it,” he wrote in one of his notebooks). The man is still the same, with some nuances, with outstanding characters for better or for worse. The important thing is that with all the defects that we have, we can at some point organize ourselves to live in a civilized way. Do not expect a new man, but, with this old man with so many defects, agree to live together fairly.

What I admire about Che is his congruence and his great dignity.