Reviews

Life of Che: An Impressionistic Biography & Evita, the Life and Work of Eva Perón

Life of Che: An Impressionistic Biography & Evita, the Life and Work of Eva Perón

Héctor Germán Oesterheld, Alberto Breccia & Enrique Breccia, translated by Erica Mena

Fantagraphics

And again we return to our old friends, our old enemies, that contentious duo of map and territory; I may not be a big fan of Borges, but he certainly has blessed us with that most convenient crutch of a phrase. Now, Borges is particularly pertinent here, as the territory is his beloved Argentina, and the map - oh! what a map it is, by co-cartographers Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Alberto & Enrique Breccia.

Our map is, in its own way, a map of Argentina, in two parts: the biographic comics Life of Che: An Impressionistic Biography (1969) and Evita, the Life and Work of Eva Perón (1970, 2002), both written by Oesterheld with art by the Breccias. Fantagraphics published the former in 2022, the latter this past March, both translated by Erica Mena, as vols. 5 and 6 of The Alberto Breccia Library. The two books are noteworthy not just as works of art but as artifacts of political praxis: under Argentina's military dictatorship, the very mention—let alone outright veneration—of figures like Che Guevara and Eva Perón was a risk. And, indeed, the two books (and their writer) were the subject of government persecution: the publisher of Che was raided by the military in 1973, with the original art and all remaining copies of the bestselling book seized, while the anonymously-published Evita was thoroughly rewritten by a different author, and didn't sell "a single copy," per Alberto Breccia, its print run confiscated and the printing plates destroyed. Oesterheld's original script for Evita was only reinstated approximately one quarter of a century after his presumed death in government captivity; he had been arrested in 1977, and was last seen emaciated among prisoners in '78. That is a key aspect, I find, of the books at hand: the knowledge that you are holding not just a book, but a printed act of delayed justice.

From Life of Che; art by Enrique Breccia.

We start, then, with Life of Che. The book dubs itself An Impressionist Biography, a subtitle so confrontationally oxymoronic that it leaves its reader no choice but to accept it. If the role of the biographer is to subdue and mask their bias, Che does the exact opposite: it is, overtly, about the framing, about the killing of that wrongly-assumed objectivity.

It's a tightly structured book, chapters alternating between a broad chronology of events from the life of Che and fragments from his last year alive, leading up to his execution in Bolivia. This alternation is complemented by a shift in both narrative viewpoint—with Che's serial "ending" being narrated (mostly, not always) in the first person, and the alternating biographical lead-up (mostly, not always) in the third person—and in the composition of the art, with the "straightforward" biographical chunks drawn by Alberto Breccia and the Bolivia sequences drawn by his son, Enrique. The book elects to open on the battlefield before taking us back to Che's birth, so as to say that he was, above all else, a fighter, a guerrillero; everything a prelude to his martyrdom. More than he was born, he was born to fight.

From Life of Che; art by Alberto Breccia.

There's a photorealism to Alberto Breccia's art; his inks are passionate and heady, but still bear some factual grounding. It affords the book some manner of detachment, a partial restoration of the even-headed examination that is undermined by the script. To be sure, he does not shy away from dramatic framing, but his compositions speak of a history—albeit a recent one—that is worth reflecting, not projecting.

Instead, the ideological projector is the son, Enrique, whose sequences simultaneously succeed and rebel against those of the father. The deep welling inks of the father's pages give way to an almost singed look. It's not unsubtle, but it does rely on sweeping geometries, Enrique's rendering somewhere between a carving and a burning, with shapes infrequently outlined. Only what is necessary, be it an expression of energy or of matter, is rendered outright; the rest is blank. The energy is overpowering and maddened, somewhere between Masereel and later comic book impressionists like later-period Frank Miller or early Ted McKeever. The impact is most vivid, though, not when it pertains to the protagonist but to those he opposes: in Enrique Breccia's pages, the agents of the CIA executing Guevara are drawn as almost Al Columbia-like monstrosities, their humanity only nominal. The father might have been a finer artist, but, if Life of Che can be said to be Oesterheld's vision, the son was a finer executor.

From Life of Che; art by Enrique Breccia.

If Life of Che was a product of back-and-forth, of tension, Evita, by comparison, is a breeze - at least insofar as its artistic vision is conservative, unitarian. By doing away with the duality of beginnings and endings in favor of a rigid linearity, opening with a brief note of postmortem context and then describing the chapters of Eva Perón's life as they come and go, this book robs itself of the urgency and vitality that made its predecessor noteworthy, rendering a craftsmanship that seems to betray a lack of active interest in the chosen art form. Oesterheld's dense prose is documentarian and essayistic, pointedly abstaining from speech bubbles and thought balloons, occupying only the role of detached narration. The narrative—the narrator—makes no real attempt to engage with the comics form, content to be illustrated by it, demonstrated by it, wanting to get its point across clearly rather than artfully.

Which, of course, does not really work, given, y'know - the Breccia of it all. In Pablo Turnes' afterword to Che, he quotes a 1973 interview with the elder Breccia, in which the artist offers up a dispassionate view of the work, saying that he treated Che as just another job; but it is this very detachment that carries the book. The look chosen for Evita is closer to A. Breccia's Che sequences, but less dramatized in the inking, its shading and black-spotting not as oppressively heavy; it's at once photorealistic and iconic, montage without visual sequentiality, contours sharp and deep, as though impressed into the page.

From Evita, the Life and Work of Eva Perón; art by Alberto & Enrique Breccia.

And yet, though the two books vary in their approach to the artistic, they both fall into the same trapping: an overwrought depiction of their subjects as icons, which ends up undercutting any political urgency. The central figure of either book exists as focal point, viewpoint, and prism through which the whole world is viewed, minimizing the conditions which bred them. It is here that the context of the works' original publication becomes significant: given the contentious nature of both Perón and Guevara at the time of publication, the framing of them as outright heroes and icons is impossible to view outside of the lens of political subversion, so that praise of them is itself praxis, and as such must be unreserved, forceful. But such lack of reservation acts against the work of art as a work of art. The isolation of a figure from the forces they act against is, if nothing else, an undercutting of the conviction each book wishes to uphold.

Life of Che's dedicated portrayal of Che as an iconic, monumental figure tends, paradoxically, to isolate him from his global context; the reader is expected to be on the same wavelength as the narrative, resulting in something of a depoliticization of Guevara, or at least a failure to articulate his praxis as politics. Mao and Mikoyan are mentioned, but treated more as backdrop; the United States is framed as an empire of evil to be opposed, but this dichotomy is only gestural, treating any actual reasoning for the valorization of Guevara as an afterthought.

Evita, similarly, is not only the protagonist of her story but its organizing principle. When Oesterheld's prose dives into her life and its many stations, it frequently isolates her from her marriage in order to frame her as the very soul of Argentina incarnate, stripping away her partisan state of existence: a politician, and a politician's wife. In failing to discuss policies beyond philanthropic image-building, it sets up the decontextualized image of an apolitical entity to be admired - to such a degree that when opposition to Juan Perón is mentioned, the reader, told little on the page about Perón beyond his and his wife's pro-worker action, can only stop and say, "Well, hang on, why would anyone oppose those guys?"

From Evita, the Life and Work of Eva Perón; art by Alberto & Enrique Breccia.

What can be said of that life of Che, of the life and work of Eva Perón? Under the hands of Oesterheld and Breccia (father and son), these were lives unlived - not in a human sense, at least. These were titans and saviors, not existing in this world so much as warping it around them, figures whose total conviction subsumed and superseded any semblance of human existence. Not just their own, but the human existence of the very world itself. That is, precisely, where these heroes falter: robbed of their humanity, robbed of any fault and failing, their edges smoothed, forced into an icon's frame, an image perpetually held aloft, a voice forever isolated from the walls off which it must bounce - is that really any sort of life at all?