A new series of biographies retells the lives of history’s great men—in comic book form.
Manga might as well have been designed to tell the story of Che Guevara. The man’s rugged, powerful face, already immortalized on so many millions of t-shirts, is perfectly suited to the genre’s simple black and white drawings. In a purely aesthetic way, he kind of feels like a comic book character already.
In a more meaningful way, though, his life also feels like appropriate subject matter for a comic book: heroic, tragic, filled with battles both literal and figurative, a moving origins story that informs much of his later life. Replace capitalism with the Joker and you basically have Batman.
All that said, however, Penguin’s new Manga biographies series, of which Chie Shimono and Kiyoshi Konno’s Che Guevara: A Manga Autobiography is only one, has had a mixed reception so far—that is, when it’s had one at all (most major review outlets have ignored the books altogether). To some extent I can see why. Like many of Penguin’s books, they’re beautiful to look at from the outside, but unlike many of Penguin’s books they’re a lot rougher between the covers: the art is passable but far from great, and the proofreading is inexcusably sloppy, with missed and misspelled words abounding.
As biographies, too, the books have drawn criticism for being one-sided, inaccurate, incomplete, or all three. Che’s biography, for instance, relies heavily on his own diaries and presents him in an overwhelmingly positive light—to say the least. It also omits much of his personal life, as well as any kind of nuance in his political views; the communism-good-capitalism-bad worldview presented here veers dangerously close to propaganda.
To me, though, such complaints miss the point. Level, expansive biography is a genre designed for text, not drawings, and expecting nuance from 175 pages of comic art is like looking to Goodnight Moon for a technical analysis of sleep science. Of course Che doesn’t give us a full analytical treatment of all aspects of the revolutionary’s life—it gives us the highlights and the heroism and the grand historical outline. It gives us the comic book version, in short, which will probably interest a lot more people than a 700-page biography would.
And yes, it’s an overused and often trite argument to suggest that getting 50 people excited about a dumbed-down history is better than getting one excited about the real thing. But considering the alternative in this case is a t-shirt likeness that many can’t even identify, with Che I’m inclined to agree with it.
Much of what I’ve said about Che also applies to the other biographies in the Manga series so far: Gandhi: A Manga Biography by Kazuki Ebine, and The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography by Tetsu Saiwai. Like Che, each of these books has its shortcomings, emphasized unreasonably by the few reviewers who have bothered, and like Che, each also picks out the comic book aspects of their subjects’ lives in retellings that are far more engaging than “normal” biography.
The “more engaging” argument is worth clarifying, because I’m not just talking about getting kids excited about history. Even I struggled with the most recent conventional Gandhi biography, and much though I’d like to believe otherwise, I’m no kid anymore. But the comic book versions of great men’s lives don’t have to be dumbings down—they’re simply a refreshing new way to think about what makes them great men in the first place. And while I still wouldn’t turn to them for authoritative historical fact, I wouldn’t do that with J. Edgar or The Aviator or The Motorcycle Diaries, either.
It’s especially interesting reading the Manga-fied life of the 14th Dalai Lama, who is a controversial enough figure that it’s often hard to step back and look at the wider context of his remarkable life. To summarize even more briefly than the Manga: he was identified at just two years old as the successor to the recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama, plucked from his peasant family in the countryside, and taken to Lhasa, where he was told he was the future spiritual leader of the country and flung, before he could even complete his education, into conflict with communist China.
To put it mildly, his childhood was pretty tough—and yet here he is today, a political and religious figurehead whose deep-held convictions have earned him the attention and, often, respect of the entire world. Either he really is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion or his upbringing endowed him with superhuman levels of the stuff. (He’s also a jolly old man, to boot.)
The Manga version of his story—the best illustrated of the series, incidentally—probably won’t make you convert to Tibetan Buddhism, of course. But it should be enough to make you question what makes a great man. As it happens, all three of these biographies give more or less the same answer, with their heroes becoming aware of indignity at a young age, and resolving to spend their lives fighting it. That may not give much biographical nuance, but it sure does give us all something simple to strive for.
Frankly, I’d rather have the latter.
—Photo david drexler/Flickr