Words: Jeffrey Burandt
Cuba: My Revolution is a superb, new graphic novel from Vertigo Press, written by Inverna Lockpez, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, colored by José Villarrubia, and lettered by Pat Brosseau. A sort of historical-memoir-as-novel, Cuba: My Revolution is a moving, oftentimes chilling, and sometimes outright horrifying, dramatic work. The author’s note intimates that this is a true story, and knowing that these events are as real as memory and art can achieve adds to the story’s impact. My Revolution is comic books as Literature, avoiding the genre confines of typical adventure stories on one hand, or slice of life indy comics on the other.
Cuba: My Revolution tells the story of Sonya, a young Cuban painter who joins Fidel Castro’s revolution in the early 1960s, only to become disillusioned to Castro’s rule as the story progresses. Over the course of the narrative, Sonya watches as her family loses their wealth and prestige, her friends lose their freedom of expression, and her people their rights and often their lives. Among all this, Sonya witnesses the horrors of war, the strain of government-imposed rations, and is herself threatened, imprisoned, and tortured, suffering more and more privations with every turn of the page.
Lockpez tells the story via Sonya’s perspective in the first person, present tense, whereby an intimacy emerges between narrator and readers. Sometimes you want to reach out and grab Sonya and shake her. You want to yell at her to listen to her mother and father, who are constantly advising her to leave. You want to grab her and shake her: get the hell out of there! Go be safe! Stop being so naïve! Stop being so young! Get out before something worse happens! Then something worse happens. But readers have the hindsight of history (or at least Wikipedia), while Sonya is stuck in her own story, and as such, some tense moments of dramatic irony arise.
To my count, the story spans about eight years, and has a lot of historical context to explain in its 144 pages, and as such, much of the caption boxes, dialogue and thought balloons are utilized for exposition. This is my one criticism of the book. I think comics savvy readers are going to feel that too often we’re being told things we would have rather have seen performed. At one point, a caption box tells us, “As the Missile Crisis continues, we learn details only through the government newspaper and Fidel’s angry speeches.” We do get to read some of these government-sanctioned reports emanating from radios and newspaper headlines in-panel, but I think we could have been given more instances of these propaganda details, such that less explanatory heavy lifting could have been done by dialogue and thought balloons, allowing for the drama to have more room to breath and feel more natural, and allowing readers to understand better why idealistic Sonya would support Castro’s regime for so long. When the narration strays from the expository, however, it sings. There is a moment in the book when Sonya needs money for her family and subjects herself to sleeping with a much older, wealthy friend of her father to obtain it. As the panels illustrate the older man heavy atop a sorrowful Sonya, her narration reads, “I am impatient for him to finish, but he takes his time and I decide to become someone else. Maybe a mermaid, this time. Swimming deep in the ocean, shifting, changing, always beyond the reach of men.” It’s passages like this where Sonya’s narration becomes at once poetic and heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, Haspiel’s cartooning is masterful and inventive. His characters act with emotion and grace, emoting with their eyes and body language as living people: a drunk man careens in a bar; a woman’s knees weaken in fear at the approach of combat; a lover’s eyes swell with sorrow at learning his beloved’s fate; Castro strides determined and square-shouldered from the jungle. One of the key scenes of the book involves Castro’s men taking Sonya captive, suspecting her of being an informant to the CIA, stripping her naked, and torturing her for weeks. In the pages that follow, readers watch as she is transformed from a beautiful young woman into a scarred and fearful animal, ready to admit anything so as to escape the pain inflicted by her torturers, and it’s a truly moving and horrifying passage. While Haspiel’s camera doesn’t blink in the face of these terrible acts, the violence on page is not celebrated, nor is her nudity sexualized. What we see is a woman broken and humiliated, and it would make for difficult reading if it weren’t such powerful storytelling.
Furthermore, Haspiel’s layouts are often unique, if never overcomplicated, and are always cogent with the help of Pat Brosseau’s eye-leading word balloon placement. There’s an amazing page early on that depicts Sonya and her family at a New Year’s party in-panel, while Fidel and his men descend from the mountain in the gutters of the comic page; it’s an excellent depiction of two groups of characters moving through the same time at different locales in a way that only comics can achieve with such craft.
Haspiel’s illustrations are buttressed with grace and power by José Villarrubia’s superb coloring and gray tones. In fact, Villarrubia’s work on the book is integral to its emotional effectiveness. Told mostly in black, white and shades of gray, the color red moves throughout the story like a literary trope. At times, Villarrubia’s use of red is simply to color a rose or a print on a dress. At other times, the use of color allows Sonya to become the highlight of her panels (especially in crowd scenes). Pink burns in the sky as lovers kiss, and red fills the flags and five-pointed stars of Castro’s militia, evoking communism. Red spatters the ground as a child falls victim to a blast of napalm; red lingers on Sonya’s uniform as spatters of ichor; and in one hospital scene, where blood for infusions is scarce, but the blood of a patient is copious, Villarrubia’s use of red is horrifying. But where his use of red really emotes is when characters ignite with anger, their faces depicted in black, white and gray, while the panel behind them burns with flat, dark color. In the aforementioned torture scene, color disappears entirely for five entire pages, until, as Sonya begins to break, pink begins to emerge on her body, and, turn the page, pow!—there’s that virulent red again, announcing another emotional, dramatic turn. It’s fantastic. I hope Villarrubia gets the attention he deserves for this book.
Finally, the book as a whole is a great artifact of publishing. Its pages are thick and textured; its book jacket is well designed and eye-catching; it feels good and heavy in your hands. It’s a book for book lovers in this age of digital transition, and here the medium matches the content—because this is weighty, powerful stuff. This is graphic literature, and I am glad this book exists, not just because it’s an engaging, powerful story that needed to be told, but also that it’s an engaging, powerful story that needed to be told and it’s told as comics. We need more comics—I mean “graphic literature”—like this on the shelves. And if you have someone in your family or group of friends who enjoys history or literature but has never picked up a comic in his or her life, this might just be the one to give. It’s well worth the money both as a story and as a product. I highly recommend this to adult readers of all stripes.
Artist Dean Haspiel will be signing copies of Cuba: My Revolution this Wednesday, September 15 at the Grand Central location of Midtown Comics from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Jeffrey C. Burandt is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He publishes the science fiction adventures of his real-life band Americans UK and is currently writing the graphic novel Odd Schnozz and the Odd Squad, to be released in 2011 from Oni Press. He is also a regular contributor to Overflow Magazine. Check out his prose and other work at jefwrites.com.