From the moment he was killed by Bolivian troops guided by CIA field agents in October 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara became a revolutionary icon. A photograph taken of him by Alberto Korda, in which Guevara, bedecked with a beret and wearing combat fatigues, strikes a stern, monumental pose, is one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. Around the world, that image soon made its way onto posters, T-shirts, and other commodities, turning Che into a minor industry as well as a martyr.

In Argentina, a left-wing writer and editor named Héctor Germán Oesterheld approached well-known graphic artist Alberto Breccia and suggested that they collaborate on a graphic life of the fallen revolutionary. Alberto agreed, recruiting his son, Enrique, as a second artist. They set to work, aiming to publish La vida del Che on the first anniversary of Guevara’s death. For various reasons the book was delayed, appearing in January 1969. As Pablo Turnes, professor of art history at the University of Buenos Aires, writes, “even though the comic was released on a date when fewer students were around—January is the month when everybody goes on summer vacation in the southern hemisphere—the print run sold out quickly.”

The Argentine government, a military dictatorship, was a little slower to act. In 1973, four years after publication, army intelligence agents raided the publisher’s office, confiscated the few unsold copies and original artwork, and burned the lot. All except for one image, that is: Enrique Breccia notes that the minister of the interior kept his panel showing the death of Che, framing it and hanging it in his home.

Ironically, Alberto—although now classified as a “subversive element”—was asked to draw a history of the Argentine army to distribute to the troops, a job he evaded by asking for an overly large commission. For its part, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires asked the Breccias and Oesterheld to write and draw a life of John F. Kennedy, even paying in advance for a book that never materialized.

Time passed, and La vida del Che was forgotten. Until, that is, a copy turned up in Spain, attracted the attention of a publisher, and was reissued in 1987. In the United States, Fantagraphics commissioned a translation by Puerto Rican poet Erica Mena, which will appear this month as Life of Che: An Impressionistic Biography (Fantagraphics Books, March 15).


Alberto Breccia died in 1993. Oesterheld was arrested in 1976, a desaparecido (disappeared one). The military government murdered him the following year and attempted to erase his name from history. Oesterheld’s four daughters disappeared with him, never to be seen again, along with more than 30,000 other Argentines.

Enrique Breccia, meanwhile, drew the inaugural issue of the DC comic Swamp Thing, along with many other issues of that eerie comic, a very different tack indeed from the stark though admittedly ghoulish images of Guevara’s last days.

“I’m glad to be remembered for my involvement in Swamp Thing,” Breccia, who now lives in Rome, tells Kirkus. “It was work on an extraordinary character that I did with a lot of enthusiasm.” After working for Marvel as well, he continued drawing numerous comics and graphic novels for French and Italian publishers, including, most recently, a series of graphic novels called Golgotha that recounts the adventures of gladiators in imperial Rome. He has also illustrated novels by H.P. Lovecraft, Herman Melville, and other writers.

Breccia remembers Life of Che with pride. A work that came early in his long career, the book features his artwork, done, as he says, “using pure black and white, drawn on cardboard with a layer of plaster that I scraped with a knife, which I still have.” Readers will immediately sense the transition between the work of father and son, which comes at the moment that Che arrives in Bolivia: the early images, by Alberto, are realistic, while the latter images are expressionistic. The discontinuity works even if it came as a surprise to both artists, who, Breccia says, agreed to work independently and not show the results to each other until the art was completed.

A further irony in the publishing history of Life of Che is that, while it appeared in numerous international editions, it has never appeared in Cuba. Breccia attributes this to a schism between Fidel Castro and Guevara, who began to take a more humanistic turn in his revolutionary Marxism. As Oesterheld wrote in a long caption toward the end of the book, “Che begins to understand those who reduced everything to economics were wrong. The true revolution can only occur within the heart, outside the wolf-man, devourer of villagers. It’s time for a New Human. One who works and plays for moral incentives. Yes, the revolution begins within each and every person.”

Guevara went so far as to criticize Castro for aligning Cuba with the totalitarian Soviet Union rather than build its own more liberal form of socialism. According to Breccia, it was this schism that led Castro to dispatch Guevara to Africa, where he fought in Angola and the Congo, and then to Bolivia, where he met his death—betrayed, Breccia asserts, by Castro himself, who let the CIA know of Guevara’s whereabouts.

Whether that assertion is true or not, we will probably never know, but Oesterheld’s text makes it clear that Che Guevara went through numerous episodes of political evolution in his life. He studied medicine, but on his famous journey across South America, recounted in his Motorcycle Diaries, he decided to abandon it for political action: “The diseases he really wants to cure aren’t typhus, malaria, leprosy, but hunger, exploitation, injustice,” Osterheld wrote in Life of Che. He took his fight to Guatemala during a period of civil war—naturally, the CIA was deeply implicated—and then traveled to Mexico, meeting Castro. He fought alongside Fidel in the Sierra Maestra of Cuba and, perhaps improbably, was appointed the head of the national bank. Steely and determined, he cleaned house there before deciding that he preferred armed struggle to accounting.

As for Life of Che, “Everyone involved was all too aware that such a project was a risky affair at the time,” writes Turnes in an afterword. Certainly, it came at great cost to its writer, even as the artists were under constant threat of arrest until the dictatorship collapsed after the Falklands/Malvinas War.

There is one small but significant change in the new edition. Originally, the biographical section was to have opened with a copy of Guevara’s birth certificate, recorded in his birthplace of Rosario, about 185 miles from Buenos Aires in the Argentine interior. A photostat of the birth certificate did not arrive in time for publication, and so the panel was left blank. The birth certificate is in place in the new editions, Spanish and English. It makes a fitting denouement to a reborn book—and with it, surely, a rebirth of interest in the great revolutionary whom Life of Che enshrines.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.