Writer and artist Reinhard Kleist begins his graphic novel biography of Fidel Castro looking straight down a lense, the Cuban leader centre frame in the line of sight. No, we aren’t looking down a sniper rifle, but through young German photographer Karl Mertens’s camera. Kleist has undertaken a huge task in chronicling the life of Fidel Castro, but with the help of his expert consultants they have sieved through over 50 years of information but still provide the reader with a vivid and exciting re-telling of Castro’s life.
Our narrator Mertens comes to Cuba attracted by the romantic image of the revolution, looking to document this vital time in Cuba’s history and hopefully meet Castro himself. He reminisces at the book’s beginning over advice he has received; that a journalist must always be impartial to the events he’s reporting on. All too quickly though, he becomes caught up in the zeitgeist of change and eventually Mertens finds himself an old man in a foreign country, sitting at a kitchen table recounting collected memories and stories directly to the reader. Castro works best when the action regularly cuts between Castro and the effects of his regime on Mertens, his family, and old comrades from the revolution; Kleist creates a well formed and interesting group of characters who we see from the first days of the uprising to their eventual struggle in the new Cuban society.
Kleist’s artwork is expressive yet simple, black pencil scratchings against white pages. Kleist often only draws the most essential details to create a frame and I was amazed by how much could be conveyed with so little detail, whilst on other pages he creates exciting gun fights and battles.
Kleist uses Castro’s tall frame to his advantage and his figure dominates the book, whether its when talking to people in a group or looming large over a page like a communist statue. Kleist uses the frame and speech bubbles in interesting and inventive ways, in one encounter between Castro and then Vice President Richard Nixon there is literally a tear down the middle of the frame dividing them, in other frames Kleist crafts speech bubbles into the shapes of baseball bats evoking the power words can hold or literally wraps the words around Castro’s frame.
There is a surprising and welcome stream of humour running through Castro, I had to double take when I thought I saw Michael Corleone in the corner of a frame (I was right, he was there!) and I couldn’t help but laugh at the UN Ambassadors gossiping behind Castro’s back like teenagers at school. Also, I bet Kleist must have chuckled to himself as he shaded in the Adidas logo on Castro’s track suit in the book’s epilogue.
I really didn’t know that much about Castro past the beard and cigar before reading this book and now I do… which is nice! Kleist guides the reader through Castro’s life without bombarding them with information; his book is full of life and excitement, and really works best when we see the effects of Castro’s actions on the country and society he rules. Kleist’s book is a valuable insight into a significant time in history and one off the 21st century’s most imposing figures. Viva la Cuba!
‘Castro’ is published by Self Made Hero, who are awesome… Find this, and them HERE