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A foreign war, compelling scenes on the American home front (!Brigadistas! reviewed in ‘The Comics Journal’)

!Brigadistas! An American Anti-Fascist in the Spanish Civil War
By Miguel Ferguson and illustrated by Anne Timmons
Co-edited by Paul Buhle and Fraser Ottanelli
$18 / 120 pages / 978-1-58367-960-9

Reviewed by for The Comics Journal

It would seem that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) would be an excellent setting for comics. It served as precursor to World War II and showcased the weapons, tactics and brutality that were to come. It also was a time of idealism, bravery, treachery and betrayal; all the stuff of good drama. Nevertheless, there have been very few English-language comics dealing with this conflict – certainly compared to scores of titles on World War II, which have resulted in more dead fascists in pencil and ink than were killed in the entirety of that war.

¡Brigadistas! An American Anti-Fascist in the Spanish Civil War, written by Miguel Ferguson with art by Anne Timmons—the former an author and academic, the latter an illustrator and collaborator of Trina Robbins—is a valiant attempt to create some sort of balance. Published by Monthly Review Press, the latest radical publisher to see the value of the comics form, ¡Brigadistas! is based on the experiences of Brooklyn-born activist and union organizer Abe Osheroff, who is fictionalized and composited with other figures into “Abe Rubenoff.” Osheroff was one of the thousands of Americans who traveled to Spain for the fight against fascism in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I should specify that I have something of a personal connection to this subject; my alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit, is the only American university to have a scholarship in memory of those who went to Spain. Four Wayne State students put their studies aside to join the Lincoln Brigade: Robert Nagle, Marsden Moran, Edgar Roy McQuarrie & Joseph Rosenstein. All but Nagle were killed in action.

Historian and co-editor Fraser Ottanelli’s introduction to ¡Brigadistas! explains the background of the American volunteers, and how their domestic activism led them to fight fascism overseas. The comic itself opens with the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s version of the song “Jarama Valley” and ends with a quote from Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s apparent that the creators’ goal is a comic that can fit beside these enduring cultural depictions of the war.

We were men of the Lincoln battalion
we’re proud of the fight that we made
we know that you people of the valley
will remember our Lincoln brigade.

From this valley they say we are going
but don’t hasten to bid us adieu
even though we lost the battle at Jarama
we’ll set this valley free before we’re through.

-Woody Guthrie, “Jarama Valley”

Another recent comic on the war was 2021’s unsatisfying The Lincoln Brigade by Pablo Durá & Carles Esquembre, from Caliber Comics; the brigadistas in there looked stiff and unnatural. Anne Timmons’s art in this book is uneven, but preferable. I enjoyed her segment (“Les Salons de Paris”) from the Verso Books anthology Bohemians: A Graphic History – which, like ¡Brigadistas!, was co-edited by the historian Paul Buhle. Timmons’ style is reminiscent of the Golden Age of comics, which fits the time period and subject matter. An action sequence illustrating a 1935 incident where student Communists stole the Nazi flag off the visiting SS Bremen in New York feels tense and exciting, so it’s clear that Timmons can do action well. However, another maritime sequence, the 1937 sinking of the Ciudad de Barcelona, is given only a few small panels; the impact is much diminished as a result. Truthfully, if I didn’t already know about the event (which killed between 60 and 65 volunteers for the war effort along with 100 other passengers and crew), I would have been confused as to what happened.

Timmons also is inconsistent when depicting weapons and equipment. Often, the tanks, planes and guns look great; the war genre requires authenticity, going back to Harvey Kurtzman’s work at EC. But on other pages a villainous German officer’s pistol might be drawn so small and unthreatening as to resemble a toy, which is not how a major antagonist should be depicted.

Despite its focus on a foreign war, the scenes on the American home front were the most compelling. Ferguson & Timmons create an immersive setting in Depression-era New York. Readers see the desperate circumstances people endured, and can understand why radical ideas gained adherents. Timmons’ style also works for the romance between Rubenoff and Caroline, a wartime nurse. Even though from reading the opening dedication it’s clear that the real-life Osheroff survived the war, whether the same would be true of fictitious Rubenoff is an open question. I cared for the couple and worried if they would end up together.

Paul Buhle also contributes a disappointing text afterword, “The Comic and the Spanish Civil War.” The title is a bait-and-switch, as it is not until the fourth of six pages that any comics depicting the war are mentioned. Broad-picture space is allocated, however, to Boy Commandos, Kurtzman’s war comics, and a recitation of the story of comics censorship in the U.S. When comics about the Spanish Civil War are addressed, Buhle gives no opinion on popular genre fare like Garth Ennis’ & Carlos Ezquerra’s War Story: Condors from 2003, or the time Wolverine went back in time to fight Spanish fascists. This is a missed opportunity, as it would be enlightening to have a historian give their opinion on how depictions of the war changed over time and across styles. But perhaps Buhle is unaware of these examples, given his engagement in the underground comix scene.

As historical fiction, the verdict on ¡Brigadistas! is complicated. Following a composite character allows the creators to include most of the important incidents of the war, though his Forrest Gump-like presence at so many prominent events strains credulity. One historical aspect totally absent is the repression of the Spanish anarchists and the POUM (the group in which George Orwell served, as described in Homage to Catalonia) by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia and the Communist Party of Spain, despite their alliance against the fascists. Andreu Nin, leader of POUM, was arrested, disappeared forever, and was purportedly tortured to death by Stalinists. ¡Brigadistas! is a fine introduction, but it does not tell the war’s whole story. It’s doubtful that any comic of this length (120 pages) could. Readers eager for more information should read historian Adam Hochschild’s masterful Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, which is recommended in a “Further Reading” section at the end of ¡Brigadistas!, for a bigger picture of the war.

Will this comic be as remembered as Guthrie’s song and Hemmingway’s novel? I lack a crystal ball, but what I can say is that despite its faults, ¡Brigadistas! is the best English-language comic dealing with the Spanish Civil War, and for that reason it gets my endorsement.



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