!Brigadistas! An American Anti-Fascist in the Spanish Civil War
$18 paper / 978-1-58367-960-9 / 120 pages
Written by Miguel Ferguson, and edited by Anne Timmons
Edited by Paul Buhle and Fraser Ottanelli
Reviewed by Ajmal Waqif for ¡No Pasaran! and reposted by International Brigade Memorial Trust
This graphic novel follows the heroic adventures of a trio of fictional International Brigade volunteers from the United States. Over the course of the story our heroes find themselves at the centre of iconic events, fight alongside well-known International Brigaders and bump into the great political figures of the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War.
It opens in 1935 in New York City, during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Abram ‘Abe’ Rubenoff, Jack Tigher and Julius Goldstein, a gang of working-class Jewish young men from the Brownsville neighbourhood of Brooklyn, defend their neighbours from evictions, clash with police and attend local Young Communist League (YCL) meetings.
Abe, who is based primarily on Lincoln volunteer Abraham Osharoff (1915-2008), is brave, kind and politically conscious. He speaks eloquently about unemployment and the failures of capitalism at a YCL street rally. Later he leads a raid to remove the Nazi flag from the SS Bremen, the swastika-flying German cruise ship, which docked in Brooklyn on 18 July 1935. This part is based on a real protest carried out by New York communists, a few of whom later fought in Spain.
Early in the narrative Abe meets Caroline, an Irish-American girl involved in the Catholic Worker Movement. Over discussions of faith, socialism and the Easter Rising, the pair fall in love.
Abe’s friend Jack is initially less political, but he’s a rebel by nature. Throwing himself into the simmering ethnic conflicts of New York City, he is shown clobbering an antisemitic policeman and antagonising groups of Italian-Americans. Julian is a YCL member alongside Abe. At one meeting they are informed about the formation of the International Brigades and hear of the plight of the Spanish people from a representative of the Republic, a man named Pablo Aragon. Shortly afterwards the trio set off for Spain.
The SS Volendam takes them from New York City to Marseilles, where they are fêted by French workers. They then travel on the ill-fated Cuidad de Barcelona, which of course is sunk by an Italian torpedo off the Catalonian coast, but our trio survive. They rendezvous with the 15th International Brigade, camped at Tarazona de la Mancha in Albacete, and meet Lincoln Battalion commander Oliver Law.
Meanwhile Caroline, wracked with uncertainty about how Abe is faring and determined to help in her own way, enlists and heads out to Spain as a medical volunteer.
From there the heroes are involved in various battles, skirmishes and side-adventures. The focus is initially on the actual Brunete campaign, but the story eventually veers into the rollicking realms of pulpy historical fiction. Their nemesis throughout is a fictional Nazi German officer of the Condor Legion, the merciless Liuetenant Streicher, who leads Rebel operations in the region.
One of the more thoughtful themes of the story is the way racial and ethnic hierarchies and divisions are levelled by a shared hatred of fascism and the force of solidarity. The Brooklyn boys initially reject Pablo Aragon’s plea on behalf of the Republic, pointing out Spain’s historic persecution of Jews: ‘why should any of us risk our lives for your cause?’. Abe is convinced after seeing a report of the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika, with Aragon explaining: ‘the people who butchered the Jews during the inquisition, they are the same kind of people who do this. This is who we fight’.
Jack, previously prejudiced against Italians, marches alongside his Garibaldi Battalion comrades. The white American volunteers feel ‘proud to serve under’ the African-American Oliver Law. Two fictional Brigaders – who could certainly pass as real ones – the Irish Johnny and the English Hawkins find it difficult to work together. Later, to overcome pre-battle nerves, the two break out into a rendition of the Irish Republican song ‘Kevin Barry’, with the Mancunian Hawkins revealing that his mother is in fact Irish. One of the real Lincoln Battalion cooks, Japanese-American Jack Shirai, makes an appearance. He prepares Southern biscuits and gravy for the unit, to Oliver Law’s approval (‘just like in Texas eh’).
In the introduction to the novel, author Miguel Ferguson quotes Abe Osheroff on the realism of the narrative, that it ‘bent, but did not break, the rubber band of truth’. The weakest parts of the comic are when believability is entirely thrown out, and the rubber band of truth snaps in the process of squeezing in a famous figure or plot convenience.
The most egregious example is when Abe and Jack wander around Barcelona looking for supplies and run into Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn in a bar. After toasting the Lincoln volunteers, Hemingway treats them to a whisky and interviews them, but it suddenly devolves into a fisticuffs as Jack steals canned beef and chocolate from the acclaimed writer. The depiction is all the more odd as the final page of the comic is a striking panel with Hemingway quoting his ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.
In this way, the weaker points of ‘¡Brigadistas!’ are arguably a product of the format itself. The work is not subtle: events and conflicts are spelled out in comic book simplicity, the form and timeline of the war is highly abstracted for the sake of the plot and characters – many of them cameos of real volunteers – are flattened into archetypes.
That being said, there are many strengths to the presentation of this story as a graphic novel. Anne Timmons’ art is brilliant, her style consciously evoking the ‘golden age’ of comics in clean and dramatic tones. The simplicity of the story, as well as the excellent historical summary provided in Fraser Ottanelli’s foreword, also make it a useful, accessible introduction to the International Brigades. There is, as the afterword by Paul Buhle suggests, something inherently comic-book-worthy about the anti-fascists who volunteered for Spain. Theirs is a story of ordinary – not invincible – people pushed into performing heroic and terrifying feats of bravery for no gain but the greater good. It is to Ferguson and Timmons’ credit that they really do capture this truth in the book.
Reviewed by the International Brigade Memorial Trust