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A review a day: No Pasarán!

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>No Pasarán!</i>

I probably should have put an inverted exclamation point in front of that title, as it’s in Spanish, but it’s not on the cover of the book, so I won’t!

Oh, here’s another review. Click “Continue Reading” to learn the shocking tale of how I acquired this!

No Pasarán! volumes 1-3 is a tale of the Spanish Civil War by Vittorio Giardino (and translated by Stefano Gaudiano, Andrea Gaudiano, and Nanette McGuinness). It is published by NBM and the volumes cost $14.95, $11.95, and $13.95 respectively. They’re different lengths, hence the different costs.

All three volumes were offered in Previews a year ago (volume 1 came out in 2000, volume 2 in 2002, so NBM was offering all three in case you missed the first two). I ordered all three, and eventually, I got volumes 2 and 3. I asked my retailer what happened to volume 1, but they could never find out (they may have never asked, of course). I finally decided, after waiting a few months (I had plenty to read, after all, so I could wait), to order it from NBM’s web site. Except volume 1 was sold out. Well, isn’t that swell. I did, you know, order it. I think I sent them an e-mail asking what was up, and I think they responded that they would work on getting it back on sale, but it was a while ago and it may have just been something I was going to do and never did. I checked the web site every once in a while, but it was always sold out. You may ask why I simply didn’t go to Amazon, but I do like to order stuff directly from the publisher if I can, because it makes me feel better. I figured I would check out the NBM booth at San Diego to see if they had any copies, but they didn’t (I did meet Neil Kleid, who wrote yesterday’s comic, there, and he was a nice guy, so there’s that). At that point, I decided I’d had enough and ordered volume 1 from Amazon. It wasn’t out of print or anything either.

The lesson is, of course, that publishers ought to have their product on hand if they in fact sell comics directly to the public. I’m the kind of person who would rather give my money directly to the publisher even if I have to pay a bit more and even I lost patience with them. So Amazon got my money. Thus endeth my tale.

It’s a shame, too, because No Pasarán! is a very good comic book. Giardino could easily allow it to devolve into propaganda, but by resisting that urge, he gives us a very balanced portrait of the war even as we know exactly on which side he stands. I can’t imagine many creative types being on Franco’s side (some writers were, back in the day, but they’re far outnumbered by anti-fascist creators), so it’s not surprising that Giardino is not favorably disposed toward the Nationalists, but what’s great about this comic is that the Nationalists are hardly in it. Ultimately, this isn’t an anti-fascist comic, it’s the story of a man who cares more about people than ideologies. In this way, Giardino is able to explore more than just a simple “good guys vs. bad guys” kind of theme.

Max Friedman, the star of some earlier Giardino works, shows up again here, living comfortably in Geneva in 1938 after spending some time with the International Brigades in Spain two years earlier. An old friend’s wife visits and asks him to return to Spain to search for her husband, who has vanished.

In the first scene of the book, we see the friend, Guido Treves, and why he’s disappeared – he stops the execution of a soldier who abandoned his post. Giardino quickly shows us that the man who ordered the execution, Kusic, is a venal functionary who cares only about obeying orders to the letter – he doesn’t care that the soldier’s men had no ammunition left and had held the ground for hours with no reinforcements – and the Communist party line. Treves, on the other hand, recognizes the value of good soldiers, and his intervention draws the attention of the Communist party leaders in Barcelona, who don’t appreciate Treves making waves. It’s this situation into which Max returns in October 1938.

Giardino sets the stage very well. The Communist leader, Rubizov, mentions casually that political considerations are more important than military ones, which, from what I’ve read of the war, was an unfortunate byproduct of Russian involvement. The Russian advisers to the Republican side gained more and more control throughout the war, and they began to place greater importance on propaganda than military gain. Giardino does a nice job conveying this throughout the book, as several characters comment on the way the press releases are fantasy, and one character even wonders if Stalin even wanted the Republicans to win the war. Given what we know of Stalin, he probably didn’t care one whit what happened in Spain. The machinations of the Republicans are a primary focus of the book, as Max returns to Barcelona and is immediately swept up into all the intrigue that he thought he left behind. One of the big strengths of the book is that Giardino rarely makes the incompetence of the Republic a talking point of his own – he lets events and the characters themselves comment on it in the course of conversation, and the failure of the Republic to provide for their own troops and people is made more stirring as a result. (I should point out that you don’t need to know much about the war to enjoy this book, and Giardino writes short prefaces to each volume explaining some of the situations. Franco was a fascist who engineered a coup against the left-leaning Republic in 1936, and as he was backed by Hitler and Mussolini while the English and French sat out the war – the Soviets were the only power to provide aid to the Republic – his victory was pretty much inevitable, even though it took three years. Catalonia was the last section of the country to fall, and Max returns when the situation is becoming extremely untenable for the Republic.)

Max begins to search for Treves, and he meets all the kinds of people you expect to meet behind the lines of an ideological war. We get the Communists, some of whom are solid and somewhat cynical veterans, some of whom are hypocritical bureaucrats; we get the soldiers of fortune who joined the International Brigades to fight for “freedom” (whatever they defined that freedom to be); we get the fifth columnists who are plotting to help Franco take the city; we get the press, who range from the hardened veterans to the idealistic neophytes.

Max falls in with some of the journalists and begins a flirtation with Claire, a Belgian reporter. She and Max form a good team for a book like this, because she can become the reader’s entrance into this world and can speak the opinions that we might have. Max, as a veteran of the war, has a point of view a bit beyond us, but through Claire, we can come to learn about his experiences and how they have changed him. As Max and Claire head from Barcelona to the Ebro front and back in the search for Treves, Giardino puts them into contact with all sorts of people, a nice cross-section of Spanish/Republican/Communist society. This becomes a portrait of the way the war had transformed Spain, and we see a good deal of through Max’s and Claire’s eyes.

That’s not to say it’s a documentary of life in Civil War Spain. It’s an adventure story, as Max is looking for a man who ran afoul of the authorities and falls under suspicion himself. There are several different groups of men interested in Max, from those who think he’s a spy for Franco to those who think he’s a spy for the Communists. There are intrigues swirling around him, and Giardino sets his ideology – that finding Treves, who’s a friend, is more important than the war – against those who believe this is a life-or-death struggle between two opposite political systems. Giardino brings the story down to a human level, and subtly makes this a tragedy about the Spanish people, many of whom didn’t think the Soviet-backed Communists were any better than the Nazi-backed Falangists. Max becomes their voice, as he manages to navigate among the many groups arrayed against him, none of whom want him to find out the truth about Treves. Treves himself becomes a symbol of the war – nobody wants to dig too deeply to find out what happened to him, because it would make too many people uncomfortable. But Max doesn’t care about what he digs up along with the truth about Treves – he just wants to find out what happened to his friend. As he does so, it becomes a thrilling trip through Catalonia, with battles being fought and people trying to kill Max.

Giardino’s art is magnificent, too. I suppose it’s “Fine Line,” and it feels very European – not that there’s anything wrong with that! He does a wonderful job creating this world of war-torn Spain, from the rubble that lies casually around the streets of the towns to the hard-bitten landscape of the country over which the troops fight. His characters are great, too – of course we know the principals very well, but there are also characters who disappear for pages at a time but who are so distinctive we recognize them immediately when they return. The people look real, too, in that they’re not exaggerated in any way, and they’re not ridiculously gorgeous. They just look like actual people, and therefore their reactions and expressions are real. This is a book that relies on characters reacting to the war and what it does to others, but they rarely express themselves obviously, and so we have to look closely at Max and Claire to watch as they try to keep it together while the war gets more intrusive. Giardino does a good job keeping these emotions within the context of the comic, so that it doesn’t become overly sentimental. When the art calls for action, Giardino does a good job with that, as well. Despite being a soldier, Max feels out of his element, so the action scenes are more like we would expect, with people aiming poorly, bombs missing their targets, and almost random violence affecting bystanders.

This comic is in the grand tradition of war stories that aren’t necessarily set on the front, but show how war affects all aspects of life in a country. It reminded me of Casablanca and The Third Man, and more recent movies like The Year of Living Dangerously (okay, not that recent, but within my lifetime, at least) and Welcome to Sarajevo. If you like those kinds of movies, you’ll probably like No Pasarán! It’s exciting, thoughtful, melancholy, hopeful, and beautiful to look at. I just wish I had been able to read it a year ago.

Tomorrow: The Grumpy British Bastard! But which one?????

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