From contemporary Mexico to Weimar Germany, Kevin Squires takes a look at some of Verso Books’ recent graphic novels.
Operation Ajax, subtitled ‘The Story of the CIA coup that remade the Middle East’, tells the frightening and highly instructive story of the 1953 US coup d’état that overthrew democracy in Iran.
Based in large part upon the excellent ‘All the Shah’s Men’ by Stephen Kinzer, it shines a light upon one of the earliest post-war covert imperialist interventions in the Middle East.
It’s 1951 and, Mohammed Mosaddegh, a progressive prime minister, comes to power democratically in Iran.
His first acts are to nationalise the oil industry – previously in the hands of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, today called BP – and implement a series of economic and labour reforms.
Inevitably, such reforms make Mosaddegh’s government a prime target of British, and later, US imperialism. By means of deception, large quantities of money and not a little luck, a plot to reinstall a pliant monarchy is ultimately successful.
We learn that by the end of the process, the US was buying off politicians in the parliament, funding prominent clerics, and paying three different sets of protestors to literally fight each other in the streets to create a state of emergency to destabilise the government, making the CIA-directed military coup possible.
The international media not only demonise Mossadegh’s government and push for its overthrow, but also, in the case of the BBC actively collaborate with the coup leaders.
But this is not merely a history book with pictures; it is a real life thriller in graphic novel form. Aptly for its subject matter, Daniel Burnwen’s art is dark, shadowy, often bloody and communicates an omnipresent sense of paranoia.
Mike De Seve’s dialogue is believable and natural if one overlooks the occasional clunky exposition piece necessary in such a work.
In short, it’s a magnificently-produced piece of graphic history, and is a welcome addition to Verso’s stable.
Although not without faults, including a certain thread of idealist and anti-communist liberalism running throughout, this is nonetheless an essential and highly instructive read for anyone who wants to see the concrete practicalities of how covert imperialist operations work. Indeed, Iran was one of the first testing grounds for a process that has become commonplace.
La Lucha: The story of Lucha Castro and human rights in Mexico
Chihuahua state, on the Mexican side of the border with the US, is clearly a very dangerous place, with thousands of murders occurring during the past two decades.
According to La Lucha, in which Jon Sack examines the phenomenon of femicido – the deliberate targeting and killing of females – it is an even more dangerous place to be a woman.
Hundreds of killings and disappearances of women and girls have taken place there since 1993, with Ciudad Juarez and Chihauhau City in particular becoming synonymous with gendered murder and sexual violence.
An NGO monitoring such cases says that six women are killed every day in Mexico; less than 25% of these murders are investigated, and, of those, fewer than 2% lead to convictions.
As well as humanising these statistics, La Lucha concerns itself with the fightback led by the families of these victims in their search for justice and accountability, a search that can lead to threats, harassment, torture and in some cases death.
In La Lucha,we see the story of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, whose daughter Rubi was murdered by a member of a local drug cartel. When police claimed they were unable find the suspect, Marisela tracked him down herself. Despite damning evidence, he was acquitted by a corrupt troika of judges, and absconded.
Not long afterwards, Marisela was gunned down by cartel members at a protest, and her brother-in-law kidnapped and tortured to death in a macabre message to femicide campaigners.
These vignettes of brave people, many of them women, leading a crusades for justice are stories that need to be heard.
Yet it feels like there is only half of the story being presented; an analysis of the reasons for this crisis is missing.
In presenting only the personal stories of human rights defenders, the book falls into the trap of largely decoupling human rights abuses from their political and economic underpinnings, such as free trade agreements; changing gender employment dynamics; machismo; the intersection between political corruption and the drug cartels and human trafficking.
Perhaps this failure to address such issues is due to the involvement in this project of Frontline Defenders, a big player in the global NGO industry, and, regardless of the good work they undertake in defence of human rights activists, it is somewhat worrying that Verso is associating itself with Denis O’Brien’s pet conscience-salving philanthropic project.
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg is a familiar name in the pantheon of great leftist thinkers and activists, yet it is not unfair to say that her life and work are less well known that that of the likes of Marx, Lenin, Guevara, Gramsci or many others .
In writing and drawing this mammoth work, Kate Evans sought to rectify this anomaly – and has produced a masterpiece of graphic non-fiction in the process.
In her 47 years of life, Luxemburg attended university, founded three political parties in two countries, travelled Europe using false identities, spent time in jail, wrote several classic works of Marxist theory, took part in an uprising and died at the hands of proto-Nazis acting on behalf of a ‘socialist’ government.
Evans crams as much of this tragically short life as possible into 180 beautifully illustrated pages.
The book uses Luxemburg’s own words as much as possible, highlighting both her sharp intelligence, caustic wit and playful sensitivity, giving us a three dimensional view of an amazing female revolutionary.
There are also 30 pages of footnotes, enabling the reader to further explore any particular aspect of Luxemburg’s life and work.