Saturday 16th May 2015
KATE EVANS has just completed a graphic novel about the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Here she tells Michal Boncza about a challenging but rewarding creative process
How did the project come about?
The US radical writer Paul Buhle has commissioned an incredible series of graphic novels on important historical figures of the left, including Che Guevara, Emma Goldman and the Wobblies — the Industrial Workers of the World. He lined up support for a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg and asked around to find a female comic artist to take it on. I’d submitted work to WW3 magazine in the US and a friend there recommended me.
Did you have to originate the entire story?
Paul would have been happy to supply the text but I wouldn’t let him! I insisted on tackling everything from primary sources. I went right back to Das Kapital — the student edition, I confess — and that helped put my understanding of Rosa’s academic writings on a firm footing. Once I read her letters, though, I knew we had a story. Her letters are incredible, well worth a read even if you’re not already a fan.
What was the most challenging task you faced before getting down to work?
It seems like 19th-century intellectual Marxists were paid by the word. There are so many of them — how different to today’s soundbite, 140-character culture. Rosa wrote 8,500 pages of prose and I felt I had to tackle a representative sample of that.
My eyes just used to slide off the page and I ended up reading tricky passages aloud two or three times and then making myself summarise them so I’d actually taken in what I’d read. But then I’d find a passage that really grabbed me, literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was worth it for that.
It was fun picking out and piecing together all the most pithy quotes for dramatic effect. The best one I unearthed was: “Capitalism is prepared to set the world on fire,” although that’s a slight misquotation.
Are there particular images you’ve based your characterisation on?
I have all the photos of Rosa. I’d stare at them every time I drew her, which added up to 1,600 images. Sometimes I was unable to tell whether any of them looked like her, I’d been staring at them so long.
But there is one photo that holds the key to making Rosa look like Rosa. She’s arguing with the Socialist Party leader August Bebel during a conference and it’s such a funny picture, so full of life.
The reason this photo is so important is because of her cheekbones. Getting that bone structure into her face is what makes pictures of Rosa really look like Rosa.
What was the hardest part of the actual drawing process?
I drew rough versions of the entire book before I set about inking it. I thought it would take two months and it took six. Because it’s a historical graphic novel I researched everything — did they have celery in 19th-century Warsaw? Did they have a public library? What would the synagogue look like? How would they dress? Including their underwear?
I hate drawing buildings and had to draw lots of them and it’s the same with drawing crowds and hats. So having to draw street scenes of the German revolution didn’t fill me with joy but I’ve now become much better at it and I have a whole new appreciation of any complex, crenellated 19th-century buildings that I see on the street. I look at them and think: “Thank God I don’t have to draw that one.”
As a woman have you brought out aspects of Rosa that might otherwise have been omitted or neglected?
I certainly think aspects of her story have been neglected by her biographers up until now. Except for A Rebel’s Guide to Rosa Luxemburg, all the official biographies are really dull. It takes some skill to make her story boring, because she led a fascinating life.
There’s a love story at the centre of the book — but there are maybe three or four love stories, in succession and sometimes overlapping. I certainly identified with Rosa in her romance with Leo Jogiches — meeting the man of your dreams and then discovering he has feet of clay. There was domestic violence and I’ve experienced that, too.
Unlike Rosa, though, I have never copped off with my best friend’s son.
What’s impressed you most about her personality?
It’s hard to find just one aspect to single out. The poetry of her writing is astounding and most of it comes out in the personal letters that she wrote to friends. They’re incredibly powerful pieces and it was an absolute joy to find the pictures to go with them. I hope that her literary talents become more widely known. What impresses me too is her sense of humour, her irrepressible ability to find joy even in the blackest times and her incredible self-confidence, so rare to find in another woman.
What have you learned about Rosa as a politician and activist?
The Accumulation of Capital is an incredible leap of economic understanding. Rosa mathematically extracted a proof of the link between capitalism, imperialism/globalisation and the military-industrial complex. It was way ahead of its time and deserves to be more widely known.
Anyone attempting her work for the first time might start with her Anti-Critique of the Accumulation of Capital because she makes the same arguments in a far more entertaining manner.
Her unswerving opposition to capitalism and her vision of revolution is wonderfully democratic: never take over governmental power except with the clear and explicit will of the great majority of the proletarian masses. There are places where I disagree with her vision for the future but, as the author, I can just ignore those bits!
What do you hope the book will achieve?
Writing a book is a bit like giving birth to a child and then shoving it out into the world. It takes on a life of its own, in relation to multiple readers that I’ve never met.
I hope it gets reviewed, appreciated and enjoyed. I wonder though if it will be, partly because I’m a woman and also because comics aren’t taken seriously in our culture.
I’d love this book to achieve mainstream success, and it deserves to, but I’m not holding my breath.
It all boils down to capitalism fundamentally being a really bad idea. Rosa was banging on about it a hundred years ago. I’ve been saying it for 20. But does anyone listen? Do they (insert expletive here!)
Red Rosa will be published by Verso Press in the autumn. If you’d like to pre-order a signed copy by Kate Evans, visit cartoonkate.co.uk.