Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Sparkplug Comics Special - Part 3 - Reich Issues 1-5

Comics have proven themselves an invaluable medium for biographical story-telling, from the cross-generational histories of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the adolescent struggles of Ariel Schrag in Potential, to the defining, revelatory study of Chester Brown’s historical drama Louis Riel. Brown’s modus operandi is clearly the model for Elijah J. Brubaker’s elegant and investigative biography of the notorious Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.

His choice of subject alone was enough to command my complete attention. A once lauded and revered figure in his chosen field, a firebrand with groundbreaking theories regarding human sexuality and societal conformism who was finally disgraced and derided into critical oblivion, Reich is precisely the kind of individual that the comic form has the power to shed new light upon, and it was with great interest that I read the first five issues in the series.

Brubaker’s visual style is a distinctive blend of anatomical rendering and abstract flourishes, heads and facial features emphasized as the focus of every panel. The young Reich of these early issues, with his Roman nose and flame of black hair cuts a swathe through post WWI Vienna with his radical theory of “orgastic potentcy” and its place within human sexuality – which he expounds upon with any willing female partner that crosses his path. These rather complex ideas are communicated in clean and clear prose that is also grounded in the daily life of Reich and his contemporaries, whose reservations are given their share of space in the narrative. Reich seeks approval and vindication from the icon of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and is rewarded with his support.

In these early issues, Reich is portrayed as a self-possessed and charismatic young man, determined and dynamic, but also ruthless and quite happy to use those around him to advance his theories and career. The human cost of the sexual freedom he personally espouses is laid bare: the death of girlfriend Lore Kahn (whom Reich is alleged to have talked into an abortion) and his rampant infidelity whilst married to Annie Pink are just two examples of Reich’s appalling treatment of the women in his life, but the most shocking detail in issue two is the heartbreaking tale of his older brother Robert, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in Italy, never to be seen by Wilhelm again.

Brubaker’s spare sense of landscape and the environment allows the reader to remain fully focussed on the issue at hand, and uses clever visual clues to denote the period, such as a reference to Egon Schiele in issue one, or the appearance of Franz Marc-like howling dog in issue three. Such high art allusions are a gift, and are employed sparingly for maximum effect. The most impressive of the issues so far is the third, where Reich’s crisis of confidence and towering argument with his wife ushers in a dramatic, extended flashback through his childhood, and to his formative sexual experiences. These are quite the most extraordinary passages to read for the first time, a gripping summation of Reich’s earliest understanding of sex within life – in the lives of their servants and animals, and crucially the lives of his parents. Their gruesomely one-sided relationship is placed in stark to contrast to Reich’s own liberation at the hands of an older, servant woman, a private ritual that on the page acts as a judgement over his parents’ dysfunction.
Reich’s political affiliations are gradually woven into the story, reaching their zenith during the street battles with the Austrian neo-fascist “Heimwehr” police units and his subsequent Communist sympathies in issue four; while he and his wife look to a brilliant future as envisaged by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, events are already conspiring against such progress. The delicate balancing act Brubaker achieves with each issue is a feat of drama and intensity, weaving Reich’s personal and professional triumphs against the coming storm of Fascism set to engulf Europe and the looming breakdown of his crumbling marriage. Annie’s icy confrontation with his mistress Elsa is brutally economical in its execution, made all the more so by the grim arrival of Adolf Hitler (via radio broadcast) into the narrative

Reich is a remarkable piece of visual biography, unearthing a sorely misunderstood figure for a new audience that will in all likelihood have never heard of him or his theories, and shedding light on an age that was as much about discovery and innovation as it was about the repression of those advances. Brubaker’s text end papers are very useful additions to the main story, and display just where the interpretations of fact and/or hearsay occur. That said, I feel that at least some prior knowledge of Reich’s life and history would be an asset to anyone wishing to follow this series, if only to prepare them for the torrent of information that it diligently provides. This would be my one, very minor caveat to my high praise for an exceptional and thought-provoking series.

Review by Kevin McCaighy.

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