Elijah Brubaker’s wonderful rendering of the life of Wilhelm Reich resumes with two new issues.
Issue six has Wilhelm in the Berlin of 1933 as the Nazis begin their ascent to power, threatening not just the livelihood of the now famous psychiatrist but the lives of his entire family. The pace of issue six is heightened by the very real dangers encountered by the Reich family on nearly every page, symbolized in one memorable series of panels by the smothering black ceiling of the train carriage where Wilhelm and his estranged wife Annie are briefly interrogated by an officer of the SA. Elsewhere, a black monolithic mass of followers hurl books onto a bonfire, pointedly including Reich’s own “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” – it becomes a literal funeral pyre for the idea of any meaningful sense of opposition to such destruction.
These dark elements are sharply contrasted with the clarity of Reich’s scientific breakthroughs, such as his discovery of “bions”, which were central to almost all of his theories that were to prove so notorious in the following decades. It's a key issues in the series, detailing so many of the tumultuous events that were both formative and transformative, from his initiation to brothels to his gradual estrangement from his children, from his cancer research to the loss of both his father and his great mentor Sigmund Freud.
Issue six leaves Reich in 1937, but issue seven begins with a drastic leap forward in time to 1954, and a complete change of character emphasis. Wilhelm’s young son Peter becomes the focus of our attention, boasting to an older friend about his father’s cloudbusting machine and weather experiments. Peter’s admiration of his now legendary father and his exploits is endless, a son’s unconditional love given ample white space to roam within each panel and speech bubble.
Peter regurgitates his father’s theories verbatim, the experiments with orgone boxes and sexual energy by his sister and her boyfriend are part of daily life and go unremarked upon. Only a trace of natural curiosity and child-like questioning surfaces in Peter; it is enough to keep the reader firmly with him even as he faithfully wends his way through his father’s extraordinary practices and concepts.
When Reich Sr finally appears towards the end of the issue, he is a broad, confident figure, vast in size and ambition in the eyes of Peter. His words here seem to have calcified into dogma on the page, rather than flow in the manner of theory that distinguished his younger incarnation. Every statement is fact, every sentence sits in judgement of others, and the boundlessness of Peter’s love only underscores Wilhelm’s harshness further. Brubaker skillfully makes the reader wary and suspicious of Reich in precisely the way what people were already thinking of him at the time: was he a sex-crazed quack? Was he merely exploiting the dichotomy of sexual exploration already at play in an ultra conformist America still reeling from the revelations of Alfred Kinsey?
The climax of the issue is a decidedly uneasy depiction of a father and son meal at a desert diner, where once again the subject of sex and its function in daily life is inescapable. It is a powerful, somber episode in the series, foreshadowing the real trials and tribulations that Reich will have to face in the not too distant future. Creating it clearly took its toll on Brubaker, who in his raw concluding notes describes the issues as “hard born”; hinting too at troubles elsewhere that I hope will not put the series in jeopardy. “Reich” continues to be one of the most challenging and engrossing independent comic series that I’ve read in recent years, and richly deserves the chance to reach whatever resolution its creator has in mind for it.
Review by Kevin McCaighy.
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Elijah J Brubaker's website