In Red Rosa, Kate Evans creates a biography of Rosa Luxemburg to serve as a reconstructed archive of her life, which is especially important given that many of her works and manuscripts were destroyed by soldiers after her death. The book traces her life from growing up as a Jew in Poland, to becoming a scholar in Switzerland, through her life as a revolutionary in Germany, to her death at the hands of the Freikorps. Her life and work are presented with vigor and energy, portraying her as far more radical than the men she worked with (Rosa says of political party leaders: “genuine revolutionary activity makes them soil their pants.”). Navigating the world as a Jewish, disabled woman in her time was no easy feat, and the book focuses on her struggle to be heard, to enact change, and to promote revolution.
It took a while for the story to pick up for me, given that it was not told in the way I expected. Rather than reading as a single storyline, the book features a series of political cartoons, poetic fragments, and short pieces that Evans weaves together and connects through narrative text. This is not the kind of book you read in one sitting—rather, the reader would benefit most from this book by reading it in conjunction with other sources, whether in the context of a class or a self-directed reading list of revolutionary and historical texts. Chapter separations or clearly marked dates would have aided in making the book more readable and would have improved the flow of the story in a traditional sense. Thus, readers may wish to take it upon themselves to actively divide their reading in this way.
It’s not a hefty volume, but it is rather text-heavy because Evans uses excerpts from Rosa’s works and letters throughout the story. These quotes are given context in the “Notes” section of the book in lieu of footnotes, which would have been disruptive to the flow of the story and also difficult within the space of the page, given the wordiness. The 33 pages of notes provide corrections where Evans has taken creative liberties with Rosa’s timeline for the sake of the story. The book also includes an afterword to bring the reader full closure for Rosa’s life, and a brief bibliography for further reading. The bibliography is reliable and accessible while also being scholarly, offering a link to a blog for readers who may not be able to acquire the biographies or anthologies of her work.
Red Rosa strikes me as the kind of book that would be picked for high schoolers as a more engaging way to learn about history. I think as a reader I would have benefited if I had read this book in the context of a course, with other readings and learning to supplement my reading. Evans’ writes a brief “authorial intrusion” during one of Rosa’s lectures, tying the lecture to questions of consumerism today. This, along with the research evident in the appendices demonstrate the value this book could bring to a student trying to understand this era of history or who is taking a class on communism or philosophy.
Kate Evans’ art is far more striking when used for a single spread than when trying to convey narrative movement. Her portraits perfectly pin down the curve of Rosa’s nose, the depth of her eyes, and the swirls of her hair pinned up. However, much of the art is inconsistent. Bodily proportions are bizarrely warped, distracting and disorienting the reader. This is not due to a lack of artistic skill, as demonstrated by the gorgeous depictions of Rosa’s zoology and botany sketches. Scenes of nature (birds, flowers, insects) are drawn with such precision that they read as true to life. However scenes of people are drawn with such exaggerated facial expressions that the characters are almost unrecognizable from page to page. These two differences are held in sharp contrast on page 129, where Rosa sketches a small bird. Whereas the bird could fly off the pages in an instant, Rosa’s body is disproportionately small in comparison to her head. This distortion of human bodies presents an interesting way of showing Rosa age, as a lot of focus is placed on her appearance due to her disability. Rather than dismiss the inconsistent art as poorly executed, the reader is left to view the art as a commentary on socialism and human nature itself. Given these dramatically different stylistic choices, what then are we supposed to think of human life and socialist revolution?
While I would not categorize this as an enjoyable read, it is a historically significant and important read. It is truly a long-form political cartoon, with caricature being the standard and the norm, which made the story quite difficult to read, as I was focusing more on getting through the art than I was on reading the story.
Libraries and teachers should be aware that the book contains some sensitive content, including: abusive relationships, brief depictions of warfare and violence, nudity, and sex. However, this content is not necessarily more explicit than would appear in a YA novel in textual form, it is just displayed visually given that it is a graphic novel.
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg
by Kate Evans
Verso Books, 2015