Something that sucks about being a bleeding-heart lefty is that you always have to deal with big bushy beards. Marx - beard, Engels - beard, Trotsky and Lenin - all beards! As a result, it’s a rare treat to find a biography like Kate Evan’s Red Rosa that reminds me that early 20th century communism wasn’t all about facial hair.
Red Rosa is a graphic novel. It starts at the very beginning - when Rosa Luxemburg was a child in Zamość Poland. It follows her development into a political revolutionary, but doesn’t shy away from her family dramas, her love interests, her illnesses and - of course - her cat.
Through careful research, and a bit of artistic license, Evans manages to capture the essence of what life was like for a woman so fierce, so contrary, but so fantastic in her time.
When I first opened the book I was ready to have my mind blown with political genius. I was ready to get my riot-gear on and fight with Rosa for her cause! [insert commie catchphrase here]. And it’s not that the book doesn’t do that - in fact we get to sit in on some of Rosa’s Marxism 101 lectures - but that’s not the reason I’d tell you to read it. No, what I love most about Red Rosa is the sex.
When Rosa first spends the night with her partner Leo, Evans uses both her curvaceous artistic style and some fun Freudian tropes to guide us into the intimacy and ecstasy of young love. That’s not to say it’s excessive. On the contrary, we are given only one, full page frame to experience that moment. And like any climax, it’s over with the flip of a page.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Evans doesn’t depict Rosa as some sexy, socialist goddess. Despite her outstanding story, Rosa is simply one of us. She has rolls on her hips, and her breasts sag when she takes off her corset. She has armpit hair, and pubic hair and she cries when she is sad. Although she was so much more than her body, it’s delightful to see Rosa as a real human.
Much like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the visual medium of the graphic novel means our imagined protagonists can visualise in front of us and come to life. Rosa was more than just an idea - she was a human.
And that gives us a chance to look at all the outstanding, contrary humans around us. Almost a hundred years since Rosa’s murder, we can see how being a political revolutionary isn’t always about the big bushy beard. In fact, you don’t need to be part of any social or political elite to make a serious mark on the political landscape. In the 21st century, Rosa is reborn in people like Tavi Gevinson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and New Zealand’s late Helen Kelly. Although Rosa faced different adversities in a different time, Red Rosa reminds us we are all humans, and we all have the power - no, the duty - to change the world around us.