Wilhelm Reich is a fascinating historical figure. A neo-Freudian/Marxist, he believed that fascism was a result of systemic sexual repression and spent most of his life trying to figure out how to give people supreme orgasms by working with “orgone”, a subtle life energy that maps more or less onto the chakras/qi gung points. (I apologize for trivializing Reich’s research and work, but a good summary is really outside of the purview of this review.)
Reich’s life story is just as fascinating as his writings, and notably, he was never fully psychoanalyzed. Many attribute this to an upbringing that was fraught with conflict, his marked interest in sex and his precociousness in this regard. A synopsis of the man’s autobiography alone is fairly scandalous, even by today’s standards. So it is no small task for Elijah Brubaker to tackle such a notorious biographical subject in the comic series Reich.
Reich’s theories are explained in an accessible manner but the focus is on Reich’s personal life. The material appears to be well researched and Reich rewards those with more than a passing interest in the subject; most of the volumes have footnotes and volume one even includes a handy little bibliography for those interested in further reading. I personally don’t know enough about Reich’s personal life nor his personality to comment on the accuracy of Brubaker’s representation of Reich but historical accuracy is clearly not the goal of this “semi-true” biography.
What I can say is that the highly stylized artwork is a pleasure to read – a mash up of cubism and Chester Brown’s Louis Riel that conveys the kind intensity and uncomfortable magnetism one would imagine Reich’s personality would have had. Brubaker also takes a thoughtful approach in that the comic is not a straightforward retelling of Reich’s life story. While it begins this way, scenes are interrupted with brief vignettes of other characters commenting on Reich. This, coupled with a unique visual style, makes the comic read much like a biopic documentary and presents itself as a dramatic reconstruction – an interesting way of addressing the challenge of depicting a controversial figure. So many elements of Reich’s life can make him seem outlandish, unreal and well, cartoonish; adopting this documentary style approach not only draws the reader’s attention to the act of narrative reconstruction, but it also presents a more humanized portrait of a man deserving of this kind of “serious” genre.
One thing that might be helpful to a reader of this series would be to have some basic knowledge of the history of psychology and the context from which Reich’s theories arose. This background is not necessary to understand the comic, but it could further make Reich seem like more than just a history oddity engaging in wacko experiments based on even more wacko theories. Reich was working during a time when psychology was a fledgling psuedo-science that was decades away from becoming the cornerstone in the pharma-medical complex that it is today. There were many basic tenants in psychology and medicine that are evident to us today that simply were not understood in Reich’s time. Also, readers would do well to bear in mind the political context in which Reich was operating.
Reich is available online on Brubaker’s site, but it stops partway through the print run. The series has been published up to volume nine. I emailed Brubaker inquiring about future volumes and he has replied that volume ten should be on its way shortly and that there will be twelve volumes in total. Reich is available on the Sparkplug Comics website and The Beguiling should stock it. I snapped up all my copies at Sparkplug’s table during TCAF.