Prisoner 155 begins with desolation. When we first meet Simón Radowitzky, he is a solitary man trapped in a brutal prison in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. We witness him beaten savagely by indifferent guards and is forced to withstand a pitilessly frigid prison cell as he heals from the savagery for which he has been inflicted. The opening scenes should be a harbinger of fear and despair for the reader. Yet in the masterful hands of cartoonist Agustín Comotto, this moment doesn’t bring pity or anger.
Instead, the first few pages of this excellent graphic novel put the reader in a strange sense of grace, allowing us to bask in the kind of blissful indifference Radowitzky seems to feel at his torment. It’s not that the prison doesn’t have a bruising effect on the man; instead, he possesses such a natural and peaceful sense of calm that he seems the pain and torment exist outside of him.
As Comotto explores his subject, Radowitzky comes more and more alive on the printed page. We learn this Russian boy was once happy but never was content. He was a prodigious and rebellious reader, a boy of poor financial prospects but possessed of intelligence that pushed him towards rebellion against the brutal czar. He has a desperate need to keep his mind free even if his body was trapped in terrifying circumstances.
The centerpiece of this compelling graphic novel is a dramatic escape from prison, told in a stately way that emphasizes the drama of the moment by playing down its thrills. The terrifying thrill of the escape is felt internally rather than externally, a feeling that befits its lead subject perfectly. Added to that is the complexity of Radowitzky’s life after his escape, which is shown as much more prosaic and ordinary than he might have dreamed it would be.
Agustín Comotto delivers a compelling graphic novel that displays a remarkable empathy for its subject in a series of subtle gestures and small moments of strength. His art appears loose but conveys its subject perfectly and brings the world of the early 20th century alive in ways that can only work in comics.
The life story of Simón Radowitzky may be familiar to those who study the world’s revolutionaries, but it never falls into a pedantic or declarative style. This biography is subjective rather than objective. Under Comotto’s adept approach, readers are carried along with a vision of Radowitzky that paints him as a bit of a tragic figure, a man who was never able to rediscover his ephemeral true love and who finds himself a man without a country.
Prisoner 155 ends with a 65-year-old Radowitzky in Mexico, sadly reliving his past moments. In a final, fascinating screen, Comotto shows Radowitzky setting free the pigeons he held on his roof. Fittingly, a book that ends with a man in chains ends with that same man delivering freedom unto others. In between, his martyrdom and steadfast courage served as a demonstration of his inner strength but also of his greatest weakness. In the end, Simón Radowitzky was like so many of us: a man of deep inner convictions and complexity who simply aimed to be the best man he could be.
This may be the first graphic novel from publisher AK Press, which is best known for its historical and political nonfiction but Agustín Comotto makes a great case for them to find more great volumes to accompany this compelling work of nonfiction.