Graphic novel of the month: ‘Worm’

Edel Rodriguez’s art rose to prominence during the age of Trump. Here’s what came before…
January 9, 2024

As an admirer of his work, I was eager to get stuck into Edel Rodriguez’s graphic-novel memoir when it arrived at the office. Even if you haven’t heard his name before, you’ve almost certainly come across his striking depictions of Donald Trump that dominated the covers of current affairs publications a few years ago. Trump decapitating the Statue of Liberty on Der Spiegel. Trump’s face in meltdown, dripping down the front of Time. Rodriguez’s stark and punchy illustration style was perfectly suited to capturing—or lampooning—no.45’s presidency.

But now this master of communicating a feeling or mood with just one image is telling a larger story: his own. Across the 300 stunningly illustrated pages of Worm, Rodriguez goes from his upbringing in 1970s Cuba to his immigrant life in the States to his development into an award-winning illustrator and artist.

That’s not all. This is also the story of how Rodriguez’s parents made the hard decision to leave their homeland (and some family members) and sail for America during the 1980 Mariel boatlift—when, for a limited time, Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to depart the country so long as they could arrange transport. The thousands who chose to leave in the hope of a better life, risking their lives on overcrowded boats, were called “Worms” and vilified by Castro supporters. By the end of the boatlift, 125,000 Cuban refugees had arrived in America.

Over ten years in the making, Worm is an absorbing and moving account of life under a dictatorship, and calls to mind more recent political tactics—populist campaigns that are full of lies and distortions. The similarities between then and now also bleed into the artwork: the Cuban Revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959 is depicted on pages that burst with action and mayhem; so, too, the unrest in America in 2021, when rioters stormed the Capitol. In this way, it becomes clear that Worm is Rodriguez’s warning, his call to fight for true freedom.

It’s not all similarity and echo, though. There is a contrast of styles at play in Worm, as if to show off Rodriguez’s talent. One moment, it’s loose and painterly, with a limited colour palette of green and red. Then—suddenly!—a psychic jolt!—that glaring orange appears, like a warning sign, to mark the arrival of Trump on the political scene.

I’ve been returning to that artwork since I originally read Worm, the better to take it all in and see what I missed the first time. Each time I do, I become more and more sure: this is an engrossing book that’s not just an important addition to the genre of graphic novels—but also to those of modern history and memoir.