Cuban-born Inverna Lockpez published a graphic autobiography through DC Comics in 2010. Next month, she will lecture at West Point Academy.
It was 1958, and Inverna Lockpez believed in Cuba.
Church bells, cannon fire and factory whistles heralded the entrance of Fidel Castro into Havana. Masses gathered. During his address, an explosion of white doves, symbolizing God, erupted behind him.
One took perch on Castro’s shoulder. Lockpez was “electrified.”
This was before all the death, before Lockpez became a rebel surgeon, went to war and was tortured in Cuban prisons. This was back at the beginning, back when there was hope.
Resting her leg over the arm of a director’s chair in her Flagler Beach studio, Lockpez reached for a book, “Cuba: My Revolution,” a graphic autobiography about her life. She published it in 2010 through Vertigo, the adult division of DC Comics, the world’s largest English-language comic book publisher.
When the story begins, Lockpez is 17 years old, and debating whether to become a painter or a doctor. Then she sees Castro in Havana.
“He asked questions and (the crowd) answered back,” she remembered. But it wasn’t until the doves were released, and one posed on his shoulder, that she knew what she would become.
“For the multitudes that were watching,” she said, “people thought he was the chosen one. People thought that was the sign.”
So she became a revolutionary. “Art can wait,” she thought.
Inside her studio, a renovated garage behind her friend’s home, the walls are lined with her paintings, of herons, seagulls, cranes, cast in the glow of track lighting. The space is clean, with dark brown floors. There’s a small shag carpet laid out in front of a canvas picturing a white bird in flight.
“I was very hesitant to write this book because the story is a story I’ve never told anyone,” she said. “Never about what happened to me in jail. … I really buried those years.”
Heavy classical music plays in the background. A breeze flows in through open doors.
In the beginning, her art was medically inspired, sketches of faceless human forms with scissors and scalpels. But after a year, her work got tougher, infused with aircraft and guns.
The Bay of Pigs had just been invaded, and Lockpez volunteered for the militia. On her way to the front, her platoon stopped one night to sleep. They entered a hut — and found it littered with dead bodies.
She flips to that page and points. “There were flies, and a very acidic smell of coagulated blood,” she said.
Her captain surveyed the room, looked at the bodies and told his platoon, “Use them as pillows.”
A figurine of Wonder Woman is propped on a shelf in her studio, next to stacks of books and framed newspaper articles. Over desks, there are photos of Lockpez when she was young, black-haired.
“For the first time, I realized I could die,” she said, pushing back her orange hair, full of personality. In her book, this revelation is shown in contrasts: her body, bright pink, collapsing in front of an all-gray palette.
Later, her platoon blew a bazooka through a hut. In the wreckage she found Flavio, her high school sweetheart who had fled Cuba not long before she joined the rebellion.
She was forced to assist in the amputation of his legs without anesthesia. Then he died.
“Everything was moving in slow-motion, and I had the feeling of arriving at the end of the world,” she said. She vowed that the next soldier she met who needed aid — an invader stuffed inside a broom closet, screaming, with half of his shoulder blown away — wouldn’t suffer.
Against orders, she administered morphine. Then she was arrested.
“They took away my clothing,” she said, gently grazing her fingers over pictures in the book. “They hosed me with hot water and cold water. There was no bathroom in the cell. They interrogated me day and night: ‘Who are your CIA friends?’ They broke my fingers. … They kept asking me and asking me and trying to break me down. ... I thought I was gone.”
In creating a graphic novel, the author is involved in every aspect of the process, Lockpez explained. Every day for two years, Emmy Award-winning illustrator Dean Haspiel sent her pages, which she reviewed and sent back with revisions.
It was about finding the right style and mood, she said, and so while working on the 11-page spread of her imprisonment, she had to try to detach herself from her past. She had to talk objectively about shading and scene. She had to decide what her tragedy would look like in color.
Would it pop off the page in red? Would it be stark white, or maybe gray?
Eventually, her father freed her from jail by bribing the warden.
“I still believed in the revolution and that this was a mistake,” she said. “I was taking tons and tons of medication, because I was near catatonic. … I didn’t want to talk.”
It was around then that her parents began planning to leave Cuba.
“Over time, the individual doesn’t exist,” Lockpez said of communism. “You become part of the masses … amorphous.”
But almost subconsciously, her art began to revolt against that mindset. After a newspaper reported on an abstract exhibition in which she was featured, people began throwing bricks through her gallery’s windows.
Paintings should be realistic, her art teacher told her. She should be painting faces and workers. She should be painting Castro.
Coincidentally, a Castro lieutenant later saw her work and asked her to decorate the inside of his Mercedes-Benz. It was only then that Lockpez began questioning the regime. “People are really dying, there’s no food, no liberty,” she said, “and he is decorating his Mercedes-Benz?”
Her art became angry and philosophical. At her next showing, she featured pieces titled “Metamorphosis” and “Afraid Of.” People began writing anti-Castro sentiments in her guestbook. Hostility broke out. Fearing for her safety, she grabbed the book and ran. “This time, I really thought they were going to get me,” she said.
She left her life behind and moved to Miami, then to New York, where she directed art galleries. It was then that Dean Haspiel, the illustrator, began “nagging” her to make a graphic novel.
She came back Florida to write. “I needed the hot weather. I needed the beach. I needed the smell of the water. I needed the crickets at night,” she said. “Memories of yesterday.”
She wrote 300 pages without stopping, then pitched the manuscript to DC.
On March 29, Lockpez will lecture to West Point Academy’s Philosophy and English departments, which are using her book in their curriculum.
“When we are young, we’re very easy targets because we really want to believe,” she said. “You believe (propaganda), because you think that’s how life should be. … It’s very hard for me to see injustice. Wherever it is, I will go there and I will put my life on the line.”
When Lockpez lived in New York, she became fascinated with barns, and she published a book of barn paintings and essays in 2007.
“Since I lost my house, and my country — ” she said, pausing. “The barn became the center for the universe in the old days. … I had to celebrate them.”
It’s not hard to understand why Lockpez would latch onto a symbol of a simpler, idealized past. But she never allows her paintings to become a surrogate to her memories.
“I would not change anything that I’ve done in my life at all,” she said. “You have to realize that I was a witness of the coming of the revolution, of the Bay of Pigs, of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I was in Cuba when Kennedy was shot.
“But I am very glad I was a witness to all of that,” she continued. “Yes, I suffered … but it taught me that you really have to negotiate and compromise. It taught me what democracy was all about.”