Mikel is a graphic novel with real emotional depth that deals with complex themes. From the opening it’s a gripping and absorbing read. Mikel is part political thriller but, more potently, it’s the story of Miguel’s struggle to come to terms with the corrosive effect of being drawn into a conflict that tests his moral fibre and questions his values. He’s simply trying to take care of his family. When we first meet Miguel, he is a man who breezes through life, never taking anything too seriously, he seems happy, but the family is poor and his marriage and job are being effected by his attitude. Miguel exasperates both his wife and his boss. The domestic drama points to trouble ahead but its lightly told, there’s a touch of humour here. Then on little more than a whim Miguel decides to leave his poorly paid delivery job to become a bodyguard in the Basque country. It’s momentous change but Miguel is a dreamer, almost Billy Liar-esque, he has always fancied himself a writer but, of course, he hasn’t written anything yet. Ana says:

“I think you don’t write because you’re scared shitless. You’re afraid your writing will be worthless, and you,ll realise you’re not what you thought you were… Take the bull by the horns, AND JUST WRITE!”

He thinks this dose of real life, this experience will inspire his novel. Miguel styles himself Mikel when the family move to Pamplona to fit in with the local custom. He is suddenly faced with the world as a much darker place, even the weather is worse here, it never stops raining, it will change him and his relationship with his family, even question his sanity. Will Mikel survive this grim existence, the constant danger? The artwork is well matched to the mood and intensity of the story and delivers the same light tones that gradually darken with the text. This is a story steeped in pathos, it’s about the ups and downs of a marriage, mental health, depression and the instinct for survival. Mikel is also about political tensions and divisions and the way they shape daily life. There’s an element of the absurd to the story, this is a deadly serious topic, but life has its moments of farce.

Euskadi Ta Askataasuma (ETA) instigated a permanent ceasefire on 28th October ,2011. Over the fifty-two years of the armed struggle more than 800 people were killed. For the last twenty years of the conflict, judges, journalists, politicians, senior administrators and others sought the protection of bodyguards known locally as Txakurras (dogs):

“These bodyguards – up to 3000 of them in the darkest periods – came from all over, were poorly trained and were armed only with a pistol and 25 bullets.
THIS IS THE ALMOST-TRUE STORY OF ONE OF THEM.”

The novel opens in 8th December, 2010 in Pamplona. The 6am radio news reports the death of a socialist councillor. Mikel gets out of bed, showers, picks up his gun, and heads out, he checks under the car, in his job you have to learn to think like a terrorist. He is thinking:

“Today, it’s my turn to kill.”

The rain is beating down as he reaches a check point and identifies himself as a bodyguard . . .

Spring, 2006, Costur, Castellón, Spain. The sun rises over a sleepy village, Miguel is happy, today is Cesarito’s birthday. He drives to the sweet factory to pick up his delivery van, Miguel wants to complete his rounds early to get back to his family. The boss, Raúl, tells him to collect the money outstanding but he won’t, it would take too long. On the way home Miguel’s car breaks down, he’s lucky the mayor comes along on his scooter. Later in the summer he takes the family to the beach in the works van because the car has broken down again. Ana is annoyed but there’s no talking to Miguel, he’s an eternal optimist. They are short of money and Raúl is also running out of patience with Miguel because he is so bad at collecting payment on invoices.

Early 2007. A bomb explodes at Madrid’s Barajas airport and the talks with ETA are suspended. Miguel gets an idea, he can become a bodyguard in the Basque country, a good job, real money for the family.

In the autumn of 2007 the family leave for Pamplona. Miguel knocks on the door of the Routine Kills agency looking for a job. He has no experience of security work, he’s a conscientious objector. On the other hand, they are really short of people so he gets the job. This is when he becomes Mikel to fit in. Mikel and his new partner Rosa will be guarding an ex-mayor. Miguel has no idea what he is getting into, the job soon leads to family difficulties and stress, even paranoia. He will encounter a bomb, an assassination, a honey trap, and the scrutiny of the security services. Mikel will struggle to hold on to his values and his family. . .

Mikel deals with the way an ordinary peace-loving man is bent out of shape by the extreme circumstances of the Basque conflict and how political and social paranoia can affect personal well being and Mikel/Miguel’s relationship with his wife and children. It is also a musing on violence, neither side is seen in a good light. Although the novel is not overtly political or biased.

Bellido is a Belgian novelist who actually did spend time protecting politicians from Basque terrorists, his personal story is the inspiration for the book. Vanistendael is a comic book artist and graphic novelist. Translated by Erica Mena. An intense and powerful read that will not be easily forgotten.

Paul Burke 4*

Mikel by Mark Bellido and Judith Vanistendael
SelfMadeHero 9781910593707 hbk Oct 2019