1978: Alfons Figueras
This week I'm thinking about the work of Alfons Figueras, one of the greatest comics grammarians in any tradition.
During the late 40s and early 50s explosion in comics publishing in Spain, he seemed to have a new strip in every magazine, and often more than one, creating more than fifty different strips between 1948 and 1956, none of which stuck around for very long (and the magazines they were published in didn't often last much longer). An inventive and design-oriented cartoonist, he drew from the slapstick animation of the era as well as from classic US screwball cartooning, his gags rarely better than average but his technical resources (staging, composition, timing) well ahead of the pack.
In 1956, he moved to Venezuela to work in an animation studio, helping to kickstart that country's animation industry; but when he returned to Spain a decade later, he could not find steady work in animation and had to go back to comics. This is the period he is best remembered for: taking inspiration from his 1951 dopey-sailor character Loony, he drew a series about the juvenile crew of a submarine: "El Chipirón y su tripulación" began as standard slapstick boy's-adventure fare, including deeply offensive racial caricature, but in an almost unheard-of move within Spanish comics, Figueras made it a serial, throwing his boy heroes up against not just man-eating sharks and giant octopi but mad scientists, robot armies, and even Neptune himself.
His next strip, "Aspirino y Colodión," took his fascination with the cultural trope of the mad scientist even further: both the short-tempered, bearded Aspirino and the lanky, goofy Colodión are rival smock-wearing inventors engaged in abstruse "experiments" and frequently running afoul of the gendarme Sargento Adolfo. The strip is a funhouse homage to "Krazy Kat," with its sketchy lines, vague setting, slapstick rhythms and triangle of antagonistic relationships.
But his masterpiece was "Topolino," a sort of sequel to "Aspirino y Colodión" — Colodión and Sargento Adolfo both appear in it, but the central figure is the portly bourgeois everyman Topolino, who faces a host of pulp monstrosities, from mad-scientist inventions to monsters, aliens, criminal syndicates, and sci-fi threats. Although the stories are still typical Bruguera-gag length, two to four pages long, they're packed with action and incident, even though the action is slapstick and the incident burlesque: even though the strip's physics are all cartoon physics, they're still as methodically worked-out as a Chuck Jones cartoon. If "Krazy Kat" and the Road Runner cartoons had cross-bred with "Fantômas," Universal horror movies, and Weird Tales, the result might be something like "Topolino" — which is to say that Figueras had synthesized his influences into something wholly original and wildly entertaining.
After "Topolino," which was more popular with the then-nascent comics theorists than with readers, stopped being published in the post-Franco era, Figueras only drew a few more strips. "Cine Locuras" set his slapstick among soldiers in an unspecified war (possibly World War I), and "Don Terrible Buñuelos" was a distillation of his aesthetic into the most basic slapstick action-and-reversal formula, to almost abstract effect.
All along, he had also been publishing gag strips and traditional single-panel cartoons in the popular press: his love of the macabre means that his grislier cartoons to stand up to contemporary work by Gahan Wilson or Charles Rodrigues. He retired not long after being the first Gran Premio winner of the first Salón de Cómic de Barcelona in 1988, and died in 2009.