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1981: Manuel Vázquez


This week I'm thinking about a nine-page comic strip by Manuel Vázquez, a Spanish cartoonist who began working for the Bruguera publishing house in the late 1940s. He was part of a wave of "modernizers" whose gestural cartooning, flat compositions and local adaptations of the Franco-Belgian style atomique invested new energy into the long-running Pulgarcito and DDT magazines which featured the company's most popular characters. When the older generation of Bruguera artists — Escobar, Peñarroya, Cifré, Conti, Giner — left in 1957 to set up their own, more adult comics magazine, Vázquez was among those who stuck with the old firm; and when, after Bruguera struck deals with distributors to sink the independent Tío Vivo and strong-armed their ex-cartoonists into returning for less pay, strips by Vázquez (Las hermanas GildaLa familia Cebolleta) and Francisco Ibáñez (Mortadelo y Filemón) had become the new stars of the children's magazines.

But in the long run he was neither a company man nor one who kept his head down and stayed out of trouble; in 1963 he was accused of falsifying his receipts in order to claim more money than he had earned (he was a habitual gambler) and deserted his family. Irrepressible, however, he was back in Bruguera magazines in 1964 with the surreal Angelito and in 1965 with the Bond spoof Anacleto, Agente secreto. The Pop Art Sixties were a good time for a cartoonist as willing to jump into the zeitgeist as Vázquez; in 1968 his Cuentos del Tío Vázquez series was an early example of comics autobiography as well as a picaresque about a shiftless, untrustworthy character: a typical strip would show a short, pudgy Vázquez, with long bohemian hair and an eternal cigarette, dodging creditors (particularly tailors) by means of extravagant Rube Goldberg trickery. The narratives were still entirely suitable for children's tender sensibilities, but more along the anarchic, cynical lines of Mad magazine than anything the Comics Code Authority in the U.S. would have authorized around the same time.

Then, after Franco's death in 1975, as Spanish newsstands exploded with satirical magazines and underground energy, Vázquez threw himself into the new marketplace in addition to pumping out his Bruguera commitments: under the pen-name Sappo he drew sexually-explicit gag strips for a host of R- and X-rated venues, and after Bruguera folded in the mid-1980s he worked more explicitly autobiographically, though still always with a gagman's sensibility and eye for the biggest laugh.

The strip I'm reprinting here is from a semi-monthly magazine which carried the name of Bruguera's most successful strip (Mortadelo), but was largely an occasion for reprinting strips, both Spanish and from the Franco-Belgian market, around a particular theme. It had been running since 1975; this, from 1981, was the "laughter" issue, and much of it was reprinted from earlier comics. I don't know for certain that this strip had never appeared before, but my best guess is that it had not: the appearance of the stock caricature of a short-tempered Spanish peasant with his beret and club would not have been encouraged under Francoist censorship, which promoted the image of a solidly middle-class Spain without regional or income disparities.

What fascinates me is the bravura formalism of Vázquez' cartooning here. A typical Bruguera strip had always been one or two pages long; as they evolved in the late 70s to compete with Franco-Belgian and American imports, strips sometimes grew to four or six pages, but nine pages is practically novel-length, especially for a humor strip. Long since a master of short-form craft, Vázquez takes the standard six-tier Bruguera page and breaks it open, spending the bulk of the strip in long widescreen panels that slowly fill up with more and more figures but still squeezes in gags that have nothing to do with the "plot" (which is no plot, just an excuse for his own cartooning). The printing is execrable: linework is lost in places, colors are carelessly applied, and the mechanical type which had been Bruguera's solution to censorship since the 60s, since it meant that anyone in the office could change dialogue instead of the (or even a) cartoonist, very nearly destroys the unity of image which is one of Vázquez' greatest assets as a cartoonist. Nevertheless, it positively sings with energy, a master cartoonist at the top of his craft showing off what he can do.

I'm not translating the text: it's not necessary to get the point of the strip, which is a fairly standard jibe at the non-wisdom of crowds. I'll just note that although Vázquez' self-caricature doesn't appear in the image, he does turn up in the crowded dialogue, trying to avoid the tailor he owes money to. The strip's title "by Vazquez" is simply the signature which he had been using on his strips for the bulk of his career; that it appears at the beginning instead of the end of the strip is perhaps the joke that gets the first little guy laughing to start the whole farrago.

Mortadelo Especial 106: ¡Jua! ¡Jua! ¡Jua!, March 15 1981

I'm tagging this as "Tebeos" rather than "Auteur Comix" because it appeared in a Spanish children's magazine rather than in one of the many contemporary venues for grown-up comics, even though it's probably post-Franco and Manuel Vázquez was undoubtedly one of the great auteurs of Spanish comics. It could have gone either way.