This week I'm thinking about Rodrigo Muñoz Ballester's singular, dreamlike autobiographical comic Manuel, first published in book form in 1985. I own the 2005 reprint Manuel no está solo, which also gathers up the remaining small amount of comics and related drawing that Rodrigo (who like many Spanish cartoonists in the 80s only used one name professionally, a nod to the publishing conventions of midcentury European comics) ever published; his primary vocation over the years has been in architecture and fine art, particularly sculpture.
My last two entries under the Auteur Comix subheading were examinations of French cartoonists who serialized their albums in the Belgian magazine (À Suivre); if European arts comics had a center in the early 80s, it was there. Manuel, however, was serialized in La Luna de Madrid, a generalist arts magazine which documented the new-wave movida madrileña of the early 80s, and where Rodrigo shared page space with the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and El Hortelano. It has never been published outside of Spain, even as the appetite for unapologetically gay narratives has grown exponentially over the last thirty-five years.
I'll spend the rest of this section reproducing my 2016 Goodreads review, which was written in the forlorn hope that it would be followed by a lot more reviews of the great comics warping my shelves with their weight. But now that's what this newsletter is for.
It's proof of the limited rewards that comics can offer ambitious and highly-skilled artists that this book, a goddamn masterpiece of form, storytelling, and image-making, is almost entirely unknown outside of Spain, and even within Spain it has now gone out of print twice, because nobody gives a shit about art comics.
The (autobiographical) plot is simple: Rodrigo, a young artist in late-70s Madrid, meets a handsome man named Manuel and falls in love with him, but he's straight. So Rodrigo makes a sculpture about it. Which is straightforward and even, forty years later, a bit trite. (Every gay romance had to end unhappily before the 90s, didn't it?) But the intense graphic virtuosity with which Rodrigo attacks the story — the graphic boldness, assimilating an astonishing variety of art history practices and spinning them out in entirely new ways, all while maintaining a very distinctive graphic identity — is breathtaking.
It's as much picture-book as graphic novel, and while it uses some sturdy comics tropes like panel sequencing and exaggerated action, it dispenses with others, like word balloons (in fact, aside from some signage and a menu, there's no words in in at all). It's a gorgeous document of the era of the first wave of post-Franco enthusiasm that swept urban Spain, in which it seemed everything was now possible, as well as of the more personal hopes, embarrassments, and disappointments which every young person, in every era, experiences. It's also a magnificent work of gay art, unembarrassed about its adoring depiction of Manuel, of Madrid's bacchanalian pre-AIDS gay subculture, and of the vibrant complexity of Rodrigo's inner world, which spills out into his environment in surreal and abstract ways. Even though it's very interior, it pulses with life, and is remarkably free from the self-loathing which is such a trademark of North American autobiographical comics (thanks, Crumb).
I've been talking about the 1985 novella, "Manuel," which takes up most of the book, but there are also some short stories — Rodrigo's complete comics output, in fact, drawn between 1983 and 1987, with a few pages from 2005, when this collected edition came out — in the back half. I'd seen most of them before, and they're wonderful exercises in style; but "Manuel" is the really important work, one of the key comics of the 1980s, and deserves to be read as widely as possible.