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1963: Carmen Barbará


This week I'm thinking about the elegant line and florid designs of legendary Spanish girls' cartoonist Carmen Barbará.

There is always much less scholarship about comics aimed at girls than about comics aimed at boys or (which is much the same thing) that are presumed to have a general audience. And in Spain during the Franco years in particular, comics aimed at girls were very tightly circumscribed in terms of subject matter: domesticity, fashion, romance that ends in marriage, bowdlerized fairy tales, and moral lessons were about all that was permitted, at least up to the liberalizing 1960s, when one or two strips that showed women having careers saw print.

Carmen Barbará got her start in the late 1940s, drawing fairy-tale comics and historical love stories in the saccharine, highly-ornamented style that differentiated tebeos de niñas from the rugged, cross-hatch-heavy style of tebeos de niños and the more stylized knockabout style of tebeos de humor. Even at the beginning, she stood out among the several dozen peers plowing the same basic furrow: her design sense and imaginative brio were evident even when her technical abilities were still relatively crude. By the late 1950s, she had developed her signature style of cat's-eyed heroines and swirling gowns, and I'm reproducing one story from that era.

"El anillo del cruzado," from Sissi Juvenil #53, 1960, is an orientalist fantasy that takes the Crusades as a setting for an ornately-decorated fable about virtuous Christian slaves melting the hearts of their jealous Muslim captors. Christianity vs. Islam was a repeated theme in tebeos of the Franco years, with Islam typically used more as a historical stand-in for secularism or a tokenized non-Spanish Other rather than as a dangerous contemporary ideology: one of the most popular strips for boys was El Guerrero del Antifaz, about a fifteenth-century Spanish knight who fights caricatured Muslim villains in disguise. Ramón Ortega's script for Babará is less demonizing, although the Muslim characters are still stereotypes (as indeed are the Christians) — the story ends up pairing both Christian girl and Muslim girl off with blandly handsome co-religionists in safe heteronormativity, which the gift of a ring had called into almost subliminal question on the first page.

Sissi Juvenil  #53, 1960.

Sissi Juvenil #53, 1960.


Barbará's art is wonderfully evocative, although still stiff in places (she's never at her best when drawing men): the swirling, embroidered period costume and highly-patterned Islamic architecture are tailor-made for her detailed, swooping line. But before long her style would radically change. Under the influence of modern fashion illustration, her line grew looser and more gestural, though still pretty and decorative: the women's faces are immediately recognizable as by the same hand.

Below is the story "Pánico en el zoo" from issue #68 of her long-running Mary Noticias strip, which was published in a stand-alone horizontal format like boys' adventure strips; it was unusual in that girls' strips in the "cuaderno" format tended to be anthology series focused on romance, not recurring adventures starring the same lead. This was only published three years after the story above, but it feels like it's from an entirely different era of comics. The scriptwriter, Ricardo Acedo Lobatón (under the pen-name Roy Mark, a very 1960s-style bit of Anglophilia) tells a breezy story full of stereotypes about an Indian couple in an arranged marriage, and an action-packed incident at a zoo: it's cheerful nonsense all the way through. Although centering the strip around a career woman whose narrative is never resolved by marriage was none too pleasing to the censors of the Franco era, it's not like the strip was a major feminist statement: Mary's regular boyfriend Max always conveniently disappears and the "mysterious" Bruma always turns up to resolve whatever ridiculous plot arranged itself that week.

068_00 Panico en el zoo.jpg

Like everything else I'm covering under the Tebeos heading, these comics were produced for young children, and very cheaply: there's a quite typical lettering mix-up in who's saying what on page 6, panel 2.

The series ran until the early 1970s, after which Barbará seems to have left comics for straight illustration (occasionally picking up lettering jobs for translations of North American comics) before finally retiring in 1998. She remains with us today, one of the most fondly-remembered of her generation of female cartoonists who left their mark on Spanish comics in the Franco era.