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1987: El Cubri


This week I'm thinking about the several noir-pastiche series that Spanish cartooning collective El Cubri put out under the title "Sombras" in the 1980s.

Cover to the first  Sombras  collection, 1983.

Cover to the first Sombras collection, 1983.


Technically the title "Sombras" (Shadows) only really applies to a dozen four-page stories published between 1980 and 1984, none of which feature the same characters (although certain names recur frequently). But the first "Sombras" collection includes a 24-page story called "Sueños de Plombo" (Lead Dreams) starring hardboiled private eye Peter Parovic (first serialized in 1979 in a Madrid general-interest periodical), who would later get a 42-page album to himself called "Cadáveres de Permiso" (Death Sentences), serialized in auter-comics magazine Rambla. Parovic's adventures are thoroughly in line with the downbeat, inscrutable storytelling Raymond Chandler pioneered, but Parovic's adventures, because El Cubri originated in the Spanish militant-left underground of the 1970s, are much more politically engaged than Philip Marlowe's ever were. As a young man, he fought on the side of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, and although he's retreated into cynicism since, he keeps getting caught up in struggles between capitalism and left-wing causes. His two full-length stories are masterpieces of mood and genre, the first set in a very Chandlerian Venice (California), and the second set largely in a Western border town, where the Spanish themes underlying El Cubri's pastiche Americanisms become rather more explicit: a rodeo visually approximates a bullfight.

Page from  Cadáveres de Permiso , 1985.

Page from Cadáveres de Permiso, 1985.


When the pen name El Cubri came into being in the early 1970s, it was due to shared interests in film (their name is an homage to the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and left-wing politics: at that time they were more or less Maoists, a tricky thing to be in late-Francoist Spain. Writer Felipe Hernández Cava and graphic artists Saturio Alonso and (a bit later) Pedro Arjona turned their hands to making comics as the next best thing to making movies, but as intellectuals they were appalled by the jingoism, colonialism, and rank stupidity of the comics market, and they pursued both general-interest publication and street art. Their first efforts represent some of the earliest attempts at social realism in Spanish comics; when, following Franco's death, more auterist comics started being published in Spain, they switched to straight polemical agitprop (producing some of the finest agitprop comics I've ever read). By the time the Spanish underground was noticing the value of social-realist comics as an antidote to the adolescent sci-fi being sold as "adult" in the late 70s, El Cubri had moved on to the precisely-calibrated genre work represented by Parovic and "Sombras." Alonso dropped out of the team around 1980, eventually becoming a notable sculptor in Dublin, while the local comics market, having finally caught up to where El Cubri was in the early 70s, gave them a brief window of time in which to push the form forward.

Excerpt from "Estaré Esperando" in  Cairo , 1982.

Excerpt from "Estaré Esperando" in Cairo, 1982.


Formally, El Cubri's noir comics are reminiscent of the great work being produced by the Argentine team José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo at the same time — the laconic, telegraphic dialogue, the politically-engaged crime narratives, and the gestural, expressionistic black-and-white drawing all mark them as originating from a common cultural wellspring — but they had arrived at the style independently, Muñoz and Sampayo's work first being published in Spain at the same time that El Cubri's noir efforts were. On top of which El Cubri, perhaps because the Spanish comics market was never as accommodating as the French market where the bulk of Muñoz and Sampayo's greatest work was supported, was forced to do more with less, and so in the sharp, pungent "Sombras" short stories they achieved minor miracles of narrative condensation and bleak humanism, drawing as much from new-wave cinema as from film noir, but also from jazz records, pulp paperbacks, and thoroughly grounded historical research. The twelve stories they produced before the Spanish comics market for adults went bust in the mid-80s and Pedro Arjona retreated from comics for the less stressful, more impersonal world of commercial illustration (he was a believer that every story demanded its own art style, and became more and more paralyzed with indecision over each successive story, trying to find the ideal way through the endless forest of possibilities) are among the best comics ever published, never mind genre or region.

Page from "'My Idea' de Sonny Rollins" in  Sombras , 1983.

Page from "'My Idea' de Sonny Rollins" in Sombras, 1983.


They have the usual faults, leftist or otherwise, of the period: Black (and brown) people appear in the stories, but generally as symbols, narrative conveniences, and demonstrations of how atypically non-racist the white protagonist is, rather than fully-fledged characters. The female characters, though admirably self-possessed in the classic noir pattern, are nearly always defined in relation to a man or men; and while gay people exist (in rather a Patricia Highsmith manner), it is at a remove: as in the midcentury films and novels that are their models, heterosexuality, especially for the leads, is compulsory.

Excerpt from "Trio Mortal" in  Cimoc Especial , 1983.

Excerpt from "Trio Mortal" in Cimoc Especial, 1983.


If the second batch of "Sombras" stories (mostly published in the pages of the mainstream genre-comics magazine Cimoc in 1984) is less magnificent than the first batch (published in scattered arts-friendly venues between 1981 and 1983), it may be because the hardboiled genre was a full-on fad in mid-80s Spanish comics: Jordi Bernet's and Enrique Sánchez Abulí's elegantly brutal Torpedo 1936 is only the most famous of the crop. So the stories got grimmer and nastier as a result, more Mickey Spillane than Raymond Chandler. But also, El Cubri had moved on by 1984. Three short comics under the umbrella title "Paisa" in Rambla, telling remarkably evocative stories set in the Rif War of the 1920s, and a more extended narrative in the pages of the legendary arts-comics magazine Madriz (where Hernández Cava was the editorial director), a phantasmagoric rendition of the life of 19th-century Spanish bandit and folk-hero Luis Candelas (not to mention Patoverde, a beautiful full-color funny-animal comic they created for Madrid's environmental bureau, one more legacy of their agitprop history), were the projects where Cava and Arjona were letting their creativity really flourish. But by 1985 the team had more or less run its course, only reuniting occasionally for contributions to one-off anthologies, generally on political topics. Arjona's career as a commercial artist has kept him busy (he has occasionally drawn comics stories for other scripters, but they were merely smoothly professional), while Felipe Hernández Cava has had notable artistic, if not always commercial, success with a series of collaborations: his politically-engaged scripts for the legendary Spanish draftsman Luís García in the 1970s, his brilliantly formalist work with Federico del Barrio and Raúl Fernández in the late 80s and 1990s and the more craftsmanlike but still pungent scripts he's written since 2000 for artists like Bartolomé Seguí and Laura Pérez Vernetti are among the best work that Spanish arts comics can boast.

Excerpt from "Lluvia" in  Museo Vivo , 1987.

Excerpt from "Lluvia" in Museo Vivo, 1987.


In 2004 the twelve "Sombras" stories were collected in a single volume by the publisher Ediciones de Ponent. Unfortunately both Arjona and Cava felt that a definitive edition required significant updating, and so the early stories were largely redrawn to be in line with the sharp-edged, vaguely woodcutty style Arjona had settled on late in the series, while the whole thing was relettered with digital word balloons, and Cava changed a lot of the dialogue — generally for the more obvious, in my estimation. The glorious handmade feel of the original stories is lost, and it feels as digitally soulless as most things produced in 2004. But the book itself is still a wonderful document, thanks to Cava's always-sharp introductory essay and "Sombras Inacabadas" (Unfinished Shadows) in the back, a story of a Black jazz pianist standing up for himself that we see go through several drafts, with plenty of preliminary character sketches, before being abandoned, presumably because every venue that might have published it had gone belly up. The book ends with a detailed filmography of Hollywood studio cinematographer Russell Metty, whose angular shadows were hugely influential on Arjona.

Cover to the complete  Sombras  collection, 2004.

Cover to the complete Sombras collection, 2004.


The cover to the collection is an example of my complaint about it: you can see the original drawing (a none-too-sensitively-stylized rendition of the great jazz pianist Erroll Garner, backing up saxophonist Sonny Rollins) in the fourth image above, but the revision looks like the artist has applied a sharp-angles-only Photoshop filter to it. Arjona's settling on a single coherent style for "Sombras" and attempting to apply it retroactively to stories that were drawn in wildly contrasting styles cuts against what I love most about the originals; but I am fortunate enough to have access to the originals, so my complaint only goes so far. My love for the material is much stronger than my disappointment in its latter-day presentation.