When one mentions 1978, probably what first comes to mind to a Spaniard raised in the democracy is the Spanish Constitution, created on October 31st, ratified on December 6th, and, so it seems, mummified since then as an unmovable axiom of our Constitutional State. Others will prefer to remember that year as the one that saw the premiere of Up in Smoke, the first comedy starred by Cheech and Chong, a comic duo that we could consider a kind of stoned Abbott and Costello, more or less. The fact that a studio such as Paramount produced and premiered a film like that, with its characters travelling from Mexico to California on a van made up entirely of marihuana, could be interpreted as a triumph of counterculture or as an irrevocable sign of its demise (or its abduction on behalf of the mainstream). Cheech and Chong weren’t the first alternative icons to become merchandised: years before, despite Ralph Bakshi’s good intentions, Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat had undergone the same process and so the cartoonist had no option left but to kill his character.
In 78, I was only twelve and so as little inclined to reading the Constitution as to smoking joints, but I could still feel something was going on. The countercultural smoke seemed to pervade everything, like that green first-son-killer mist in The Ten Commandments (that film I did watch, indeed, almost once a year and I really liked it!). Underground’s multicolour vapours even permeated the most naive and seemingly discreet children’s publication: TBO, the place in which la familia Ulises was still doing the same thing they had been doing when my parents were TBO readers. A new generation of cartoonists started altering the order of that illustrious publishing house: they were Tha and his brother TP Bigart, future member of El Tricicle Paco Mir, Sirvent and Esegé. Theirs was a new stroke, as was their humour, which almost always sprung from a metalinguistic twist. The new barbarians recruited by TBO ended up being united under their own section, called La Habichuela, which functioned as a kind of playground to that group of singular individuals that enjoyed deconstructing the limits of cartoons and demolishing the traditional architecture of the page: each new instalment of La Habichuela was a celebration of the controlled chaos emerging, with the beauty of an atomic mushroom of lysergic smoke, at the centre of a publication in which the most venerable authors –Coll, Sabatés, Muntañola, Arturo Moreno, etc.– went on as usual, giving constant evidence of their brilliant perseverance and, with it, illustrating the eternal currency of classic forms. Years later, some of the members of La Habichuela translated the same format to magazine El Jueves, were they created the section Los Miércoles, a place where anything could happen: those pages could include collages, ironic appropriations, incomplete jokes and even talking flies. But before that jump from the pages of the children’s publication to their section in the satirical magazine which appeared –and I think still does, although now it’s fundamentally something completely different– each Wednesday, that cell of activists of a very particular kind of humour lived its very own moment of glory when the editors of TBO decided to ask them to create a series of special numbers, under the title El Habichuelo, with which they demonstrated, with the same joy they revolutionised the concept of the page, that they could also blow up the more or less established idea of what a magazine should be.
The great referents of Spanish countercultural cartoons –Nazario, Mariscal, Gallardo and Mediavilla, Max, Martí, etc.– would end up becoming very important to me… but taht would be much later, when El Víbora magazine made visible the energy that had been born and developed in circuits I had had no access to by bringing it to the newsagent’s. The most important thing was that I had already been exposed to the countercultural sensitivity that had infiltrated the popular culture channels that kids had access to at the time. There’s a certain way of looking at things that I, personally, was taught by some pages and sections of Strong magazine, some Trinca authors (above all, Ventura y Nieto and Miguel Calatayud) and, more than anything, the sections penned by La Habichuela and their special numbers under El Habichuelo.
The first issue of El Habichuelo, identified as Especial TBO nº11, appeared in 1978, prized at fifty pesetas, with a multicolour Paco Mir cover in which several painters on top of a ladder discuss the colour of the cover, while one of them entertains himself reproducing Velázquez’s Las Meninas in one corner. On page three, a wolf showing his fangs provoked the reader by shouting at him: “Dear to read this magazine!!!” Probably the primary school equivalent of that historical and aggressive National Lampoon cover in which a gun pointing at an adorable hound was illustrated by the blunt headline: “IF YOU DON’T BUY THIS MAGAZINE, WE’LL KILL THIS DOG.” On the pages of El Habichuelo, anything could happen: the drawings ranged from the most humorous to the most realistic in a never-ending clash of styles. Whole pages were totally in the dark, there were jokes starred by fingerprints, blank vignettes, fake news, a section that showed the interior monologues of the characters –a family made up of a mother, father, two boys, a girl, a baby and a grandmother– appearing weekly on TBO‘s masthead, delirious horoscopes… I wouldn’t dare say that El Habichuelo was a dream come true, because no one could have ever dreamt of something like that before seeing it: up to such point it altered a child’s perspective of what a cartoon should be.
This week’s Stolen Cartoon belongs to a page called Página Denuncia that Sirvent signed within the revolutionary publication. At the beginning of the story, there’s a close-up of some fags being consumed on an ashtray and this gives way to an unexpected conversation between both cigarettes in which, in a surprising gesture that one could encounter in a Pere Calders story or a Fredric Brown visionary illumination, they end up confessing they are incognito aliens developing a subtle invasion plan. This cartoon, the twelfth on this page, shows the smoke coming from the cigarettes taking the shape of two ultra-bodies which, at the end, will materialise and take to the street in order to supplant humans. Somehow, those two gaseous bodies remind me of the members of the Habichuela collective, supposedly hidden under an innocuous shape –TBO– to forever revolutionise our heads. Many thanks for doing it!!!