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O Magazine

Double life

by Jordi Costa

There’s a very interesting experience in the life of any devoted comic book reader: the moment you discover one of your favourite cartoonists leads a double life. I’m not talking about anything particularly libertine, although we could find that kind of stories too within the comic book world: in my years as a teenager captivated by his passion for cartoons I remember feeling as surprised as admired, for example, when I learned the well-known secret that a couple made up of a cartoonist and his girlfriend, as script-writer, apart from getting along very well artistically had also a comfy round bed to which they generously invited other colleagues to join them; or by the sincere confession of an old cartoonist whom, in a small group, confessed that when he decided to have a fling, he rejected anyone who had no bisexual inclinations and, thus, couldn’t attend the date with a friend with whom to complete the threesome. I’m not trying to turn this text into a sort of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls based on the world of Spanish comic books: suffice it to say that during puberty, with my horny brains, such stories as the ones I just mentioned (and many others) took me to thinking that the life of (Spanish) cartoonists was as lubricious as a decadent Roman emperor’s. But the double lives I was referring to here are of a different kind: artistic double lives, graphic secret identities.

A great coming of age rite in this sense was when the devourer of cartoons discovered that Blueberry‘s Giraud was the same Moebius who created Arzak or Airtight Garage: it’s quite anomalous for an author to be a genius; for him to be two geniuses at the same time, that’s simply awesome! But Giraud/Moebius didn’t hide his Mr. Hyde: we’re not talking about the best-kept secret in European cartoons here, precisely. In other cases, the style (or stroke) has been the trace that gave away the existence of parallel and, often, extremely divergent careers and discourses. For instance, when in some adult satirical magazines I found the frenzied pages signed by a certain Sappo, my eyes couldn’t believe the evidence: this man who drew stories in almost cinemascope style about (always naked) adulterous wives, cuckolds and lovers who had to hide in the closet with inevitably –and often bloody– catastrophic consequences could be no other than Manuel Vázquez, father of Anacleto, la familia Churumbel, la Abuelita Paz, las Hermanas Gilda and unrivalled Angelito. Looking at it closely, this case might have something to do with that clandestine dimension we usually give to the concept of double life: the master of children’s humour cartoons, all of a sudden, reveals an unexpected existence from his waist down (something well-known to all those who knew him in person), which provoked a real shock to any innocent readers still addicted to their Olé collection.

Another example: when magazine Rambla, a publication self-managed by a selected bunch of first-class cartoonists, underwent a sort of internal crisis, all of a sudden there appeared on their pages the collaborations with a certain Sánchez Zamora no one seemed to have heard about until then. Sánchez Zamora’s stories were always valuable: solid, twisted and drawn in a particularly synthetic style that somewhere in the brain seemed to press, with the tips of the fingers, very softly, the key of recognition. I remember the day in which Joan Navarro told me, very happy, that he had just discovered the true identity of Sánchez Zamora and that it was surprising. Don’t ask me why, but I, who wouldn’t have been able to express the secret until then, felt the tips of my fingers finally pressing the key and decided to say the name before my friend did: Josep Maria Beà!!” Something in Sánchez Zamora’s almost conceptual stroke had revealed the identity hidden under the change of skin that had affected both the kind of stories and the way in which they were told. That’s why I always like to say that style is crime evidence and that any critic, when analysing no matter what work, should consider it as a scene of the crime: the work of the critic is similar to the forensic one, looking for evidence and elaborating a discourse regarding authorship.

Sometimes, some flashy emergences of an internal Mr. Hyde didn’t need any kind of camouflage. Let’s think of a giant: Franquin. Somehow, Franquin’s style works as the hot-headed and apparently chaotic alter ego of Hergé’s ligne claire. If Tintín’s father was an aesthete of clarity, precision and transparency, Franquin had always an entropic potential that could approach the gag through doodles, smudges or expressive ink stains. If Hergé is the Dr. Jekyll of French-Belgian orthodoxy, Franquin could well be his noisy Mr. Hyde, able to propose other (hilarious and twisted) paths towards excellence. All of us who grew with Spirou et Fantasio, Marsupilami and Gaston were flabbergasted the day we opened an issue of Cairo and were faced with Franquin’s Idées Noires, pages full of fierce humour that the author seemed to be sculpting out of pure darkness. Idées Noires, which appeared on the French-Belgian market in 1977 but which I didn’t have a clue about until they were translated into Spanish, was the last evolutionary step in Franquin’s always challenging stroke, who undertook this work after suffering his second big nervous breakdown (the first had taken place at the beginning of the sixties). In the whole of his work, Idées Noires would be parallel to Goya’s Black Paintings: a desperate and cutting end of the road.

However, his Idées Noires had already been foreseen in some of Franquin’s more luminous works. Let’s take as an example this Stolen Cartoon, which belongs to the Gaston book Gaffes, bévues et boulettes, published by Éditions Dupuis-Charleroi in 1973 and translated into Spanish in 1991 by Pilar Garriga for Ediciones Junior under the title Meteduras de pata y coladuras. Each page of the book develops the precise choreography of a gag starred by its immortal protagonist. In two occasions, the final cartoon ends with an absolute (or almost so) fade to black: first of all, Gaston fills a petrol lamp with ink and turns the publishing house office into almost carbonised territory; secondly, (the Stolen Cartoon you can see here), a Gaston over-stimulating the interns in his working place on the art of opening cans and tins becomes the involuntary instigator of the activation of a smoke bomb someone had at the office (who knows what for…). The result is this foggy marvel, an anticipation of the darkness to come in the career of a Franquin whom, as you can see, was such a generous man that in those years that he couldn’t even prevent his signature (or its absence) from becoming an extra gag.