In one of the episodes of his television series Tales of the Unexpected, master Roald Dahl proposed the following classification: 1) if a man slips on a banana peel and falls to the ground in a funny way, that’s a comedy; 2) if a man slips on a banana peel, breaks his neck against the ground and dies, that’s a tragedy; and 3) if a man slips on a banana peel, loses control of his steps, falls inside a mincing machine in a meat factory and ends up becoming a bunch of sausages, that’s black humour.
Unlike all those guardians of high morals, like psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who saw a will to corrupt were there was only playful complicity, any cartoon reader knows that one of the best territories in which to enjoy black humour were the horror comic books published by EC Comics in the fifties: the last cartoon in each story was, always, a macabre joke incarnated in bloody imagery, a kind of final gag that united, to put it somehow, a memory of slapstick with a premonition of gore. What wouldn’t have expected even the most expert explorer of vignettes was bumping into something like that in seemingly as remote a territory as our old TBO, the publication that kids of my generation read as a sort of Time Capsule, a container of laughs that came from the past and was marked by a certain basic and immaculate conception of humour, characterised by a soft custom and manners style that had to do with a view of the social reality of the post-war period and the possibilities of development that would offer, in a much more wild and aggressive way, the Escuela Bruguera.
By Jordi Costa
Today’s Stolen Cartoon is, without a doubt, one of the most disturbing images my childhood readings offered me. My first contact with this nightmare must have taken place, more or less, when I was on first grade: the date is confirmed thanks to the fact that, with my then clumsy stroke (not that it has become much better now), I tried to draw a version of the story in a spiral squared notebook. As an adult, I found the image again on the second volume of the compilation of TBOs that, under the name of Al compás del tiempo, Ediciones B published in 2007. The cartoon closes a story by Benejam, father of Melitón Pérez, the Ulises family, Eustaquio Morcillón and Babalí, among others, entitled Hierrociro. Fábrica Automática de Hierros Artísticos S. L.: in it, a middle class couple visit an artistic ironwork factory, where they are welcomed by a Doctor Fritz, inventor of the amazing machine to artistically twist a metal called Hierrociro. Footnote: one day we should ask ourselves about the penchant for including mad doctors in a magazine otherwise so characterised for its everyday life stories and realistic humour as was the TBO, which turned its European response to the crazy invention of Rube Goldberg that was professor Franz from Copenhagen into one of its most legendary characters.
The short story was almost a literal adaptation of Roald Dahl’s definition of black humour: during their visit to the industrial premises, the complaisant husband Gregorio is accidentally pushed by a couple of labourers transporting a beam into the interior of the infernal Hierrociro machine to come out, at the other end, as an art installation as ridiculous as hair-raising.
Benejam, with his dynamic stroke made up of surprise kiss-curls, turned into a perfect instrument to evoke the dynamics of everyday perplexity and of the intrinsic clumsiness of his characters’ strict normality, was anticipating, without knowing it, a future of contemporary art that was very “Sensation”, very Saatchi Gallery, very Damien Hirst, very Gunther von Hagens and very John Doe (yes, you know who, the murderer in Seven, the psycho killer most obsessed with conceiving his practice as an art installation). When I was a child I didn’t like this last cartoon at all: it gave me nightmares; I just couldn’t get rid of it. Somehow, even though I wasn’t able to express it, I was constantly tormented by not knowing whether in the end Gregorio was dead or alive. Not so long ago, I showed this cartoon to a good friend and confessed my childhood preoccupations to him. “He was better off dead”, he concluded.