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Seven Spanish Comic Books, ¡que sí!

Last week the Spanish newspaper El País published a selection of 25 treasures of 21st century Spanish comics. The list included many genres, from memoir, to history, fiction and social commentary, and demonstrates a vibrant scene that continues to grow, in a country where comics have not been integrated into the culture as much as in France or Belgium, for example. These comics are more and more visible in all forms of media, are present in public libraries, and benefit from some support from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Many of them address Spain’s recent past, which has its share of painful memories, primarily the Civil War and its aftermath: a 36-year dictatorship.

They include books such as Antonio Altaribba’s exploration of his father’s life as a soldier in Franco’s army, his subsequent escape to join the anarchists, and life under dictatorship in The Art of Flying, and Miguel Gallardo’s comic, Un Largo Silencio (A Long Silence) that he published with his father, Francisco Gallardo Sarmiento, about the generation that endured the Civil War. And then there’s Carlos Giménez's profound and devastating memoir, Paracuellos, about his childhood spent in orphanages during Franco’s fascist regime. On a different register, Miguel Brieva, whose style is reminiscent of 1950s and 60s advertising graphics, criticizes and challenges capitalist society with biting humor. He began by printing his fanzine, Dinero, with a small publisher in Barcelona, which he sold to bookshops, and when it became successful, Dinero was published as a monograph. Another acclaimed comics artist, Max, alias Francesc Capdevila, who emerged underground in the 1970s during Franco’s rule, has experimented with numerous styles and characters, among which, Bardín the Superrealist, who navigates a psychedelic and philosophical world.

Two conclusions can be drawn looking at the El País list: out of 25 books, there are only four women cartoonists, Cristina Durán and Conxita Herrero, Sonia Pulido and Lola Lorente, echoing a genuine need for female comics creators to be be encouraged and included in the world of comics. Secondly, more of these comics should be translated into English. But the good news is that at least a handful already have been, and Seattle-based publisher Fantagraphics, is doing a great job translating a number of Spanish comics artists. They also recently published an anthology of contemporary comics from Spain, in Spanish Fever, testimony to this thriving comics and graphic novel scene.

The Lighthouse

Francisco, a wounded, despairing sixteen-year-old Republican guard in the Spanish Civil War, is trying to flee to freedom by crossing the French border. In his escape, he encounters an old remote lighthouse, far from the warring factions. He is granted shelter by Telmo, the aging operator of the lighthouse. As Francisco recuperates, Telmo’s tales of epic adventurers who sailed the lost seas and discovered worlds unknown reignite the spark of life in the young soldier. By one of the most brilliant new talents in comic art in Spain, author of the world-wide bestseller Wrinkles.

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The Art of Flying

When published in 2009, The Art of Flying was hailed as a landmark in the history of the graphic novel in Spain for its deeply touching synthesis of individual and collective memories. A deeply personal testament, Altarriba's account of what led his father to commit suicide at the age of ninety is a detective novel of sorts, one that traces his father's life from an impoverished childhood in Aragon, to service with Franco's army in the Civil war, escape to join the anarchist FAI, exile in France when the Republicans are defeated, to return to Spain in 1949 and the stultifying existence to which Republican sympathizers were consigned under the Franco regime. 

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Paracuellos Volume 1

Paracuellos is a work of great courage, created at a time when telling the truth about Spain's political past could get one killed. Carlos Giménez's autobiographical account of the plight of children in post-World War II Fascist Spain has won virtually every comics award in Europe, including "Best Album" at the 1981 Angouleme Festival, and the "Heritage Award" at Angouleme in 2010. In the late 1930s when Spanish fascists led by Franco, and aided by Hitler and Mussolini, overthrew the elected government, almost 200,000 men and women fell in battle, were executed, or died in prison. Their orphaned children-and others ripped from the homes of the defeated-were shuttled from Church-run "home" to "home" and fed a steady diet of torture and disinformation by a totalitarian state bent on making them "productive" citizens. Carlos Giménez was one of those children. In 1975, after Franco's death, Giménez began to tell his story. Breaking the code of silence proved to be a milestone, both for the comics medium and for a country coming to terms with its past. 

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The Ladies-in-waiting

n 1656, Diego Velázquez, leading figure in the Spanish Golden Age of painting, created one of the most enigmatic works in the history of art: Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting). This graphic novel, written and drawn by two of Spain’s most sophisticated comics creators, examines its legacy as one of the first paintings to explore the relationship among the viewer, reality, and unreality. Olivares’s art moves from clear line to expressionistic; from pen nib to brush stokes; from one color palette to another, as The Ladies-in-Waiting uses fiction to explore the ties among artists and patrons, the past and the present, institutions and audiences, creators and creativity.

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Private investigator John Blacksad is up to his feline ears in mystery, digging into the backstories behind murders, child abductions, and nuclear secrets. Guarnido's sumptuously painted pages and rich cinematic style bring the world of 1950s America to vibrant life, with Canales weaving in fascinating tales of conspiracy, racial tension, and the "red scare" Communist witch hunts of the time. Whether John Blacksad is falling for dangerous women or getting beaten to within an inch of his life, his stories are, simply put, unforgettable. 

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Disgusted and appalled with today'’s noisy world in which all is spectacle and surface sensation, Nick flees into the solitude of the desert. But even as he manages to recover some sort of spiritual balance thanks to an ascetic regimen of fasting and meditation, Nick is seduced by the most spectacular and mesmerizing spectacle of all time: The procession of the Queen of Saba. In Vapor, the award-winning Spanish cartoonist Max (best known for his 2006 book Bardín the Superrealist) once again engages in delightful philosophical mind games, starring another wildly stylized and endearing protagonist — this time deploying a striking, crisp black and white graphic style perfectly suited for this desert-based fantasia.

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Spanish Fever

Readers are introduced to the latest generation of Spanish cartoonists in Spanish Fever, an anthology of contemporary comics from Spain showcasing the best of the new wave of art comics. Spanish comics creators have been known internationally since the days of stars like José González and Esteban Maroto through the new rising talents of David Aja and Juanjo Guarnido. Still, too few American comics aficionados know that right now Spain enjoys a thriving scene of art comics, mini comics, and graphic novels populated by artists like Joan Cornellà (Mox Nox) or Max (Vapor) which, in addition to being published for American readers by Fantagraphics, are finding audiences throughout the world. With its panoramic view of the contemporary Spanish comics scene, Spanish Fever is a cartoon parade which includes the work of masters of the form such as Paco Roca, Miguel Gallardo, David Rubín and Miguel Ángel Martín as well as newcomers like José Domingo, Anna Galvañ, Álvaro Ortiz and Sergi Puyol — more than 30 artists working on the cutting edge of the comics form.

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