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An Interview with the Father of Mexico’s Graphic Documentary: Who’s This Rius?

 

Rius points out the US has supported countries with fascist regimes. From “Hitler for Masoquists.”

Conducted and translated by John J. Pint

From The Comics Journal #137 (September 1990)

He’s Eduardo del Rio. He lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and he has over 60 books to his credit, all of them graphic and most of them featuring the unique style which sets him apart from all other comic book writers in Mexico and perhaps the world.

Rius’s typical work could be called the “Graphic Social Documentary.” A down-to-earth, unpretentious narrative shares the page with his cartoon characters (Mexican Indians, bureaucrats, cops, drunks, old ladies in black shawls) whose speech balloons may question, confirm, or pooh-pooh the narrative, usually in lively, ungrammatical, and often funny street slang. Along with copious drawings, there are pasted-in old photos and what looks like clippings from the first Sears catalog, all mouthing comments on the subject in question.

This subject usually falls under politics, religion, nutrition, or health, although he has books on other subjects, including cartoonists of the world. The majority of his books deal with sociopolitical themes important to Mexico and/or mankind. Here are a few titles, translated; those marked with an asterisk are available in English:

Marx for Beginners*

Cuba for Beginners*

Nicaragua for Beginners*

Mao for Beginners*

Hitler for Masochists

The Trukulent History of Kapitalism

The Feminine Revolution

Mexico’s Foreign Debt

The Devil’s Name is Trotsky

Che Guevara

Uncle Sam’s True History

The Never-Ending Conquest of Mexico

Palestine: From the Wandering Jew to the Wrongdoing Jew

Rius’s books on religion offer an investigative, historical perspective (The Myth of the Virgin of Guadalupe*, The Mormons, The Masons) or a philosophical attack (Manual of the Perfect Atheist*). The title of his most famous book on health, La Panza es Primero, is a parody of the phrase which appears on half the statues in Mexico: “La Patria es Primero” (The Fatherland Comes First), only Rius has substituted belly for the fatherland. This book and others—like Don’t Consult Your Doctor!—discuss everything from vegetarianism, herbs, dentists, and white bread to how to grow sprouts. The proliferation of health food stores everywhere in Mexico, even in tiny villages (called pueblitos), is almost exclusively due to Rius’s comics.

Several of Rius’s books are anthologies of his and others’ cartoons: Kama Nostra (erotic), Demons, The Other Rius, The Holy Book of Cartoons (his choice of the world’s best 100 non-political cartoonists). Many of the above-mentioned books contain material that first appeared in the now-defunct weekly comic books Los Supermachos and Los Agachados (The Downtrodden). A typical story begins with a fat, slovenly fellow named Nopalzin lying drunk in the street. A friend pours a bucket of water over him, stands him up, and tries to convince him he should get a job: “Save a little every week and in no time at all you’ll have a nice nest egg and won’t have to work anymore.” “But I ain’t workin’ now!” “So, you won’t even consider getting a job?” “Work…so you kin stop workin?” Nopalzin soon finds himself arrested (for peeing on a government telegraph pole) and tossed into the town jail which happens to be crowded with a group of his friends in the middle of a conversation, locked up for being subversive. The local school teacher is speaking and his words now become the narrative portion of the rest of the book, a detailed study of the American Indian, an often-surprising history of his betrayals by the white man, ending with the then-current occupation of Wounded Knee by the Sioux. The final page of these comics often contains a bibliography on the subject in both Spanish and English.

In today’s Mexico, it is not difficult to find people who will tell you that their perspective on nutrition, Nicaragua, or Jesus Christ was radically changed after reading a comic by Rius. That one man could have had so much influence on both the awareness and the health of people in his country is remarkable. That he did this through comics is amazing. And that he could have entertained people and made them smile while educating them is something very few teachers anywhere in the world, at any time in history, have managed to accomplish.

Eduardo del Rio was born in Zamora, Michoacan, Mexico, on June 20, 1934. By his own description, he is short on hair, has dreamy blue eyes, has a horrible Judeo-Christian nose, and two eyebrows. His height is 1.69 meters, Sanforized.

PINT: What experiences or studies steered you toward the particular kind of comic book you’ve been producing for such a long time?

RIUS: I spent some years in a Catholic seminary with the Salesian Fathers, who specialize in teaching, and I think something of that wish to be a teacher has stayed with me to this day. Anyhow, when I left the seminary, I had to find work. I ended up doing all kinds of jobs: washing glasses in a bar, selling soap from door to door, working as a bottler, as an office boy—actually, I was an office boy in the company that distributes Walt Disney comics in Mexico, which was my first contact with the medium. After that, I got more of a permanent job with a well-known funeral agency and this place was really my “university” because I have no valid diplomas of any study beyond fifth grade. You see, studies in a seminary don’t count in this country.

Now, there were some Spanish Republicans working in a bookshop next to the funeral parlor and they were the ones that got me interested in reading, let’s say, “leftist” literature: Karl Marx, novelists of the ’30s like Steinbeck and Dos Passos, people who were writing social novels. So, between this kind of influence and that of certain people in the Mexican press, I got the idea of becoming a cartoonist.

PINT: Did the press come to you or did you go to the press?

RIUS: Well, I had always liked drawing and did a lot of it in the seminary, though I’ve never had any formal training. So, one day while I was working at the funeral parlor answering the phone, I was doodling just to kill time. Then, in walked the editor of a humor magazine called Ja Ja [Ha Ha], and he asked me why I wasn’t drawing what we call humor bianco [white humor], the kind of cartoon you find in The New Yorker. So, the next week I started bringing him cartoons without captions, a pure copy of Saul Steinberg’s style. That’s how I got started back in 1955.1 kept working at the funeral parlor and during my lunch break I’d trot my cartoons over to Ja Ja. In the same year, I started doing editorial cartoons for Ovaciones, a sports paper with a news section. After a while, I was doing political cartoons for nearly every newspaper in the country.

PINT: Eventually your political cartoons got you in trouble, didn’t they?

RIUS: They accused me of being a communist. It was the time of the Cuban revolution and I was clearly in favor of Castro. Suddenly, three or four newspapers dropped me. It reached the point where nobody would take my cartoons and I figured I’d have to leave the profession and dedicate my life to selling soap. Cartoons didn’t seem like a good business! That was when I ran into a friend who did comic books. He suggested I write one of my own and the result was Los Supermachos.

PINT: Los Supermachos is hardly a typical comic book. How did you come up with that particular style?

RIUS: True, there weren’t many precedents for comics dealing with political subjects. The only one I knew of was Pogo. I can’t say I was exactly inspired by Pogo, but it did help me develop a formula for dealing with politics and characters symbolizing certain social classes in Mexican society.

PINT: It seems to me your use of these stereotyped characters to produce a kind of documentary on a well-researched theme can only be called unique.

RIUS: Well, I spent a long time analyzing U.S. comics and I noticed that they were, in part, used to politicize people, to convince them that the “American Way of Life” was an ideal way to live. Lots of comics were dedicated to attacking communism—for example, Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, Captain Marvel. They actually indoctrinated people who didn’t realize they were being indoctrinated. So, I thought, maybe I can fight fire with fire, jump out of the trench, catch some of their grenades and throw them back. I wanted to turn the comic book into a teaching medium, from a politically leftist point of view.

PINT: Would you call yourself a Marxist?

RIUS: I’m not an expert on Marxism, but all my work, even the books on religion, have a Marxist base. To tell the truth, I’ve never been a good Marxist, much less an orthodox one. My real position has been that of a critic in respect to socialism…not precisely a Trotskyite, but a critic of the errors of socialism, Stalinism, etc.

PINT: So, how do you see the recent changes in Russia and Eastern Europe?

RIUS: In a way, I was prepared for these changes. I had been wishing for someone like Gorbachev to come along and change everything. I’m happy because what looks like the fall of socialism is actually its renewal—I hope! Just before you came, I was working on a new book, 120 pages dealing with perestroika. It was a mistake to copy Soviet socialism in Cuba, for example. Maoism has some good points, but for China, not for other countries.

PINT: How do comics fare in those countries?

RIUS: I’ve always been a ferocious critic of the misuse of political cartoons in the socialist countries. In the face of all the errors that were being made, the cartoonists never had a chance to exercise their profession as critics of society. Only with perestroika are they getting a better chance to have their say. In fact, even comics are starting to appear in these countries.

PINT: You’ve written a lot about Nicaragua. What do you think about the latest developments?

RIUS: Yes, I have three books on Nicaragua. As for my opinion. I think the negative influence of the United States has been the main factor in why the people voted against the Sandinistas. They were terrorized by the contras and all they wanted was peace. Actually, the people of Nicaragua voted with their stomachs! Now. the question is: what will the U.S.A. do with Nicaragua? They promised them everything and now they’re dispensing it with an eyedropper. First, they make the patient sick, then they refuse to cure him!

PINT: Back to Los Supermachos. From what I’ve heard, it’s no easy task launching a quality comic book in Mexico. How did you get this one off the ground and how did it become so popular?

RIUS: When I began the series. I had been doing cartoons for 10 years. People knew my name and started buying the comic. It was a gradual process, though, and I’d say it took 10 issues to reach a large enough circulation for it to stand on its own. When we had 40,000 readers, the editor felt we had made it. Success! But it was hard going at first. People weren’t used to this kind of comic…

PINT: I suppose not, since it was a completely new genre.

RIUS: It was a comic that forced people to think and nobody was prepared for that.

PINT: What sort of people bought the comic?

RIUS: Well, I had in mind the same public that likes political cartoons, especially university students. And, in fact, they were my most enthusiastic readers—and they still are. They have a need to know, a thirst for knowledge, and they find something substantial in these comics. Once, they made a market study and it showed that most of the readers were students. Next, came professionals. There was a smaller number of blue-collar workers and very, very few campesinos. However, some interesting information came to light: we discovered that some groups of campesinos were buying just one copy of Los Supermachos and then using it for studying, for holding discussions, especially when the subject was political problems. In Nicaragua, during Somoza’s time, my comics were circulated underground among the Sandinistas, even inside the jails where they were being held. Apparently, they considered me their ideologist! Some of their leaders told me they had become Marxists after reading my comics and my book on Marx.

PINT: In how many countries were they reading those comics, anyhow?

RIUS: In Latin America, especially in the underdeveloped countries like Nicaragua, Mexican comics—not just mine—have had a great influence, especially the semi-pornographic kind, probably more than in Mexico.

PINT: Mexico’s the publishing capital of all Latin America, isn’t it?

RIUS: Oh, yes. and for a long time, the movie capital. Even now, Mexican comedies and soap operas (unfortunately!) are seen on TV in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela…all over.

PINT: If we can return to the subject of your earlier days, is it true your publisher “stole” Los Supermachos from you? What happened?

RIUS: Well, I was the first comic book writer in Mexico who actually managed to sign a contract. On top of that, it was a contract including royalties on every issue sold. However, the publisher was a licenciado. People in the Slates won’t understand, but a licenciado is a person with a pretentious degree, often a sort of two-bit lawyer or politician and very easily corruptible. Now, when the comic really became popular, the government saw it as something extremely dangerous, especially because of its influence on students. So, they simply bought the publisher. He took the comic away me and gave it to some other artists and writers.

PINT: In what year did this happen?

RIUS: I had only done Los Supermachos for two years, 1966 and ’67. By 1968,1 had lost the rights to it. This may seem unbelievable lo your readers, but this was by direct order of the President of Mexico. The comic book was either to disappear or be transformed into something less hostile to the government. So, since there was money to be made from it, with a circulation of 200,000, they just took it away from me. To use a proper Mexican expression: me chingaron a mi [they fucked me royally].

PINT: But you said you had a contract—was there a loophole in it or something?

RIUS: No, no. They did this “Mexican style.” I could have had the greatest lawyer in the world, but because of this order “from above,” there wasn’t a thing I or anyone else could do. In these cases—here in Mexico—the law has certain limitations. So, the editor gave these other people two months of secret training and they took over and kept producing “my” comic book for another eight years. Naturally, none of them had a contract and there were no more royalties—they lost all that.

PINT: This time you weren’t planning to go back to selling soap?

RIUS: No. A friend, Guillermo Mendizabal, who loved Los Supermachos, actually sold his car, mortgaged his house, and started a publishing company called Posada—today a very successful publisher—for the purpose
of producing a similar comic with a new name, LosAgachados [The Downtrodden, literally, “those who are
stooped over or abused”]. In one week, I had to invent
new characters, a whole new comic book.

PINT: And Los Supermachos?

RIUS: It continued to deal with politics, but with a new ideology. My character, Calzonzin [a tall Indian wrapped in an electric blanket] was turned into a sort of “running dog” for the PRI [Mexico’s establishment party, which has run the country since 1921].

PINT: Los Agachados outlived Los Supermachos. Why 
did you finally stop producing it?

RIUS: I was worn out! This may be interesting for my colleagues in the U.S. I didn’t have a team of six or seven
working on the comic. I did everything, starting with the research and ending with the inked pages. The only help I had was from my former wife for the coloring. It was terrible. Every week I had to produce 32 or 34 pages. There was no time for vacations (and no one to pay for them), no time to get sick. In order to have time to get married, I had to get three issues ahead of myself.

PINT: And how did it pay? How much of a royalty did you get?

RIUS: First, there was a fixed sum for the job itself. For every page. I received, let’s say, around $5 a page. It wasn’t much. Here, comics don’t pay. However, as I mentioned earlier. I was the first in Mexico to get royalties—and I may still be the only one. The comic book used to sell for one peso and I would receive about two centavos for each. This rose with the circulation, but I never got as much as 10 percent. The idea of a comics writer getting royalties was something novel in Mexico—and still is!

PINT: How do they get away with it?

RIUS: Well, because I do my own text and pictures, I’m considered the author of the book. But, in most cases in Mexico, they get one person to do the story for a fixed fee and then they pass this story on to an illustrator. Neither of them is ever considered to be the author. Only someone like Gabriel Vargas of La Familia Burron is held to be an author, and he is his own publisher. Comic book writers here are fighting to change all this. They’ve been fighting for years.

PINT: Have they accomplished anything?

RIUS: No, the publishers here operate just like the Mafia. They’re so rich that they can afford to pay off the authorities regularly, instead of paying the authors. The publishers won’t allow the comics writers to unite and receive what they have a right to. It’s the same story with newspaper cartoonists—no protection, no union.

PINT: What have your relations been like with publishers outside Mexico? Some of your books are available abroad, aren’t they?

RIUS: Yes. My latest book—Coca-Cola, The Drug That Refreshes—is being translated in the States right now, and the one on Trotsky. Several others were translated in England a while back. The funny thing is that I’ve received almost nothing from those people. They owe me about 5,000 pounds sterling.

PINT: What? You mean the For Beginners series?

RIUS: Yes. And I haven’t received a penny from the translated editions they sold in Germany, France, and Japan. Not even a sample copy! But I put it to disorganization more than anything. Let’s just say they’re three years behind in payments. But I’m used to a lot worse. People have out-and-out pirated my books in Spain. England, Italy, Germany, Greece, the Scandinavian countries, and even in the U.S.A.

PINT: Gulp.

RIUS: The one in the States was a small publisher that isn’t around anymore—appropriately named Quixote Press. They stole two of my books; one was The Communist Manifesto Illustrated, and I’ve forgotten which other one. In Colombia, they pirated five of my books, and the funny thing was that the publisher was called Pata de Palo [wooden leg]…so there wouldn’t be any doubts! Oh, yes, it’s happened in Iran, in India…I might even be the holder of the world’s record for stolen comics, just in case Guinness is interested.

PINT: Aside from the For Beginners series, what else of yours has been published —I mean, legitimately—in the U.S.A.?

RIUS: The Myth of the Virgin of Guadalupe and The Manual of the Perfect Atheist were translated and published by a small company in Austin: American Atheist Press.

PINT: What’s the general “state of comics” in Mexico these days—apart from your work?

RIUS: In general, the whole publishing industry is in a state of crisis, and in particular the comics. In comparison with what was sold 10 years ago, they can only sell half now. It’s a drastic drop.

PINT: Why is that?

RIUS:
Maybe because they haven’t been able to bring the medium up to date. Nothing new has appeared. The only real attempt I know of is a magazine called Bronca [Trouble] with new Mexican comics, but it died after five issues. There is one newspaper that puts out its own eight-page supplement of comic strips called Histerietas [a combination of historieta (comic book) and histeria (hysteria)]. The authors produce cartoons for the paper during the week and comics on the weekend. Otherwise, the comics horizon in Mexico is sad and bleak. There don’t seem to be publishers willing to try anything new. There are plenty of fine young writers and excellent artists anxious to get published … but they have no place to go. The same thing is happening all over Latin America. I recently attended a Latin American comics convention in Cuba and we were analyzing this kind of problem. It seems like the only country doing anything new is Cuba, but only for local consumption.

PINT: Cuba? What are they doing?

RIUS: Simply allowing comics at all is “new” for socialist countries. Personally, I don’t care for the subject matter. What they’re trying to do is use comics to indoctrinate people about Marxism. They’re really not free to express themselves. I hope perestroika finally gets there! Getting back to the Mexican situation…there being no money available, one is obliged to bend to the editors’ wishes, quality is poor and often they won’t even return your originals. As for royalties, they won’t hear the idea, in spite of the fact that they sell half a million copies.

PINT: Which comic, for example, sells that many?

RIUS:
Oh, Kaliman [an adventure series], and Lagrimas y Risas [Tears and Laughter]. This publisher owns a chain of hotels all over the republic, but he ended up in jail recently for not having paid his taxes. These people have sold more comics than anyone else in Mexico, but they exploit the authors. Compared to here, U.S. graphic novelists are in paradise, especially if they belong to a syndicate. In Mexico, we writers are now being forced to pay taxes, but with no benefits. We don’t even get social security! [Mexican social security provides free or low-cost medical care and hospitalization to all “employees.”]

PINT: Is this why Mexican comics writers leave the country?

RIUS:
Well, there haven’t been that many cases. One great success story was that of Covarrubias in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, etc. Another who succeeded in the U.S. is Sergio Aragonés in Mad. But a lot of the others who made good are unknown. They never sign their work! For example, most of Walt Disney’s artists were Mexicans and other Latin Americans. That’s part of history.

PINT: You know, over the years I’ve noticed that an unusually large percentage of Mexicans love to draw cartoons.

RIUS: Latinos are very creative. For example, the majority of French and Italian comics artists are Argentine. Most of the people who draw in Heavy Metal are Latin Americans. The Spaniards are very good, too.

PINT: Do you have anything special you’d like to say to the readers of The Comics Journal?

RIUS:
Well, there is one thing. I’d like to invite my North American colleagues—within the limits of their possibilities—to produce a comic that’s more useful to the people; not to produce comics that merely entertain or stultify; to help the people escape from this obsession with images that the U.S.A. has fallen into. Sorry if that sounds like a sermon!

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3 Responses to An Interview with the Father of Mexico’s Graphic Documentary: Who’s This Rius?

  1. steven samuels says:

    “Invariably, behind every fascist-type regimen we can find the support of the United States:”

    Speech, brother.

  2. Joe musich says:

    Okay I am confused is there a documentary or was the title being witty ?

  3. malcolm greenberger says:

    Riuz has been documenting Mexican life for decades in graphic form- that’s what the title means. It’s ‘s not referring to a video documentary on the artist.

    His work is brilliant, however. Sometimes his theories on human psychology, or homosexuality (for example) are pretty off and scientifically unfounded, rendering some of those comics a bit dated… but they are nevertheless fascinating points of view from Mexico’s greatest cartoonist.

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