“Lucky me.” That was the phrase written under a cartoon piggy in a drawing glued to the wall. The year was 1936. It was going to be a barbecue day (asado in Argentina) in Mendoza, among the dirt roads of Guaymallen, when, all of sudden, it rained. But the clouds of disappointment were pierced by this cartoon, the artist’s dad laughing in amazement at his 4-year-old son’s take on his misfortune (and the pig’s fortune). That was the first cartoon of Argentine legend Quino (who would find out on the first day of school that his “real” name was Joaquín Lavado). Now, let’s jump to the last months of Quino, before his death Sept. 30 in Mendoza at the age of 88. Let’s dive into the documentary Looking for Quino (available online as Buscando a Quino). We can see he doesn’t draw anymore and that he hasn’t done it for decades. He can barely see but loves, maybe in honor of his birthplace, to hold — and drink, of course — a glass of red wine. They ask him, while facing a painting that depicted him in his childhood, one painted by his artistic Uncle Joaquín, what he would say to that kid. And, maybe sensitively, maybe dryly, smart to the bone and human (despite his feelings about humanity), he says: “It’s not that big of a deal.”
For someone like him, you might feel it’s an odd thing to say. You have to remember he was the creator of the most famous Spanish-language comic strip, the adored Mafalda. Also, he turned his back on the strip — the only one he ever did — at its peak, in 1973, and managed to finally embrace as he was never able to before his love for single-panel cartooning — creating a once-in-a-generation body of work. He was, still is, considered the sentimental godfather and inspiration of most cartoonists and comics artists in Argentina (for example, Liniers, Rep or Maitena). He was even awarded literature prizes like the Principe de Asturias award in 2014 (never before given by the Spanish Crown to a comics artist) and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He was called “a giant” by Charles Schulz — funny, considering that Quino’s Mafalda was born as an intentional rip-off of Peanuts, created in the beginning to sell refrigerators in the ’60s. Considering all this, why would he, the biggest deal ever in Argentine comics, right next to the The Eternaut author Héctor German Oesterheld, say, “It’s not that big of a deal,” to this painting of his young self?
Of course, he was not hurting his uncle's feelings. He always talked fondly — yet laconically — about his family, about his communist grandfather arguing politics with his Spaniard Andalusian parents (both of them died while Quino was still a teenager). Politics was always in the agitated atmosphere of his house, and classic Argentine magazines were lying around everywhere. Quintessential Argentine comic magazines such as Billiken, Rico Tipo, El Gorrión, Tit Bits and Patoruzú were easy to find in his home, something he never quite understood, given their limited finances. In a 1977 interview for the Spanish TV show A Fondo, he told Joaquin Soler Serrano, “Either magazines were extremely cheap or suits were way too expensive; my dad had to ask for a loan every time he would buy a suit.”
Maybe his response to his Uncle Joaquin Tejón’s painting was meant for himself. That’s something you might guess after seeing hours of interviews with Quino, a part of his job that he never liked that much. Maybe Quino was talking through the painting to his fears, which he never hid: He used to feel ashamed even of going to buy a pencil that he needed and sometimes he took an extra walk around the block just to be able to gain enough courage to deal with that social exchange. Maybe he was addressing his gloom and doom feelings towards capitalism, his asphyxiated sentiments towards structures that still define our day-to-day sense of civilization: His single-panel cartoons, always in love with Saul Steinberg and The New Yorker, are extremely powerful and surgical takes on society, on class, on religion, on hypocrisy and even on comics and their tools. Or perhaps he was pointing to his own contradictions: He created Mafalda, in 1964, the Spanish-language equivalent of Peanuts (equivalent in terms of cultural status and influence, in being to this day a well loved treasure for many generations and in its Trojan-horse sense of using kids to talk about adult ideas) but he always made it well know that he was way more proud of his cartoons, his panels.
He used to say to me: “Mafalda’s eyes are only black dots, but damn if I haven’t erased and traced them hundreds of times every week.” As insecure as he had always been since his first drawing was printed in the weekly magazine Esto es (1954: “the happiest day of my life,” his website reports), Quino was also always aware of his love for comics, both as medium and as profession. He knew this as a young man of 17 on his rounds to show his drawings to the Buenos Aires studios he most admired (“Good ideas, bad art,” they told him) and he also knew this as a 20-something college arts dropout who finally went to work for his beloved Divito (one of the Argentine comics kings, a publisher and an artist, a dandy who died in his fifth car accident —”He finally achieved it,” Quino joked to me about this mentor and friend). Although he was happy working in classic magazines like Rico Tipo, TV Guía, Damas y Damitas and Tía Vicenta, among many others, he was always a little bit disappointed when they told him he had to add balloons to his drawings. During those first years, he took his unfinished work to Dobal, a cartoonist Quino talked about as a fundamental mentor, asking for corrections.
It is logical that he hated not being able to create silent cartoons from the get-go: He adored —you can feel it even in his Mafalda strips — classic Hollywood silent comedy. He spoke to me with fondness about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton: “I was in love with silent comedy, and luckily I was able to see it at the cinema as a kid, as an 8-year-old, since it was not likely that I would, like Pierre Curie, get hit by a horse, they let me go all by myself.” When searching for a parallel in the pantheon of movie comedy or for a quick way to understand Quino’s work without Googling a single panel, you should think of him as a more disappointed Jacques Tati, the French director of Playtime and Mon Oncle, who was, like Quino, fascinated by architecture. In the words of Quino from an interview I conducted in 2014: “I always was amazed by the complexity hidden in plain sight of his hate for our modern way of living, the way he puts modernity on the spot to show its ridiculousness.” Of course, that idea can also define Quino and his ability to observe the ways people conduct themselves in society, which can be seen even in his rationale for smoking. Buenos Aires was running out of cigarettes due to workers’ strikes and lines were forming whenever they sold a pack, so he stated, “If so many people are getting into lines for this, I should try it.”
Just when TV was starting to be part of Argentina’s lifestyle, in 1963 he published his first paperback anthology, Mundo Quino, the first of many anthologies of his work, and in 1964, Mafalda, appearing in Newsweek-like publication Primera Plana, found popular success. From that moment, Mafalda strips could be found everywhere, cut and pasted in offices or even threateningly referenced by Argentina’s cruel ’70s dictatorship. It was so famous that in a particular massacre by forces of the dictatorship, the perpetrators placed next to the gunned-down bodies a Mafalda vignette where she holds a police baton — while a cop is wearing it — and says, breaking the fourth wall: “See? This is the ideology-denting stick.” In terms of popularity, Mafalda became his biggest creation. On one side, it was a warm, fundamental piece of Argentina’s cultural life and a legendary take on the pre-dictatorship ’60s (Mafalda and Quino loved The Beatles). In Mafalda, Quino was warm and angry: Mafalda had questions, about Vietnam, about Argentina society and about world politics. In one strip, the kids, since they all are in a hurry, play “nuclear war”; the three of them fall on their back after shouting “Boom.” Mafalda hated soup and Quino has stated on his website that “soup was a metaphor for dictatorship.” Quino hated being old and said while being celebrated by the Spanish Crown: “Being old feels like having a fascist dictatorship always telling you what you can and cannot do.”
In addition to both tender and political undertones, as Mafalda gained popularity, the strip gave shape to classic Argentine archetypes: If you are shy and too day-dreamy about things, you’re called a Felipe (the second kid character that Quino added, because after the initial “20 or 30 strips I was tired and didn’t know what else to do with the parents”). If you have a lower-middle-class urge to have kids and a family and a doctor husband, and you love gossiping, you’re a Susanita. Libertad (spanish for “freedom”), the latest big character introduced, is, in a graphic pun, a small child. She represents the radical ’60s view of the world. In one strip, she visits Mafalda’s home, and Mafalda’s father asks her If she likes his plants. “I prefer them in the forest,” she says, and he answers politely and a little too pedantically something like, “Well, we live in a small apartment.” She, in the most Quino thing that I think I have read in Mafalda, says: “Sir, you asked me if I liked plants, not if I liked your way of living.”
Mafalda changed the comic-strip formula in Argentina forever; it moved away from the one-trick pony gag dominion to the character-driven strip. Mafalda became a hit, a best seller. One of the secrets to its longevity, that continues to this day, is the paperback editions. And considering the last strip was done in 1973 (Quino left for Milan before the 1974 dictatorship, saying, “Mafalda could not live right next to a dictatorship”), the paperbacks played a huge part in its continuing popularity. On their covers, the editions by Daniel Divinsky (at that time, the owner of De la Flor: the flagship publishing house for Argentina’s classic cartoonists’ masterworks) were extremely smart; they talked directly to the moment, the social zeitgeist, they were being printed into.
While Quino was always grateful for Mafalda’s popularity, he once told me in 2013: “I’m a little bit tired about Mafalda, with all due respect to the love the strip creates and always receives. I understand a character strip creates a bond in a way that my single panels don’t. But I’m not tired of that side of comics.” Quino always adored and was amazed by French cartoonists Jean Bosc and Chaval, avowing that they showed him “a way in which cartooning could be about something else, not only to laugh at mothers-in-law and husband-and-wife jokes.” Quino told me how impressed he was with the way Oesterheld’s scripts “created a human take that didn’t exist before and changed forever Argentina’s comics.” In the same way, his cartoons elevated an already high ground. His works as a single panel cartoonist are wonderful comics machines, devices that perfectly understand what comics can do and say about the world. In one of them, we see a surgery going on, with the doctors hovering over a patient, and a sign in the back saying, “We work here so that people can thank God outside.” In another one, one of his Terry Gilliamesque takes on power relationships at gargantuan workplaces, a mammoth boss has on his lap a tiny worker (one of his most characteristic and favorite dynamics to draw) and explains to him, in the same way you explain to a kid the myth of the baby-delivering stork, how at the end of a long period of work a “tiny tiny rise in wages” appears. In a fan-favorite silent vignette, an upper-class lady tells her maid to clean the room. The room has Picasso's Guernica painting. When the maid finishes, even the content of the Guernica painting is, like the room, perfectly in order.
“Violence is everywhere,” stated Quino, in Pergolini’s 2014 interview. He was talking about ants. The ants he used to watch and move around in his childhood home. His cartooning, adored even by his always-quoted Umberto Eco, feels like an echo of that idea: Violence is everywhere. But, at least in his work, genius is also everywhere, as well as his heartfelt indignation, fueling one of the brightest of 20th-century takes on humanity. Luckily, If you live in Argentina, Quino is also everywhere: parks named for his characters, statues, murals, a little bit of merchandising, and, of course, his paperbacks, present everywhere, in every house — when told that the strip got some kid into reading, Quino was proud.
Even though he never went back to doing the strip, Mafalda, as he stated more than once, went on to have “a life of its own”: she and her gang have even become an official and proclaimed National Heritage in Argentina. Quino’s single panels are always quoted, one aspect of his work that — with all due respect — North America still needs to discover. For Argentina, he was both our Schulz and our Steinberg. He was a school, a playground and an encyclopedia about the world's incoherence. It's all there in his work: the tender and the overwhelming, the thing that defines your childhood and also criticizes you as an adult. He knew we loved him, that we would always read his creations, that he was a treasure, and yet it surprised and impressed him when people cried while meeting him. Once, complaining gently about what he thought was the lack of political cartooning in the last decade’s comics, he remembered when he was a kid and “old drunk people” babbled angrily at the Beatles. “Now it’s my turn … at least I’m coherent,” Quino said, smiling, no stranger to a bottle of wine himself.
He was not only coherent; he was, and will forever be, Argentine comics’ biggest and most beloved big deal: Quino.