Picks this month: one comic you can't read 'cos it's in Spanish; and one comic everybody else discovered twenty years ago. Bob cares nothing for the cutting edge. Bob is a scholar of comics. Bob is a bit worried, however-- he's starting to refer to himself in the third person. He's been reading too much of--
|Dave Sim: Cerebus|
I've been avoiding Cerebus for years-- the word on the Net was that the first issues were weak, and later on Sim loses his mind. But in fact the early stories are great-- even #1, where Cerebus looks like something gone awry at the sausage factory, is a cute story.
Whatever wacky ideas Sim spouts later, he's a good storyteller, who knows just when to drop the pseudo-medieval palaver to lay on a good joke. ("Tarim has a word for you... Condominiums!") I couldn't get enough of Elrod of Melvinbone (especially since I can't stand Elric of Melniboné), or the Cockroach, or Lord Julius (Groucho Marx as ruler: "Lord Julius, it has come to my attention that in a fortnight, you intend having another of your drunken debaucheries!" "Sorry-- the guest list is already set for that drunken debauchery.")
Now, Cerebus is more than a Conan parody; he is more than a cute but lethal aardvark. He is also a great destroyer of paper (rather thin paper, and printed in smeary ink). The first of the Cerebus phonebooks, mnemonically named Cerebus, will set you back $25. But hey, you get over 500 pages of comix for the money-- a better deal than most any other TPB-- and there's more where they came from. Eight more books, so far.
In the second book, High Society, Sim moves from parody to political satire, and from short stories to a single 500-page story. The results are mixed. If anything it's even more consistently funny than the first volume. But the plot remains episodic (Cerebus simply goes from crisis to crisis, playing for higher stakes each time), and there are no great insights in Sim's politics. Cynicism makes for good satire, but not good analysis.
In more recent stories Sim has developed an extremely cranky form of misogyny, and has started to refer to himself in the third person. For more on that see my review; but you can be assured that the first two books are safe. You can always stop before getting to the infamous Reads (and, hopefully, long before you start analyzing the real world in terms of Sim's 'Cirinists' and 'Kevillists', as some Cerebus fans do).
Mafalda might be described as the Latin American Peanuts. Both are, on the surface, strips about kids, but touch something deeper: in Peanuts, the neuroses of modern middle-class life, with a tincture of theology; in Mafalda, the hopes and frustrations of life in a developing country, with an underlying passion for justice.
Mafalda, drawn by the Argentine cartoonist Quino (J.S. Lavado) from 1963 to 1975, and also appearing in a long-running series of animated cartoons, is familiar to every Latin American, and is well known in Europe and Japan as well. She's even appeared in English-- in Australia. Only in the US, for some reason, is she unknown. And yet the Smurfs are readily available here. As Joe Sacco would say: Where is the UN?
The central character is first-grader Mafalda (named for a type of pasta). Mafalda is obsessed with the bad shape the world is in; she wants to be a UN translator, and intends to defuse conflicts by translating the ambassadors' insults into innocuous statements. She's also a big fan of the Beatles (even if she can't understand the words) and a dutiful if sometimes sarcastic daughter. Her one weakness is soup-- she holds a grudge against the Swiss for having invented instant soup.
Her friends are also distinctive characters. Her oldest friend is Felipe, whose sweet disposition conceals an avid enthusiasm for the Lone Ranger and an incurable aversion to homework.
Her friend Manolito is, at six, the consummate petty businessman, tireless and tiresome in his promotions of his father's grocery store. He's already an expert at publicity (smelling something rotten in the store, he remarks, "I sense this week's special in the air") and at customer relations:
|M, F: This is a robbery!||Mn: If you don't like the prices here, ma'am, go to another store!||Mn: Sorry, it's just habit.|
Of course, his father may have had something to do with the development of his values:
Salesman: Hello, is your dad there?
Manolito: What's is about?
S: I'm from the neighborhood newsletter, La voz del barrio-- we're appealing to everyone's good will...
M: And what can my dad do?
S: Subscribe-- it's just a small economic disbursement.
M: [after a look at his father]: You mean... without anesthesia or anything?
Then there's Susanita, the perfect would-be aristocrat, concerned about nothing but her future children--
Susanita: Did I ever tell you about all the children I'm going to have when I grow up?
Mafalda and Felipe: You've told us a thousand times!
Susanita [after thinking a moment]: It's delightful to talk about the topic with people who're so well informed...
and her social status:
|M: Last night on TV there was a sociologist talking about how people these days live full of anxiety about the future.||S: How right that man is!||S: Myself, for example, I can't decide whether I should greet my friends in the front hall when I'm married, or have them brought into the living room...||S: Did he say anything about that?
M: No, the lazy idiot didn't touch on that topic...
Susanita has little sympathy for Mafalda's worries about the world (when she reads the paper, it makes her thankful how good she is), but she and Mafalda occasionally find common ground:
|M: Can you imagine a woman as president, Felipe?
F: God save us!
|S: Look, just so you know, women are more intelligent than men, you hear me?||S: And more good and more noble, got it?||S: And more sweet and tender, understand?||F: And they say that women are difficult to understand!|
Miguelito, the child of Italian immigrants (who imbue him with great respect for Mussolini) is noted for a certain narcissism:
|(Miguelito examines his thumb.)||Mi: That's wild! My thumb is bigger than the tower on that house!||Ma: Don't you know why you see it as bigger, Miguelito?
|Mi: It's because my finger is mine and it's much more important to me than the tower!|
Perhaps Quino's most original creation, however, is Libertad, about equally prone to launch into politically correct harangues or into expressions of eccentric naïveté:
|M: What's your mom typing?||L: Translations of books, because what my dad makes is just to pay for the apartment.||L: My mom knows French. The French write books in French, my mom copies them the way we speak, and with what that brings in she buys noodles and stuff like that.||L: There's this guy... wait, what's his name? Yanpol... Yanpol Belmondo... no, Yanpol... Sastre, is it?
M: Ah! Sartre?
|L: Right! The last chicken we ate was written by him!|
Libertad tends to have trouble in school...
|T: Let's go over the directions. The sun rises in...
L: The morning.
|T: No! Morning isn't a direction!
L: That doesn't matter to the sun, it rises anyway.
|T: Yes, but where?
L: In the living room window.
T: Only from your own house!
L: Well, yes, at my age I don't have much opportunity to see any dawn anywhere else.
|T: Go back to your seat, please...||L: Too bad-- it's fascinating to chat with you.|
If you know some Spanish, Mafalda is a great way to learn colloquial Spanish, with a strong Argentine flavor. It's best to have a native speaker available to help with the slang, however.