Down Argentine Way

“I saw a really bad
knockoff of one of my characters painted on a kiosk, and I felt like
‘Yes! I’ve finally made it!’  ” says
Argentina’s Ricardo Siri Liniers, known by his nom de comics,
Liniers. The artist is referring to one of the newsstands that line the
streets of Buenos Aires and that sell an eclectic mix of magazines,
comics, and high-brow literature. Homemade paintings of well-known
comics characters often adorn the city’s kiosks: Homer Simpson is
a favorite. For Liniers, the newsstand homage was proof of his growing
influence in the Argentine comics scene, and of a movement from
obscurity to cult status.

An affable teddy bear of a guy with Buddy
Holly glasses and a ready grin, Liniers creates a universe absurd and
sweet, surreal and wry, in his daily strip, Macanudo. The comic
is populated by penguins, sensitive robots, a mysterious man in a cape
and black top hat, dancing olives, and a little girl with a talking cat.
Liniers himself sometimes appears as a man with a rabbit head. A
performer who sometimes paints onstage during music shows, Liniers tries
to make his art a live, moving experience: His comics are extremely
fluid, and his characters pop out of their panels. His humor ranges from
the gentle (but never treacly) to the good-naturedly sarcastic to a
somewhat rarefied plane of abstract wit. The late Argentine comics great
Roberto Fontanarrosa describes it this way on the back of Macanudo
3
: “Liniers’s style is ingenuous, but careful! It is the
ingenuousness of the lion that eats the gazelle.”

It may
surprise American readers that the strip runs in La Naci
ón
, an Argentine daily newspaper. It’s as if Adrian
Tomine had a strip in, say, the New York Post. “From our
standpoint, it’s sad what the syndicate system is doing to the
daily strip,” says Liniers of the listless, anodyne American
comics page. “I love American daily strip comics, but sadly, the
way it works makes The Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes or
Bloom County a freak occurrence.” Granted complete freedom
by La Nación, Liniers is able to take the strip into
territories open only to the “alternative” comics artist in
the States, and to change the strip in tone and character as he sees
fit. His work may seem less political than those of some of his
countrymen, such as Alberto Breccia and Juan Sasturain, although, as he
notes, “It’s impossible not to be political in
Argentina.” The absurdity and cynicism that typify Argentine
politics can’t help but inform the country’s comics, whether
they’re sparking a reaction to government outrages or creating a
form of escape.

 

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Pages from Ricardo Siri Liniers’s
Cuadernos (Sketchbooks) 1985–2005, a collection of
early work, sketches, and paintings.
Publisher: Ediciones Larivière. 

Liniers, who studied advertising before getting into
comics, is now becoming something of a cottage industry. His books,
calendars, and T-shirts enjoy great popularity among young
porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires are known. He won a
Gardel (the Argentinean equivalent of a Grammy) for the packaging art
for Andrés Calamaro’s music CD La Lengua Popular. A
collection of his travel journals, Conejo de Viaje (Traveling
Rabbit) was recently published by Random House Mondadori España
in Spain. He has appeared on Argentine television, and, in October, a
theater company produced a play based on his strip. His friend and
manager, Juan Lanusse, recently opened a Liniers-affiliated store in
Buenos Aires, called L’Inc. The store sells original artwork,
prints, posters, and T-shirts by Liniers and other Argentines, and is
intended as a meeting point and resource for artists.

Thus Liniers
finds himself at the top of a new generation of comics artists in
Argentina, one influenced by Europeans and Americans such as Joann Sfar,
Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware, as well as by the rich history of
Argentine comics. Of his predecessors, perhaps the best known is Quino,
creator of Mafalda—think Peanuts with a much
stronger sociopolitical bent and a hilarious, sharply observed comic
sensibility similar to Shel Silverstein’s. Quino’s work has
been translated all over the world, as has the art of the recently
retired Maitena (many Spanish-speaking comics artists go by one name),
who has applied her sarcastic wit to the trials and tribulations of
human relationships. It was Maitena who, in 2002, encouraged the editors
at La Naci ón to take on Macanudo; Liniers’s
previous strip, Bonjour, ran as a weekly installment in a
supplement to La Naci ón competitor Pagina 12. All three
artists are published by Ediciones de la Flor, an independent and
well-respected house that publishes nearly every book of comics in
Argentina.

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Meanwhile, the internet has been a giant boon to the
Argentine comics fan. Since Argentina’s 2001 economic crash, the
once-strong peso has hovered around 3.3 to the dollar. Imports and
travel abroad are prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the internet has
made it possible for readers to explore work too expensive to buy or too
expensive for an Argentinean publisher to translate. The web also
provides a voice to emerging talents without connections in the
publishing world. Furthermore, since Ediciones de la Flor focuses on
strips with a proven readership in the country’s newspapers, the
internet provides an outlet to those who want to work in a longer
format. “I believe it’s a natural evolution from the
fanzine,” says Liniers. “When I began, you spent the few
pesos you had on photocopying, stapling, and trying to
sell—ha!—fanzines.  … And you ended up giving them
away to your friends. With the web, everything is much easier and more
economical.”

Liniers would like to see a change in the
Argentine print world as well, and to that end, he and his wife, Angie
Erhardt del Campo, started a publishing company called COMUN (Common) at
the end of 2008. Their first book will be the sixth collection of
Macanudo; the first edition will feature 5,000 hand-drawn covers
by Liniers. A collection by the artist Kioskerman—a friend of
Liniers’s whose webcomic Edén is a quiet, wistful
affair—was on the COMUN roster, but will now be published by
Random House Argentina. In a development that bodes well for the success
of this crop of Argentinean cartoonists abroad, Kioskerman will also
have a book published by Montreal comics powerhouse Drawn & Quarterly
next year.

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While the market for graphic novels may be underdeveloped
in Argentina, there seems to be no shortage of graphic and storytelling
talent. Each artist’s site leads readers down a rabbit hole of
links to other artists. Even the level of respect for the daily strips
is an encouraging sign: A Buenos Aires billboard for the national paper
Clarin proudly touts “The Illustrators and Humorists of
Clarin,” a promotion to bring an envious tear to the eye of
a state-side scribbler. Yet more novelistic and abstract comics, with
their unfamiliar form, haven’t received the same embrace; as
Liniers has lamented, “There is no one who will risk publishing a
graphic novel. They don’t understand the concept.” But the
proliferation on the web of both artists and fans indicates that the
Argentine market is ready to take an interest. And in Liniers, it seems
to have found a champion with the star power to sell it.

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