Down Argentine Way

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A collection of postcards by Liniers

“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.

Argentine comics

Pages from Ricardo Siri Liniers’sCuadernos (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.

Argentine comics

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.

Argentine comics

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.