The Whites of their Eyes: Implied Violence and Double Frames in Blazing Combat and The ‘Nam by Harriet Earle

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that comics has a massive arsenal of techniques for the representation of violence, of trauma, of horror, of life. Indeed, the array is so vast that this paper can only concentrate on a single technique – one that is both subtle and incredibly effective. This is a technique that allows violence to be implicit. It is sneakiness and cleverness combined. It is, to my mind, one of the best examples of the utter magic of the comics form. I am talking about the representation of the human eye. It may not seem at first that the drawing of an eye is anything more than just that – an eye. But I propose that the way an eye is drawn and its relationship to the rest of the image is in fact an acutely important representational tool and one that allows violence to be implicit, dependent on the reader’s imagination.

In this paper, I consider examples from two American war comics. The first is Doug Murray and Mike Golden’s The ‘Nam, a Marvel publication that ran from 1986 to 1993 that mimicked the typical tour of duty so the characters were rotated in and out of story arcs as they would have been in combat. The series followed the Comics Code Authority guidelines and as such does not depict certain aspects of the Vietnam War – no drug use, no swearing. That said, it does have a fairly level approach to combat and is rightly praised for not subscribing to the ‘men’s adventure’ derring-do style storytelling that is has been employed by other publications. The second example is Blazing Combat, written by Archie Goodwin, which ran from 1965 to 66 before being rather abruptly cancelled. The second issue ran a story set in Vietnam and this was something of a death knell. American PX shops (shops set up on American military bases internationally) refused to stock it because, while the comic is not necessarily anti-war, it steadfastly refuses to subscribe to any glorification of war and instead concentrates on individuals and the trauma of their experience. These are not typical war comics – neither are as brash as Commando or Battle. As Kurt Vonnegut would suggest there is no role for John Wayne here (see Slaughterhouse-Five, p.11).

So what am I proposing about eyes? I propose that the shape of the eye in the examples I discuss here act as a frame-within-a-frame. Most panel frame shapes are easily recognisable to us. Wavy edges suggest a dream or an altered conscious state (drunk, perhaps), sharp pointed edges show an explosion or a loud noise. A straight-edged rectangular frame shows us that what is contained is happening in the present. Will Eisner considers these to be ‘container frames’ and further suggests that as comics readers we read (or should read) the shape of the frame as much as any other part of the image. He suggests that panels are an excellent way for the comics creator to control the reader and construct the grammar of the comic itself. He writes:

The intent of the frame [can be] not so much to provide a stage as to heighten the readers involvement with the narrative. [. . .] Whereas the conventional container-frame keeps the reader at bay – or out of the picture, so to speak – the frame can also invite the reader into the action (2008: 46).

In the case of my examples the eye is the only contained space within the image and so becomes a double frame. It is another framing shape that we must read in order to gauge the action and the direction of the narrative.

We humans are a surprisingly predictable species and we are programmed (for the most part) to look at the face of an individual for confirmation of their mood and personal state; the expression within a person’s eyes plays a large role in this evaluation (for a recent and comprehensive study to this effect see Eisenbarth and Alpers, ‘Happy Mouth and Sad Eyes: Scanning Emotional Facial Expressions’ in Emotion, 2011). Therefore it does not seem unusual that the eyes of a character would need to be the most expressive part of their face, nor that using the eyes to display emotion has become a trope in visual narrative arts. However, I wish to take this further. Not only are the eyes the most expressive part of the face, but they remove the need for the violence of the situation to be visually represented within the panel. The expression in the eyes is enough to imply the violence that that particular character is witnessing. We can clearly read the violence in the face of the character and we do this through the eye. In each example I discuss, the eye forms the central focus of the panel and it is through the eye that the mood of the panel and thus the mood of the character is conveyed. After a close reading of the panel, I take the issue further and consider the wider implications of implied violence.

My first example comes from the first issue of The ‘Nam (1986). Private Ed Marks has just arrived in Vietnam and is immediately thrown into combat. He witnesses an attack on a small village and sees many men killed in front of him. This panel is his reaction to that which is going on around him. Bear in mind that because of its adherence to the Comics Code Authority rules, the majority of violence is not horribly graphic and gory in The ‘Nam. Ed’s reaction is designed to convey this to us without the need for graphic gore. The overall panel is tilted on the page, overlapping with the panels either side.

The ‘Nam #1 – ‘First Patrol’ (December 1986). © 2015 MARVEL.

The ‘Nam #1 – ‘First Patrol’ (December 1986). © 2015 MARVEL.

Initially, just by reading the outer panel we get a sense of chaos. The coloration is unusual – a greenish colour highlighting the whiteness of Ed’s face. His mouth is contorted. His eyes, however, are clear and wide. We are in no doubt as to the expression in his eyes. This is shock and horror on a grand scale. We are used to the expression ‘wide eyed’ in horror, in surprise, in whatever. Ed’s eyes really are. I don’t suppose we usually give it much thought but it is unusual to see the whole of the pupil of an eye surrounded with white like that. What is crucial to this reading of the eye as being indicative of a wider implied violence is that they can stand alone on the page and still convey the same message.

My second example comes from the Blazing Combat story ‘Holding Action’. This short comic is set in 1953, during the Korean War. A young soldier, Stewart, is part of a group attacked by Korean forces. He tries to hide but his commanding officer calls him a coward and forces him to shoot at the enemy soldiers. These three panels are all that we see of the attack going on around him as he shoots. It is clear that, aside from in basic training, Stewart has never fired his gun. The expression in his eyes shifts from pure terror and shock to angry determination and fear. With the exception of the onomatopoeia above him, the eyes are the only thing that changes in the three images. More so than with the image of Ed Marks, the eyes of Stewart are essential in the understanding of the situation. Stewart becomes so consumed by the violence all around him that he seems to forget his fear and his reluctance to shoot at other human beings and instead becomes incensed with his attempts to kill them. However, it is only because we can read this change in his eyes that we see that this shift is taking place. Without the shifts in the shape of the eye this change would not be communicated – or it would require some fairly clunky speech or thought bubbles. The eye allows the shift to be seamless.

Blazing Combat #2 – ‘Holding Action’ (1966). © 2015 FANTAGRAPHICS.

Blazing Combat #2 – ‘Holding Action’ (1966). © 2015 FANTAGRAPHICS.

Finally, I present another from The ‘Nam. The character is Frank Verzyl. A former soldier and tunnel rat (someone who goes into the Viet Cong tunnels to help destroy the network from within), he is attacked by rats which triggers a serious psychotic break, leading him to kill the commanding officer. He is returned to the US and confined in a psychiatric hospital. Within The ‘Nam, Verzyl becomes a figurehead for those soldiers for whom the trauma became so completely unbearable it leads to total mental breakdown and a collapse of basic bodily functioning.

The ‘Nam #26 – ‘Auld Acquaintance’ (January 1989). © 2015 MARVEL.

The ‘Nam #26 – ‘Auld Acquaintance’ (January 1989). © 2015 MARVEL.

As we saw with Ed’s eyes, there is a lot of eye white on show. Verzyl’s eyes are wide in terror, just as Ed’s were. The difference is that Ed was witnessing live combat and his expression was consistent with what was passing in front of his eyes. Verzyl is in a hospital – he is to all intents and purposes safe. The terror he is witnessing is that which his traumatised mind is playing on a loop without comprehension. He is trapped in that moment and the terror in his eyes is the terror of a trapped, traumatised man.

I suggest that violence is, by its very nature, traumatic. However, we have become strangely desensitised to representations of violence in a way that we have not with trauma. Thus, it is in the representation of the trauma of violence, rather than the violence itself that the true power of these comics is felt. Violence is universal but trauma is uniquely human and its displays are more likely to stir something in us. It is when we begin to consider trauma that the difference between seeing and understanding becomes heightened. Trauma is about witnessing – seeing – an event so mind-blowing and life-altering and life-threatening that the mind is unable to understand it. And it is this lack of understanding and lack of assimilation that causes the trauma. This event exists in the mind of the individual but they have no way of assimilating it into their memory, as Cathy Caruth contends (see Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, 1996); they cannot process what they have seen and it becomes a non-event. Seen but not understood. Witnessed but not comprehended. As an aside, trauma and seeing are so entwined that the Dutch Guide Dogs Charity now also supply trauma dogs for returning servicemen. Their strapline is ‘For those who cannot see and those who have seen too much’. Trauma and seeing are very closely related and so it is only fitting that the eye becomes the focus.

The specific structural and artistic techniques of comics are able to mimic the symptoms of a traumatic rupture caused by witnessing extreme violence in the representation of the character’s eyes. We as readers are invested in the creation of the unseen violence by the way in which we read the eye, which in turn goes some way to mimicking the experience of a traumatic rupture in the reader. It is by considering the trauma that violence engenders – rather than violence alone – that these comics make a statement about the nature of conflict violence. Were they to present the violent events in a gung-ho fashion, suggesting all manner of glory and marvel for the participants, we would learn nothing. Instead, seeing the true terror of violent action – and the horrible effects it can have on the human condition – we begin to get a more accurate picture of the extent to which conflict violence affects its participants and, by extension, us.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Eisenbarth and Alpers, ‘Happy Mouth and Sad Eyes: Scanning Emotional Facial Expressions’. Emotion 11 (4) August 2011. pp 860-875.

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. New York: Norton, 2008.

Goodwin, Archie et al. ‘Holding Action’. Blazing Combat. New York: Warren, 1966.

Murray, Doug and Mike Golden. ‘First Patrol’. The ‘Nam. New York: Marvel, 1986.

. – ‘Auld Acquaintance’ The ‘Nam. New York: Marvel, 1989.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. London: Vintage, 1991.

Dr Harriet Earle has recently completed her PhD in American Comics at Keele University. She is currently preparing her first monograph on the topic of comics and conflict trauma. Her publications are spread across the field of comics studies and in the future she hopes to continue working on traumatic representation in comics, literature and art.

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Posted by on 2015/05/13 in Guest Writers


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News Review: April 2015


United States


Nominations for the 2015 Eisner Awards have been announced, inclusive of the category for Best Scholarly/Academic Work. Link (English, WG)


The University of Chicago has acquired papers of cartoonist, Daniel Clowes. Link (30/04/2015, English, WG)


The International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), announces an open call for the position of Treasurer. Applications are being accepted until the 31st May. Link (English, WG)


The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, by Liam Burke, has now been published through the University Press of Mississippi. Link (English, WG)




From the 10th May until the 28th June, Fudenosato Kobo, located in Hiroshima prefecture, is holding the “Matsumoto Leiji x Maki Miyako; Couple Collaboration Exhibition.” It includes works by manga artists and married couple Matsumoto, whose representative works include “Galaxy Express 999”, and Maki, a shojo manga artist who debuted in the 1950s and who also worked on the design for the earliest version of fashion doll Licca chan. There will be events throughout the month of May with both artists. Link (Japanese, JBS)

Law & Politics

A manga created by premier Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, with its aim to promote the amendment of the constitution, is under fire for containing “a lot of nonsense”. Link (03/05/2015, Japanese, JBS)


The 15th Annual Convention of the Japan Society for Studies in Cartoon and Comics (JSSCC, Manga Gakkai), will be held at the Aster Plaza in Hiroshima City, on the 27th and 28th June. The first day is dedicated to scholarly presentations, and the second to a symposium with specialist guests. This year the symposium’s theme is “The many facets of Barefoot Gen”. Details on the rest of the program will be posted on the website soon. Link (Japanese, JBS)




Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald has been adapted as an opera by a Belgian company, to be performed in September 2015. Link (07/04/2015, French, LTa)



Toulon publisher Soleil Productions, founded in 1989 by Mourad Boudjellal and now owned by Delcourt, is downsizing significantly, it has been announced. The majority of its activity will ‘disappear’ according to Actualitté. Link (15/04/2015, French, LTa)


A new Ric Hochet album is to be published at the end of May, five years after the death of orginal illustrator Tibet. Link (23/04/2015, French, LTa)



An exhibition of the comic, Weisse Wölfe, opened in Dortmund on the 15th April. Link (06/04/2015, German, MdlI)

Edition Alfons has announced a new book series on comics; the first volume by Detlef Lorenz will be about Robinson Crusoe and is going to be published this summer. Link (23/04/2015, German, MdlI)

Several comic-related events take place as part of 22. Internationales Trickfilm-Festival Stuttgart (ITFS) in May. Link (28/04/2015, German, MdlI)

The festival, Graphic Novel Tage, is going to take place in Hamburg from the 18th until the 22nd May; guests include Lewis Trondheim and Flix. Link (30/04/2015, German, MdlI)


A conference on visual satire and caricature is going to take place in Obernkirchen from the 15th until the 17th September. Link (09/04/2015, German, MdlI)

A series of workshops on comics takes place in Cologne on the 24th April, 22nd May, and 26th June. Link (20/04/2015, German, MdlI)

A lecture series on “literature and illustration” in Hanover features two talks on comics, by Nathalie Mälzer on the 24th June and by Christina Meyer on the 15th July. Link (23/04/2015, German, MdlI)



The 11th International Comics Festival Budapest is held on the 10th May at Dürer Kert, Budapest. International guest artists and writers include Lucie Lomová (Czech Republic), Ptiluc (France), Typex (Netherlands) and Pierre Wazem (Switzerland).  Link (01/05/2015, English, ES)



On the 15th May the authors Anton Kannemeyer (South Africa), Posy Simmonds (England) and Marcelo D’Salete (Brasil) will discuss the different procedures of comics production and the dialogues that these procedures establish with global culture. This round table discussion, moderated by Pedro Moura, is attached to a cycle of conferences named Próximo Futuro (Next Future), and will take place in Lisbon, in Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. Link (03/04/2015, Portuguese & English, RR)

From the 29th May until the 14th June, the Casa da Cultura of Beja will host the annual International Festival of Comics (XI Festival Internacional de Banda Desenhada de Beja). This festival is usually composed by some exhibitions, book/magazine launches, author events, workshops, concerts, and much more. Link (18/04/2015, Portuguese, RR)



José A. Serrano has published a list with the top-selling comics in some of the main bookstores in Spain in 2014. Link (Spanish, EdRC)


The 33rd edition of the Barcelona International Comic Fair was celebrated from the 16th to the 19th April. Its Gran Premio (Great Prize) was given to scriptwriter and translator, Enrique Sánchez Abulí, celebrated for his classic series Torpedo 1936. Las meninas won in the category of best Spanish comic, and Saga was awarded best foreign work. Link (17/04/2015, Spanish, EdRC)

The travel section of El País has an article with the list of the best 10 comics bookstores in Madrid. Link (01/04/2015, Spanish, EdRC)

An exhibiton with originals of the work of painter and comic artist Miquel Fuster can be seen at the University of Barcelona from the 29th April to the 15th May. Link (29/04/2015, Spanish/Catalan, EdRC)


The 13th edition of Unicomic, a three-day seminar of comics studies, will take place at the University of Alicante. Link (Spanish, EdRC)



The comic magazine, Comixene, which was cancelled in 2012, is going to be relaunched in August. Link (27/04/2015, German, MdlI)



There is a call for papers for the 1st Global Conference on Superheroes, which will take place between the 7th and 9th September at Mansfield College, Oxford. Link (17/04/2015, English, WG)

The British Consortium of Comics Scholars Day and Comics Tea Party will take place on the 30th May at the  University of Sussex. Link (08/04/2015, English, WG)

*                    *                    *

 News Editor: Will Grady (

Correspondents: Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto (JBS, Japan), Enrique del Rey Cabero (EdRC, Spain), William Grady (WG, UK), Martin de la Iglesia (MdlI, Germany & Switzerland), Renatta Rafaella (RR, Portugal), Eszter Szép (ES, Hungary), Lise Tannahill (LTa, Belgium & France).

Click here for News Review correspondent biographies.

Click here to see the News Review archive.

Suggestions for articles to be included in the News Review can be sent to Will Grady at the email address above.

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Posted by on 2015/05/04 in News Review


The Spanish Civil War in Comics: A Conversation on Spanish Comics, Remembrance, and Trauma by Sarah D. Harris and Enrique del Rey Cabero – Part 2

Click here to read part 1 of this conversation.

This is the second part of a conversation on the relationships between comics and the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. Having sketched out the history of comics in Spain from the early, middle, and late twentieth century, scholars Sarah D. Harris and Enrique del Rey Cabero will now discuss the representation of the war in more recent graphic novels and comics. They will also describe possible pedagogical opportunities for using some of these publications in the classroom.

SARAH: Hello, Enrique. I’ve enjoyed discussing with you the roots of the current comics climate in Spain, and a few groundbreaking twentieth century works. I’m struck by just how many Spanish comics from the twenty-first century take up the theme of Civil War. In the past several years, I’ve been especially interested in El arte de volar (The Art of Flying) (2009) [1] by Antonio Altarriba and Kim, Un médico novato (A Rookie Doctor) (2013) by Sento, Las serpientes ciegas (The Blind Serpents) (2008) by Felipe Hernández Cava and Bartolomé Seguí, and Los surcos del azar (The Furrows of Chance) (2013) by Paco Roca. In these recent books, as you have noted, several of their prologuists or authors describe an explicit and intentional act of remembering, and also a desire to participate in a collective or community endeavor. In interviews and paratexts, each work is called part of something bigger, something shared.

El arte de volar, for one, has been called Spain’s Maus (and, as we’ll discuss later, so has another book, Los surcos del azar). El arte de volar tells of author Antonio Altarriba’s father, who in 2001 and at the age of 90 committed suicide by jumping from the fourth story of his nursing home. Each chapter represents the man’s fall past one floor of the building, and his increasing joy at the freedom the eventual impact will bring. Altarriba, a professor in French literature and a scholar of Spanish comics, is certainly well-aware of the profound implications of this work. He intentionally uses a first-person narrative to give voice to his recently deceased father, a man who had survived war, exile, dictatorship, and transition to democracy. Altarriba writes that the life of his father, spanning nearly all of the twentieth century, is also closely tied to the concurrent history of Spain. The book calls this story that ‘of many Spaniards without land, without work, without bread, and without a home […He] is only one among millions of Spaniards who lived what History brought them: the end of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, the fall of the Monarchy, the Second Republic, the Civil War, the Franco regime, the new Monarchy, the Transition.’[2] I also found this explicit commentary of intergenerational memory interesting, both in reference to Spain and to his own family. He says that ‘just as Spain is the daughter of her past,’ he has inherited his father’s experiences. In his words, ‘Despite the fact that my father didn’t speak to me much, I had a strange complicity with him. That’s why in the book I speak about our blood alliance. In the end, his blood flows through my veins. I can’t tell his story from a distance, or impersonally. I had to do it in first person, […] which in no way betrays the real life of my father.’ I think this notion connects not only to the specific story of Altarriba and his father, and to contemporary Spain and her inherited past, but also to theoretical understandings of intergenerational or transgenerational memory of trauma, to the idea that, left unhealed, psychic wounds are passed on to the next generation.

ENRIQUE: Gallardo confessed admiring Spiegelman and, undoubtedly, Maus was an influence for Un largo silencio. It was probably so as well for El arte de volar. Although they represent different works in conception and size, they both intend to understand their fathers (and their time) by lending them a voice. In the case of Altarriba, as he has explained in many interviews, he actually needs to become his father in order to tell his story. And again, such as the cases of Giménez (Paracuellos) and Gallardo, the writing of El arte de volar can also be understood as a therapeutic or healing process.

Los surcos del azar, written by Paco Roca (the author of Arrugas), is one of the most important comics published in Spain in the last years. This graphic novel tells the story of the company of La Nueve (“The Ninth”), composed almost entirely of Republicans who had escaped Spain after the Civil War and went on to fight Nazis in France. They formed part of the Leclerc Division of the French Army and were amongst the first to liberate Paris. They have since been honoured in France (Anne Hidalgo, a Spanish-born daughter of immigrants and current mayor of Paris, has written the prologue of the French edition), but not in Spain. Therefore, as Javier Pérez Andújar has claimed in the prologue, it ‘offers us something to believe in; he offers us the part of history that was taken away from us, which we have lost by caring only about the alienating daily life. His book brings us back to ourselves.’[3] It reminds us that the Spanish Civil War was also a war against fascism, so for many Republicans, such as the protagonist of Los surcos del azar, fighting against fascism ‘seemed as necessary as breathing.’[4] Not many people are aware of these stories nor others, such as the fact that Nazi camps like Mauthausen held thousands of Spaniards (identified by the blue triangle – as stateless people – and the “S” of Spanier and often known as Rotspanier, Spanish Red, by the SS). When the American troops released the camp in 1945, they found this giant banner written in Spanish: “Spanish antifascists salute the liberating forces” (see image here).

SARAH: Los surcos del azar is definitely an important recent book. As you say, it has brought recognition to the role Republican Spaniards played in fighting fascism, not just during, but also after the Civil War. In addition to this powerful central story, the book also utilizes a frame structure whereby a Spanish author, Paco, meets, interviews, and draws the story of, Miguel Ruiz, an elderly Republican living in France. Even Miguel’s closest friends in France are oblivious to his military background. The frame narrative, through conversations between the two main characters, adds much depth to the central story of Miguel and his wartime experiences. Again, this testimonial and generational component reminds me of what makes Maus so powerful. In this case, it’s a fictional biographical book about one character, but meanwhile it is also about the process and complications of giving testimony. For instance, in the case of Los surcos, Miguel is initially resistant to being interviewed, missing his appointment, and then saying, ‘This is old people’s stuff. Who’s interested anyway?’ to which Paco responds, ‘I think it should interest everyone, so that we don’t suffer anything like it again because of fascist ideas.’[5] On the other hand, once the process gets started, Miguel begins to admit how important it is. In a later conversation, Miguel complains that ‘No one ever recognized the sacrifice’ of the ‘many Spaniards who fought against Hitler,’ to which the younger man replies, ‘It’s never too late.’[6] For me, Miguel’s response to this is one of the key pieces of dialogue in the book. He says, ‘I’m ninety-four years old and most of my comrades have probably died. With no recognition, of course. If that doesn’t mean it’s ‘too late’… then to hell with us all!’[7] In the final word balloon of the book, Miguel thanks Paco for making him recover a part of his life that he had not dared to remember.[8] Here, as has been said by many authors, interviewers, documentarians, etc. this is a “now or never” moment. Like you said about Gallardo, this idea of ‘lend[ing] a voice’ to a dying generation is so compelling, and present in so many of these graphic novels about the Civil War and its aftermath. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the so-called language of comics contributes something special to this endeavor. I’ll get back to this idea shortly.

The conversations between Paco and Miguel are drawn in neutral gray tones, and contained in panels with soft, almost blurry edges. In the present, in other words, there are no hard borders to the panels. Meanwhile, the wartime events that Miguel has experienced, and that he relates through these interviews, are drawn in strong colors and with black borders around each panel. It seems to me that this use of color both brings vibrancy to the past events, and also inverts the expectation for a typical “flashback,” which often displays a softness of both color and border. Visually, Los surcos del azar gives life to the events of Miguel’s story, making the past look more “alive” than the present, perhaps in a visual metaphor for Miguel’s own experience (he says that he remembers details from the war years much more clearly than he remembers events from that same day). A number of panels also increase the reader’s identification with the Paco character by giving us a strong visual point of view from his perspective. These panels represent what would be Paco’s own view, for instance looking down at his hands and notebook, or at the coffee pot he is holding.[9] The colors also draw our attention to particular important objects (a hair bow, blood, a flag, for example). Not totally unlike he has done in other books, such as Las calles de arena (Streets of Sand), Roca also uses a specific color palette for each location of Miguel’s story.[10]

ENRIQUE: The structure used by Paco Roca is, indeed, very interesting (some pages can be seen here). The idea that the events remembered in the story, which are traditionally associated with black and white, are represented in color answers to the idea of bringing those events to the present. The work is an amazing graphic achievement, with a sober style that escapes the obvious epic tone in the war scenes, and Roca’s typical ligne claire-influenced art.

Another interesting thing is how he uses characters in pursuit of verisimilitude. Miguel Ruiz did exist and is mentioned by Dronne, the captain of the division, but apparently, he disappeared after one of the dangerous missions he led. Roca recovers the character and invents a plausible story for him as an exiled Republican in France, interviewed by the author himself, which made many readers feel surprised when they realised at the end that a part of the story was invented. This successful air of veracity is not really surprising, as the story is also very well documented (Roca worked with the historian Robert S. Coale) and full of maps and historical explanations. The reader can identify with Roca the character, as he does not know much in the beginning but wants to know and embarks on a process of recovering that part of Miguel’s (and Spain’s) history. For this reason, I believe Los surcos del azar would be perfect to be studied for educational purposes.

We can talk about the pedagogical use of comics later if you want, but first, knowing that you have done some research in trauma studies, I would like to ask you about how these comics relate to trauma and silence. Sometimes you need some distance to talk about certain things like the Civil War and its remembrance (some of the main historians, such as Paul Preston, Ian Gibson and Hugh Thomas, are foreigners), as the debates in Spain are still difficult, as we have seen before. I have to admit that the whole matter of remembrance is paradoxical. Clearly, there is a deficit of knowledge about the Civil War but, at the same time, there is a certain feeling of “overdose” for some people, who at times exclaim: “Ugh, another book/film about the Civil War!” (I do not believe this has already happened to comics, as there are not too many works yet). This contradiction was expressed very well by Alberto Reig Tapia, who claimed that the memory of the Civil War ‘sometimes seems more alive than desirable and sometimes more forgotten than it should.’[11]

SARAH: Yes, I’m glad you bring this up. A number of years ago, when I began researching trauma and its representation in the literature of the Spanish Civil War, very little had been said about it. There had certainly been some distance (in time) from the events themselves, but still, until almost the turn of the millennium, it seems as if the treatment of the war and its aftermath was insufficient (in literature, in film, in academia, in the news). In the ensuing years, I think the tide turned to the extent that many people reached saturation or near-saturation with the subject.[12] Just a couple of the most popular novels are Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind). Films such as Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Pedro Almodóvar’s La mala educación (Bad Education) have also garnered much international attention. It’s not that the topic of the war isn’t interesting, but for many Spaniards and Hispanophiles, its presence has become overwhelming. For instance, professor of audiovisual communication Vicente J. Benet remarks that in recent cultural products, as well as the news media, debates about the memory of the Civil War and Francoism are among the most frequent topics.[13]

I agree with you that this hasn’t happened yet in comics, and like I mentioned earlier, I’m especially interested in what comics, as a medium with its own particular “language,” can offer the conversation. We’ve already touched on a few of these in our discussion of Giménez, Altarriba, Gallardo, and Roca’s books. For me, if we’re thinking about traumatic memory specifically, one of the fundamental components of comics is their fragmentary nature. On the one hand, many theorists believe that narrating trauma linearly is impossible because traumatic events are unassimilable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible. Freud and Caruth, for instance, observe that a collapse of understanding lies at the heart of what we call trauma. However, Anne Whitehead (and others including Cristina Moreiras Menor and Kevin Newmark) also note that many authors represent the impact of trauma in narratives that reproduce, in their form, symptoms typical of trauma survival, including atemporality, identity confusion, wordlessness, and repetition.[14] In my opinion, because comics are an inherently fragmentary medium (in that they narrate through sequential art), they can be especially powerful in narrating traumatic memories.[15] There are great examples of this in Paracuellos, and perhaps this is one of the reasons the book is so poignant.

ENRIQUE: I agree. I also believe comics are powerful in narrating these stories due to the coexistence of separated images (what Groensteen called ‘iconic solidarity’)[16]. In that sense, present and past can appear together in many interesting relational ways. We have already commented on the structure used in Los surcos del azar by Paco Roca. Another interesting example, although highly (perhaps, overly) pedagogical, is El ángel de la retirada (The Angel of the Retreat), written by Serguei Dounovetz and drawn by Roca. The protagonist, a present-day French teenager, relives the turbulent times of 1939 and is haunted by the figure of a Republican soldier called Ángel. Space and characters from present and past interact together thanks to the magic of comics (some pages can be seen here). There is also Cuerda de presas (String of Prisoners) [17], a collection of poignant short stories about women in Francoist prisons which is, in my opinion, one of the best Spanish comics (albeit not so well known) dealing with memory and trauma. This comics shows that the topic is still interesting even to young creators who were born in democracy and, therefore, did not experience the Civil War directly. It also proves that, sooner or later, countries need to face their past (with all the possible consequences) to explain their current identity. This takes us back to Altarriba saying that Spain is ‘the daughter of her past’, as you mentioned earlier, because even creators who didn’t experience the war seem to have inherited its impact. The authors of Cuerda de Presas, Jorge García and Fidel Martínez, use expressive visual metaphors to reflect on the aftermath and trauma of women after leaving the prison.[18] For example, prisons bars always “go” with them (image here). They also comment on the difficulty of the process of remembering itself and of putting traumatic experiences into words (image here).

I believe comics have proved to present the memory of the Civil War from a different perspective and contribute to its recovery, often focusing on victims and personal stories of common people (rather than big historical events of the war). Readers (and critics) have generally responded in a positive way to them and I believe we will be seeing more comics dealing with this topic in the near future. There are still so many stories to be told! However, it remains to be seen how comics and the memory debates keep evolving in the country (2015 promises to be one of the most important years in Spain’s recent democracy, as there will be new elections and the two-party system is in serious trouble with people becoming more politicised and aware of social issues). I would love to see some of the comics we have talked about studied in high schools or/and universities. For instance, there is already an excellent teacher’s guide to El arte de volar.

SARAH: It would be wonderful to see more teachers and professors explore these resources. The works we’ve named here, and many others, have nearly infinite possibilities for teaching students and others about Spain, about history, the Spanish language, not to mention about comics themselves. Beyond the content, given the way we take in information these days, critical visual literacy is also an essential skill to develop. Like I said earlier, this can be complicated in that Spanish comics don’t fit neatly into most existing disciplinary structures in academia. Personally, I feel very fortunate to work at a college that allows me flexibility to teach courses related to my own research, including Spanish comics, memory, and trauma. We also offer workshops for teachers, some of which explore teaching with comics, at our Graduate Language School. I encourage other professors and teachers to find ways to teach about, and with, Spanish comics in their own classrooms. Perhaps some good places to start are with the Modern Languages Association’s interdisciplinary primer on teaching the graphic novel (here) and the University of Florida’s Comics Studies website (here). For teachers of history in Spanish, there is a nice blog that includes resources (here).

Beyond the pedagogical opportunities close to my own heart, I also find significant the example of the documentary on Miguel Gallardo’s autobiographical María y yo having been incorporated into classes that prepare special educators. The book itself serves much of the same purpose in promoting understanding of special needs. More generally, because of the richness of recent publications, teachers from across many disciplines can use graphic novels to teach about the content, language, form, and/or implications of these books. Further, for teachers of Spanish literature and culture, there are several recent graphic novels about (dare I say “canonical”?) authors and artists (e.g. La voz que no cesa about Miguel Hernández, La huella de Lorca, the four-volume French biography Pablo, about Picasso, and Las Meninas about Diego Velázquez) that could add another dimension to the study of these figures. I’m beginning to think there is almost no Spanish classroom that wouldn’t be able to gain from the inclusion of some well-chosen comic or another. We’ve only had time, here, to scratch the surface of the broad range, and also the great depth, of the Spanish comics scene today. Like you, and as both a scholar and a teacher, I believe momentum is growing, and I’m really looking forward to see what the next few years bring.

Thanks for engaging in this conversation about one of my favorite topics with me, Enrique, and thanks to the Comics Forum, Laurike in ’t Veld, and Ian Hague for hosting it.

ENRIQUE: Thank you, Sarah. And many thanks from me as well to Comics Forum, Laurike, and Ian for everything.

Dr Sarah D. Harris has been a member of the language faculty at Vermont’s Bennington College since 2009. She is a scholar of narratives of trauma, testimony, remembering, and forgetting in contemporary Spanish fiction, with additional research interests including sequential art, monstrosity, twentieth and twenty-first century Peninsular film, collective memory, literature of migration, autobiography and memoir, and gender and identity studies. She was a visiting researcher in Spanish Literature at the Universidad de Oviedo in 2014, as well as a member of the jury for the 2014 Butze-Vargas Prizes for Mexican Comics. She has published academic articles on the works of Juan Marsé, Carmen Martín Gaite, Miguel de Cervantes, Juan Goytisolo, Francisco de Goya, and Manuel Gago García, among others. After earning an MA in Spanish and a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Los Angeles, Sarah was the 2008 recipient of the José Monleón post-doctoral fellowship for research and teaching.

Enrique del Rey Cabero studied Spanish and English Filología (Literature and Linguistics) at the University of Salamanca and later completed a Masters Degree in Spanish as a foreign language (UIMP) and Master’s Degree in Literary Research (UNED). He is currently enrolled in a PhD program (Universidad de Granada) exploring the traditional reading protocols and formats of graphic narratives and their fragmentation. Enrique has been working as a Spanish lecturer in La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia) since 2012. He has done some research on Comics, Spanish as a Foreign Language, Hispanic Literature and the relationships between Music and Literature, particularly on collective memory of the Spanish Civil War, comics in language teaching, contemporary Spanish comics and the work of Gerardo Diego and Gonzalo Rojas. He is the News Reviews correspondent for Spain in Comics Forum since last year.

Editorial note: Sarah D. Harris has an article titled “The Monster Within and Without: Spanish Comics, Monstrosity, Religion, and Alterity” in Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels (2015), eds. Carolene Ayaka and Ian Hague.

[1] In this conversation, comics under discussion will always be named by their Spanish title, and in the first mention, also by a translation. If the name of a publisher is also indicated, translations have been published in English. Otherwise, translations of titles into English are ours.

[2] Antonio Altarriba, El arte de volar, p. 7. Alicante: Ediciones del Ponent, 2009.

[3] Paco Roca, Los surcos del azar, p. 4. Bilbao: Astiberri, 2003.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 41.

[6] Ibid., 46.

[7] Ibid., 46.

[8] Ibid., 320.

[9] Ibid., 20, 22, 23, 92, 169, 274, and 281 for example

[10] This is a technique present in Roca’s El invierno del dibujante as well, though in this case, the warm and cool colors are also meant to suggest each of the four seasons represented in the book.

[11] Alberto Reig Tapia. ‘Memoria viva y memoria olvidada de la guerra civil’, pp. 40-41. Sistema, no. 136, (1997), pp.27-41. Original: ‘A veces, parece más viva de lo deseable y, otras, más olvidada de lo debido’.

[12] There are far too many to list here, but just a few other novels include Antonio Rabinad’s Libertarias (1996), Rafael Chirbes’s La larga marcha (1996) and La caída de Madrid (2000), Manuel Rivas’s El lápiz del carpintero (1998), Ángeles Caso’s Un largo silencio (2000), Dulce Chacón’s La voz dormida (2002), Jesús Ferrero’s Las trece rosas (2003), Isaac Rosa’s El vano ayer, (2004) and Otra maldita novela sobre la guerra civil (2007), Juan Alberto Méndez’s Los girasoles ciegos (2005). A few other films include José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly (1999) and The Blind Sunflowers (2008), Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Imanol Uribe’s Carol’s Journey (2002), Antón Reixa’s The Carpenter’s Pencil (2003), David Trueba‘s Soldiers of Salamis (2003), Emilio Martínez Lázaro’s Las trece rosas (2007), Agustí Villaronga’s Black Bread (2010), Emilio Aragón’s Paper Birds (2010), and Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (2010).

[13] Vicente J. Benet. “Excesos de memoria: El testimonio de la Guerra Civil española y su articulación fílmica”, p. 349. Hispanic Review, 75 (2007), pp. 349-363. Original: ‘Debatir sobre la memoria de la Guerra Civil española y del franquismo se ha convertido, sin duda, en uno de los asuntos más frecuentes del escenario cultural y mediático español de nuestros días.’

[14] Anne Whitehead, Trauma Fiction, p. 5.. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Kevin Newmark: “Traumatic Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and the Shock of Laughter” p. 254, in Cathy Caruth (Ed.): Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

[15] This same point is made in Hillary L. Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.

[16] Thierry Groensteen, The System of Comics, pp. 17-18. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

[17] Though there is no easy translation to English, the title refers only to female prisoners, as the noun presas is in the feminine form.

[18] Visual metaphors are another feature which cannot be expressed in literature, for example. I believe they are particularly strong when they are used to depict traumatic events. They are particularly relevant in El arte de volar, where, for instance, Altarriba presents his father being hunted by Franco’s imperial eagle and finally ripping his eyes out. Interesting, the character feels happy, as in this way he cannot see anything (page here).

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Posted by on 2015/04/29 in Guest Writers


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The Spanish Civil War in Comics: A Conversation on Spanish Comics, Remembrance, and Trauma by Sarah D. Harris and Enrique del Rey Cabero – Part 1

In the young twenty-first century, several Spanish comics about memory and the Civil War have garnered well-deserved critical acclaim. However, they have been explored very little in academia. This conversation brings together two scholars working on memory and Spanish comics to discuss the current comics scene in Spain, the Civil War and its aftermath, the representation of the war in recent graphic novels and comics, and possible pedagogical opportunities for using some of these publications in the classroom. Enrique is currently researching and teaching in Australia, and Sarah is a professor of Spanish in the USA. For both of them, this conversation introduces some of their most recent research projects.

ENRIQUE: I think the first thing I would like to point out is how vibrant the Spanish comics scene is today. Comics are now more widely appreciated among many audiences. The rise of the graphic novel at a global level has played an important role and has already produced notable examples in the Spanish context, such as Arrugas (Wrinkles, Knockabout) [1] and some of the ones we will be talking about in this round table. Comics have also increased their visibility in media (newspapers, television), online (through websites and webcomics) and there has been some institutional support by the Spanish Ministry of Culture (since 2007, a National Comics Prize is awarded annually to the best Spanish comic of the year, under the same program as other national prizes such as Literature, History, etc.), public libraries (which have considerably extended their comics catalogue in recent years) and universities (which organize more and more conferences and seminars).

SARAH: Agreed. Part of the shift is in the context; as you mention, visibility and support are important factors. I would also like to emphasize that the high quality and broad range of Spanish comics from the past fifteen-odd years suggest that the authors and artists themselves are rising to meet increased expectations. Recent comics and graphic novels offer appealing and accessible options to audiences of nearly all sorts. Adding to what you’ve described, in the past few years, bigger festivals and conventions, and a couple of excellent comics-related films for adult audiences (the animated Arrugas (2011) and the documentary María y yo (María and I, 2010), and even the comedy El gran Vázquez (The Great Vázquez, 2010) have also increased their visibility. These first two examples tackle social issues of importance to Spaniards and humans more broadly (an aging population in one case, and special needs in the other), and they do it with great respect for their subjects. It is also important to note that in academia the recognition of the contributions of these works lags behind. Perhaps the problem remains that comics don’t quite “fit” within established departments, faculties, or disciplines of the academy. I hope that our research, and this round table specifically, can contribute to the existing body of academic work that recognizes the richness of contemporary Spanish comics.

ENRIQUE: Regarding your first point, some people have even talked about a new genre of “social comics.” For instance, some of the most important comic artists in Spain today have collaborated with Oxfam to start a free app (available in Spanish, Catalan, French and English) with short stories dealing with International Development and Foreign Aid, which have also just been released as a book.

Image 1: The authors of Viñetas de Vida. Used with kind permission of Oxfam.

Image 1: The authors of Viñetas de Vida. Used with kind permission of Oxfam.

Adding to what you said about academia, it is true that it seems difficult for comic studies (and I think this is a global problem) to find a proper place in universities due to their interdisciplinarity. In Spain not many faculties support comics research yet. However, things are changing little by little. I remember Antonio Altarriba, a renowned Spanish academic and comics author, saying how hard it was for him to write his PhD dissertation on comics some decades ago. Nowadays there are more and more people doing so and some of the books about comics theory that have been published in the last decade, such as Sinfonía gráfica (Graphic Symphony), by Sergio García, La novela gráfica (The Graphic Novel), by Santiago García, and La arquitectura de la viñetas (The Architecture of Panels), by Rubén Varillas, are the result of PhD programs. Even if not strictly related to any university, a new comics journal in Spanish, Cuadernos de Cómic, has recently been created. It is probably the first continuous journal strictly dealing with comics and includes academic articles, essays and comics reviews, written both by renowned and younger authors.

SARAH: Yes, this is very much a global problem. But in Spain specifically, I’d say that the richness in recent comics, and graphic novels in particular, is especially notable given that Spain doesn’t have the strongest tradition of considering comics a serious, and adult (though by this, I don’t mean pornographic), medium. In comparison, in nearby countries such as France and Belgium, for instance, bandes dessinées have long thrived in sheer numbers and quality, attracting a large readership (and also not needing separate terminology to designate shorter or longer works). Meanwhile, for much of the middle of the twentieth century Spain’s publishers were stifled by governmental and cultural limitations on content, and also by restricted availability of supplies including paper. If you want to read an account of this time period in comics, Paco Roca’s historical El invierno del dibujante (The Winter of the Cartoonist) (2010) does a lovely job of telling one tale. Meticulously researched, it traces the challenges facing a group of talented cartoonist who set out to publish their own comic book. Their attempt to break free from restraints inherent to completing work for hire for the Bruguera Publishing House is ultimately thwarted for the reasons we’ve just mentioned. You can also read a great review by Eddie Campbell here. Incidentally, this was the first of Roca’s books to be written and published for a Spanish market.

In the early post-war era there were series directed at several specific audiences, but (as with all mediums) serious restrictions also existed on what could get published or translated and reprinted from abroad. Several decades after the dictatorship ended, it is still curious that a number of important Spanish authors have published in France and in the USA – and in French or English – before making it to print in Spanish and with Spanish publishers.[2] Additionally, translations of Spanish works into English are few and far between. So this vibrancy and visibility nowadays seems to belie their having won a bit of an uphill battle. This is now especially so given the economic challenges facing Spain, and the relatively high cover prices of graphic novels.

ENRIQUE: The state of the comics industry is always a debated subject. In any case, in spite of the never ending problems of the industry and some pessimistic prophecies (Antonio Martín said the industry is heading to disaster – what he calls the “perfect storm”- due to the precarious economic situations of many publishing houses in the country), I believe there are reasons to be optimistic and enjoy the quantity and quality of the authors published, as well as the new consideration of comics in cultural spheres. And I think you are right, all the problems given, the production is quite notable. As Gerardo Vilches mentioned in his blog, it seems that part of the problem might be that we always compare the Spanish industry with the Franco-Belgian one (one of the biggest and most influential in the world), instead of, for instance, with the Italian, German or almost any other industry in Europe which, in addition, have suffered less with the crisis.

Comics were a massive entertainment industry from the 40s onwards, mainly focused on children and with the publishing house Bruguera dominating the scene until the 70s. Today some people from time to time seem to long for that era where the comics industry created many jobs and tebeos (a word derived from name of the long-running comic book publisher TBO) had extensive print runs, but also tend to forget things such as the poor authors’ work conditions and censorship. There was a short boom of underground comics in the 70s and, later on, manga and the graphic novel. The economic crisis has obviously affected many publishing houses but it could be said that never before was there such an incredible number of publications in the Spanish market. And regarding specifically Spanish authors, some even talk about a new golden age. The question to be asked is the following: Is there a market for all of them? Probably not under the current circumstances and, as you mentioned, there are still many authors who need to work for foreign markets, especially the American and Franco-Belgian (Zapico, Aja, Guarnido and Canales, Miralles,… the list is endless). It is certainly symptomatic to see how some authors write for French publishers directly. Only when their works succeed in the Franco-Belgian context, are their rights bought to publish these works in Spain (such as the successful series of Blacksad).

Regarding translation, the Spanish market, apart from the superheroes and manga publications, imports graphic novels and less commercial comics from the US, France, Portugal, Italy, etc, which I think contribute to a richness and variety of perspectives. I have always found it sad that so few translations are done into English and it is frustrating when people ask me with sincere interest if the works I tell them about are translated. As far as I know, apart from some exceptions (such as some works by Max, Miguelanxo Prado and, recently, Roca), very few Spanish graphic novels published in the last years have been translated into English. Do you think the English speaking market is overloaded or simply not interested in translating many Spanish (and European in general) comics?

SARAH: Well, yes, it’s a good point that comparing with the Franco-Belgian market is problematic. As for English translations, I believe it’s a complicated issue. I have heard from Spanish authors who have been told their work is “too European” to appeal to an American audience. But a lot of European comics from other countries are available and popular in English in America and elsewhere. You can read a recent translation of just one page of El arte de volar (The Art of Flying) here. Also like you, I often wish more of these works were available to my colleagues and students in English, and I disagree with the publishers’ assertion that the works wouldn’t appeal to almost any Anglophone market.

As to your earlier point about the Golden Age of Spanish comics in the 1940s, of course it’s necessary to consider the comics of this decade in the wake of the Civil War. Relevant to recent comics that represent the period, we might reiterate a few of the basics: the Civil War (1936 to 1939) had started with a partially successful military coup, which sought to overthrow the legitimately elected Republican government. In several regions, Loyalist (or Republican) resistance against the rising power of Nationalists under Franco led to the conflict lasting three years. There was prolonged and excruciating violence on both sides, and in the end, at least 500,000 people died in the war. It pitted neighbors and families against one another. Technically a Civil War, this was also an intensely international conflict in a number of ways: though no other nations officially entered the war, German forces used it to rehearse the blitzkrieg tactics they would employ in World War II; the war sent hundreds of thousands of citizens into exile; some ten thousand Spaniards were condemned to Nazi concentration camps. Many historians also see the Civil War as a prelude to the fight against fascism that was World War II. Politically, the subsequent Francoist dictatorship promoted National-Catholicism and Falangism, the latter being the Spanish version of authoritarian fascist conservatism. In the early dictatorship, because of economic isolationism and political and social repression, for many the postwar period meant near-starvation and desperation, and more than 200,000 more “political dissidents” were killed under this dictator. The comics that flourished in the postwar climate, in the words of novelist Juan Marsé, ‘contained the Falangist seed of the nightmares lived by the children’ in state-run orphanages.[3] They were, in this sense, part of a larger project whereby the dictatorship forced the homogenization of “national” culture. That said, the world of the postwar tebeo also included popular stories of long-past times and far-away places. Tebeos were an apparently escapist form of entertainment, and they were inexpensive, especially when readers shared and traded the pamphlets. The popularity of these comic books speaks to their mass appeal.

ENRIQUE: That is true, tebeos were definitely a cheap and mass-oriented medium aimed at children and reflecting the society that produced them. They often dealt with escapist adventures in far-away places, but also with humor (both slapstick and daily life), and I think it is one of the most developed genres in Spanish comics, even today.

Regarding the Spanish Civil War, at the time it was followed internationally with much interest and it is still one of the conflicts with the largest amounts of bibliography in 20th century Europe. In Spain, the transition to democracy in 1975 did not mean a clear rupture with the dictatorship. It was a very tense and politically unstable period, and conservative forces still had a large influence, as was shown by the 1981 failed coup d’état. This explains why the removal of Francoist symbols and monuments is still controversial and incomplete today, why dozens of thousands of Republicans are still buried in shallow graves, and why some Neofrancoist and revisionist theories (such as the popular works by Pío Moa and César Vidal) increased their presence during the Partido Popular’s years in power (1996-2004). These conservative theses have tried to slander the second Republic and equate vencedores with vencidos (winners and losers). They have presented the Civil War as a collective madness between brothers (ignoring its socioeconomic origins), disregarding the illegitimate nature of the coup and the following dictatorship’s repressiveness and, in more extreme cases, vindicating again the figure of Franco as the peacemaker who saved Spain from communism.

However, Spain was slowly changing socially and culturally in the 70s (even before the Transition), and this was reflected in comics as well with the boom of adult comics and the publication of many new magazines. In this context Carlos Giménez started his series Paracuellos (Paracuellos) [4] in 1975, based on his memories in one of the state-run orphanages (called Hogares de Auxilio Social and inspired by the German Winterhilfe) you mentioned before. It is interesting that this comic strip did not work very well in the beginning. As the author said in an interview, at that time ‘they wanted things with jokes and a lot of tits.’ But in the end he finished six volumes and the ultimate edition, Todo Paracuellos (Paracuellos: Complete Edition) (2007), has become an inspiring work and almost, I would say, a Spanish comic classic.[5]

SARAH: I’m glad you say so. Todo Paracuellos is such a powerful and heartrending book. Written as a series of comic strips, Paracuellos is a compelling product of a post-dictatorship era. As you describe, understanding the timing of the strip’s origin is fundamental. Also important to know about its timing, the one-volume collection (Todo Paracuellos) came out in the very same year of the controversial passage of the Historical Memory Law, which, among other things, condemned Franco’s regime and mandated the removal of Francoist symbols in public places, recognized the rights of those who suffered during the Civil War, provided better benefits to families of victims of the dictatorship, and allowed occupation of land to identify mass graves. It also provided free access to many documents and files. The connection of this moment to Todo Paracuellos, at least for me, is in the shared practice of recovering and sharing stories of the losing side of the Civil War. Giménez talks about the importance of Paracuellos in telling his story, in leaving a trace. Clearly, he wanted to participate in the recovery of memory in his own way. From the beginning of the strip’s creation, he also named the year and place in which each strip takes place, locating these atrocities that seem almost unimaginable not in the realm of imagination, but squarely in the realm of history. I actually find the one-volume collection a bit overwhelming emotionally. There is a great deal of tenderness beneath the constant suffering represented, and I find it very hard to read more than a few strips at once.

Something else that’s interesting to me about Paracuellos is the striking contrast it delineates between the words and the images that interact in certain panels, for instance, the faces of sad children juxtaposed with the triumphant songs of the Falange (see an example here). You could say that in this way, it uses the most basic element of the language of comics to reveal the hypocrisy of the Falangist instructors of the Hogares de Auxilio Social. As if the stark representation of violence and indoctrination at any cost weren’t enough, the disparity between the triumphalist sermons and songs of the regime, and the physical treatment of the children, as well as the images of abandonment and isolation (for example, see images here), make clear the powerful critical stance of this book.

ENRIQUE: Yes, Giménez says in the introduction to his work that these hogares were ‘the logical monster conceived by a monstrous society.’[6] Paracuellos shows very well how children were indoctrinated in a military and religious way through violence, both psychological and physical. The old saying of “violence breeds violence” is well represented in Giménez’s work from the beginning of the first volume, which depicts one child (who has been given power to guard the school) forcing an inmate to hit another one and vice versa (see page here).

I also find Paracuellos hard to read sometimes. All the stories show an oppressive atmosphere and their style is overly emotional and quite expressionistic. It might seem excessive to some readers at first sight, but I think that precisely there lies its strength and power. I think it was the French master Marcel Gotlib (who published in Fluide Glacial) who admired Giménez for the way he draws the eyes of his characters. And this is no coincidence, as I find many similarities between their styles, both caricatural and exaggerated. Even if there are some buildings which appear from time to time (especially at the beginning and end of the stories, as a frame), the stories are mostly conducted through expressive close-ups of faces and children in the foreground. They are profoundly human. Giménez, as you said, really wanted to leave a trace and preserve those stories. He said that ‘there might be documents describing what the schools were like but not how people lived there.’[7] Through memory, he focuses on victims and their perspectives. In this sense, he jokes with the fact that he “invented” historical memory many years before it became a fashionable term.

The so-called Historical Memory Law of 2007 was very difficult to pass and, in the end, was considered insufficient by many victims’ associations and outrageous by the Spanish political right wing. It did promote the acknowledgement and rights to victims both from the Civil War and the dictatorship, but compliance was not compulsory, and nowadays, under the Partido Popular, it has seen its budget cancelled. However, during the last decade there was a renewed interest in recovering stories from the Civil War and, since then and for the first time, the medium of comics has been actively participating. Many interesting works have been published and an interesting fact is that in most of them (including Paracuellos) there is a prologue or epilogue by another author pointing out the importance of the act of remembering.

SARAH: Absolutely. It is striking that, of the eight books to win the Spanish National Comics Prize since its inception, four focus directly on the Civil War and/or memory. But before we turn to this recent group, I wanted to mention another earlier and relevant work: Un largo silencio (A long silence) (1997) by Miguel Ángel Gallardo and his father, Francisco Gallardo Sarmiento. Gallardo told me that this book was misunderstood at its moment of publication, partly because of its unusual format for a comic. Nonetheless, the book was important to Gallardo personally, because it is his father’s story. His father’s generation, the generation that had lived through the war, was dying, and it would be impossible to recover their stories later. This book is, effectively, the linear testimony of one man, primarily related in text meant to look like that of an old typewriter, and it only uses illustration to represent its most dramatic moments. I would call it, along with Paracuellos, a harbinger of a current trend in Spanish comics of the Civil War.

ENRIQUE: Un largo silencio (the title, A long silence, is indicative of many Republicans whose stories remained silent for many decades) is an interesting work which combines, as you said, the written autobiography of Gallardo’s father, a defeated Republican officer, and some comic pages written by Gallardo himself. It did not get much attention when it was published in 1997, but since then it has been republished. In my opinion, the most striking feature of the book is the fact that Gallardo’s father is not presented as a hero, but rather as a common man who comments on daily life aspects and is terrified by the war and what he sees. As Gallardo says in the beginning, his father is a hero, but ‘not like those in the films, nor one from the cheap novels he kept in the second drawer of his desk, in his office. His great achievement was surviving. Surviving to fall in love with my mother, so that my brother and I could be here, surviving to make friends, read, laugh…’[8] What Gallardo does is just ‘lend him a voice.’ As did many others, he felt that it was worth preserving these stories. His father died some years later, but his story is encapsulated in the book.[9] I look forward to talking more about generational dynamics when we resume this discussion.

In this first part of our conversation, we have introduced how comics have evolved in Spain from a medium aimed at children to its current context, where comics seem to be appreciated by bigger audiences and, little by little, are also reaching cultural and academic status. We have also noted, however, some problems of the industry, namely the high number of talented authors that can still not be absorbed today by the small industry.

One of Spain’s main historical events in the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War, has become a topic of interest for comic artists. Some of the earlier titles, Paracuellos and Un largo silencio, were innovative at their time of publication, and they advanced and influenced many comics about memory and the Spanish Civil War that came later. We will discuss some of these more recent works in the second part of this conversation, together with their pedagogical implication and some reflections on comics’ resources to portray memories and trauma.

Click here to read part 2 of this conversation.

Dr Sarah D. Harris has been a member of the language faculty at Vermont’s Bennington College since 2009. She is a scholar of narratives of trauma, testimony, remembering, and forgetting in contemporary Spanish fiction, with additional research interests including sequential art, monstrosity, twentieth and twenty-first century Peninsular film, collective memory, literature of migration, autobiography and memoir, and gender and identity studies. She was a visiting researcher in Spanish Literature at the Universidad de Oviedo in 2014, as well as a member of the jury for the 2014 Butze-Vargas Prizes for Mexican Comics. She has published academic articles on the works of Juan Marsé, Carmen Martín Gaite, Miguel de Cervantes, Juan Goytisolo, Francisco de Goya, and Manuel Gago García, among others. After earning an MA in Spanish and a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Los Angeles, Sarah was the 2008 recipient of the José Monleón post-doctoral fellowship for research and teaching.

Enrique del Rey Cabero studied Spanish and English Filología (Literature and Linguistics) at the University of Salamanca and later completed a Masters Degree in Spanish as a foreign language (UIMP) and Master’s Degree in Literary Research (UNED). He is currently enrolled in a PhD program (Universidad de Granada) exploring the traditional reading protocols and formats of graphic narratives and their fragmentation. Enrique has been working as a Spanish lecturer at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia) since 2012. He has done some research on Comics, Spanish as a Foreign Language, Hispanic Literature and the relationships between Music and Literature, particularly on collective memory of the Spanish Civil War, comics in language teaching, contemporary Spanish comics and the work of Gerardo Diego and Gonzalo Rojas. He is the News Reviews correspondent for Spain in Comics Forum since last year.

[1] In this conversation, comics under discussion will always be named by their Spanish title, and in the first mention, also by a translation. If the name of a publisher is also indicated, translations have been published in English. Otherwise, translations of titles into English are ours.

[2] Roca says, for example, “I think that all the time there are fewer people who consider comics a minor medium. And although we have more and more readers, we are still far from France, for example. The quantity of readers is what makes an industry strong, and more able to pay its authors well” (“Creo que cada vez hay menos gente que considera que el cómic es un medio de expresión menor. Y aunque cada vez tenemos más lectores, aún estamos lejos de lo que es Francia, por ejemplo. La cantidad de lectores es lo que hace que una industria sea fuerte y pueda pagar mejor a sus autores.”) at

[3] Carlos Giménez, Todo Paracuellos, (Barcelona: Debolsillo, 2007), 1. This and other translations from Spanish are ours.

[4] Paracuellos del Jarama is the complete name of a place close to Madrid where the action of the series take place.

[5] While editing this article, it has been announced that IDW will soon publish an edition of Paracuellos in English.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Miguel Ángel Gallardo & Francisco Gallardo, Un largo silencio, p. 6. Alicante: Ediciones de Ponent, 1997.

[9] The book-release in 1997, with the emotional presence of both father and son, can still be seen here:

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Posted by on 2015/04/27 in Guest Writers


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The Bi-Monthly ComFor Update for April 2015 by Stephan Packard

As German universities are about to return for their summer semesters, I find that the previous seasons of comics research in Germany hardly seem to apply any longer; an onslaught of publications, conferences, and exhibitions seems to continue throughout the year. Giving an overview of all of them no longer appears feasible, but here are some of those that kept us busy during the last two months, with apologies to anyone whose projects I might have missed. Do let me know.

We’re currently gearing up for the workshop on The Mediality and Materiality of Contemporary Comics at Tuebingen between April 24th and 26th. This second workshop of the AG Comicforschung, the panel for comics research, of the German Society for Media Studies (Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft) will be organised by Jan-Noël Thon and Lukas Wilde. The program boasts keynotes by Daniel Stein, Karin Kukkonen, Ian Hague, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and AG founder Véronique Sina, and will combine these with shorter paper presentations on topics ranging from the treatment of history in comics to analyses of individual comics by Warren Ellis, John Byrne, Scott McCloud, Brian Fies, and several others.

Meanwhile, the Call for Papers for ComFor’s Annual Conference has been published. Under the auspices of Bernd Dolle-Weinkauff, the tenth conference (!) will tackle issues of History in Comics as well as the History of Comics from September 4th to 6th at Frankfurt University. Papers on the conference subject as well as contributions to the open workshop format are welcome in German as well as English; the deadline for submissions is May 15th. If you’re looking to discuss comics histories and historiographies in an international crowd and with an added opportunity to see a wide selection of German comics research, please do come along.

ComFor’s tenth anniversary is also marked by its first panel at Munich’s Comic Festival (June 4th to 7th) with its typically varied and rich program. Dedicated to an overview on the State of German Comics Studies, it will feature a discussion among Bernd Dolle-Weinkauff (Forschungsstelle Kinder- / Jugendbuchforschung, Universität Frankfurt); Astrid Böger (Arbeitsstelle für Graphische Literatur, Universität Hamburg); Andreas Rauscher (AG Comicforschung der Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft); Janina Wildfeuer (Comiclinguistik, Universität Bremen); Joachim Trinkwitz (Bonner Online-Bibliographie für Comicforschung); Burkhard Ihme (ICOM and Comic-Jahrbuch); and myself. Marie Schröer will chair.

But of course, the Comic Festival goes way beyond our little panel. Well over 20 international and 30 German comics artists will be attending, and research as well as fan panels and several vernissages beckon. See the link above for the most recent news on the ever-growing program.

Meanwhile, several recent and upcoming events are keeping us going during the spring. Not least, concurrent to the Munich Comic Festival, Horst Berner’s exhibition Die Beatles im Comic promises several well-selected pieces, among them originals by Arne Bellstorf. David Schraven’s and Jan Feindt’s critical comic on right-wing terrorism, Weisse Wölfe, will be presented at a vernissage and subsequent exhibition starting April 15th at the Schauspielhaus in Dortmund. Journalist Brigitte Helbling and artist Sarah Burrini are offering insight into “Graphic Novels in Print and Web” at Stuttgart’s city library on April 14th. And also in mid-April, Berlin’s comic festival Comic-Invasion (April 18th/19th) will include an accompanying program with a huge variety of readings, lectures, panels, and exhibitions. An exhibition on Belgian Independent Comics has already opened at Peter Weiss Haus in Rostock and will continue to be available until April 19th; another on the work of Ralf König, titled Rotznasen, will continue until May 17th at Caricatura in Kassel. The last of three readings by König on May 6th is still upcoming. On May 23rd, the exhibition on Manfred Schmidt’s Nick Knatterton comics previously shown at Saarlouis will move on to Bamberg, where it will stay until August 16th.

Keeping track of new publications on comics studies has become a challenge of its own. ComFor’s Publication Monitor does its best to keep up and has published two instalments recently on the previous year as well as the first months of this year. While Comics Forum readers will know about most of the international publications mentioned, they might be interested to learn about some of the German projects: Florian Trabert’s, Mara Stuhlfauth-Trabert’s and Johannes Waßmer’s Graphisches Erzählen promises a collection of “new perspectives on literature comics”, meaning adaptations of literary texts in comic format. Jörn Ahrens’, Frank T. Brinkmann’s and Nathanael Riemer’s edited volume on Comics – Bilder, Stories und Sequenzen in religiösen Deutungskulturen presents overviews and analyses on religious graphical naratives, as well as their and other comics’ religious interpretations. Meanwhile, Stefan Maier’s monography on Superman transmedial considers the existence of the character, figure, and body image across media.

Let me also point out that the paperback edition of Daniel Stein’s and Jan-Noël Thon’s much-celebrated volume From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative has finally arrived, giving a wide and – in this columnist’s opinion – excellent and exhaustive panorama of current narratological approaches to comics studies.

ComFor was proud to publish Daniel Stein’s conversation with American cartoonist Keith Knight (in English), creator of The K Chronicles, (Th)ink, and The Knight Life, “About Comics and Police Brutality”. Daniel Stein is Professor for North American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Siegen and a member of ComFor. They discuss both the stereotypes and the resistant powers of comics art, and go on to distinguish the different attitudes of divergent genres, such as autobiographical comic strips as opposed to single-panel political cartoons. The thought-provoking interview concludes on an elaborate description of needs but also hopes for change.

March also saw the publication of Comic Solidarity’s Webcomics im Fokus I (in German), which documents the talks, discussions, readings, and presentations given on webcomics at the Comic Salon in Erlangen in 2014. Comic Solidarity, founded in 2013, represents web artists working on comics. The most recent publication was edited by ComFor-member (and contributor to this column) Lukas Wilde; its entries range from questioning a specific aesthetics of webcomics, through photo comics and distinctions between comics and journalism online, to spotlights on ten selected webcomics. It also includes a documentation of the roundtable discussion that centred the talks at Erlangen.

In closing, I would like to draw readers’ attention to the project Visual History. At home at Potsdam’s Zentrum für zeithistorische Forschung, the network of researchers aims to bring together various methods and disciplines working on historical studies into pictorial media. The rich and growing online resource has recently added an elaborate article by Christine Gundermann on Comics as a Historical Source (in German).

Beyond that, there are no closing remarks; work continues, and I have no doubt that the next column will be at least as full as this one.

Stephan Packard is Junior Professor for Media Culture Studies at Freiburg University; previously, he was Assistant Professor for Comparative Literature in Munich. Interests focus on semiotic and psychoanalytic research into new and traditional media; the semiotics of affect; censorship and other forms of media control; as well as comics studies. He is President of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor), on the editorial board of the journal Medienobservationen, and chief editor of the open access journal Mediale Kontrolle unter Beobachtung on censorship and media control. – Anatomie des Comics. Psychosemiotische Medienanalyse (Göttingen 2006); Poetische Gerechtigkeit (ed. with Donat/Lüdeke/Richter, Düsseldorf 2012); Abschied von 9/11 (ed. with Hennigfeld, Berlin 2013); Thinking – Resisting – Reading the Political (Berlin 2013, ed. with Esch-van Kan/Schulte); Comics & Politics (Berlin 2013, ed.).

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Posted by on 2015/04/23 in ComFor Updates


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