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

27 Apr

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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