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

29 Apr

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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