Wandering the buzzing streets of Madrid, you can’t believe your eyes at first, when you look up and spot the giant cartoon characters peering at you from behind the soaring columns outside the Cervantes Institute. It’s as if the whole front of the imposing building has been transformed into a bizarre landscape, inviting you to step inside. Panoptica 1973-2011, the exhibition within, has travelled here from Valencia and Mexico City and is scheduled next for a four-city tour of Brazil. It offers a stunning overview of nearly four decades of creativity by Max, pen-name of Francesc Capdevila, whose trajectory mirrors the shifts in the medium from clandestine counterculture to high-profile recognition.
Spain has its own vibrant history of comics, or ‘tebeos’, named after TBO, the founding children’s weekly launched in 1917 whose title plays on the phrase ‘te veo’ or ‘I see you’. Born in Barcelona in 1956, Max grew up absorbing both national and imported pop culture. Vivacious humourous tebeos by Ricardo Opisso, Josep Coll, Marino Benejam and other Spanish artists, alongside the animated films of Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz and Hanna-Barbara, became formative early influences, followed by his discovery of local chivalric hero, medieval knight-errant El Capitán Trueno, and translations of Tintin, Asterix and other Franco-Belgian hits. Here’s Max’s illustration of his bookshelf showing a range of his influences.
A radically different wave of Sixties imports would ignite a creative passion in the late teenage Max, in the form of three collections in Spanish of America’s radical, taboo-breaking underground comix. Though highly censored, their liberating messages helped at least to expand a more anti-authoritarian attitude to a country still suffering under the thumb of oppressive right-wing dictator General Franco. Robert Crumb’s work especially was a revelation to Max, startling him with the potency of adult comics to criticise the establishment and inspire free expression.
Max felt compelled to develop his own stories, highly detailed and infused with trippy psychedelia, and in 1973, barely seventeen, first contributed to Spain’s own burgeoning underground movement in the magazine El Rollo Enmascarado (‘The Masked Roll-Up’), sold illegally for 50 pesetas to passers-by strolling on the Ramblas. The brave creators and publishers of this and other truly subversive underground comics ran into troubles with the authorities for “infringing public morals”.
From these tough times emerged Gustavo as Max’s first recurring character (above), conceived in collaboration with Zap, alias Jaume Fargas. Max recalls, “We decided to create a character who reflected something that apparently nobody else in comics accepted, the combative and radical section of the scene, the provos, yippies, anarchists and, in general, all those who were always ready to put up a fight.” No peace-and-love hippy, Gustavo was an angry young man with long hair, a long nose and strong convictions, who appeared in the satirical publication Butifarra! and whose image was copied for numerous social and political protest causes.
Long-awaited liberty was in the air after Franco’s death in 1975 and three years later Spain had became a fully democratic country. By this time, while studying at art school, Max had abandoned any plans to pursue a career as a painter and committed himself to comics. A new uncompromising magazine was uniting the leading radical cartoonists of the Seventies and their now iconic characters, naturally including Max’s Gustavo. In December 1979, El Víbora burst onto the newsstands, published and edited by Josep Maria Berenguer. This great champion of adult comics in Spain sadly passed away recently (read Peter Bagge’s obituary). Berenguer promoted progressive, transgressive comics intended ‘solo para supervivientes’ - only for survivors or the ‘super-living’, those living life to the max. His magazine’s title means ‘The Viper’, but with the gender-bending twist of putting the masculine ‘El’ instead of ‘La’ before the feminine word ‘Víbora’. Its impact was huge, reshaping the Spanish comics landscape for 277 issues until January 2005.
Max worked closely on El Víbora every month for the first four years and recalls it as a decisive period in his development. “We were learning and also getting paid, which is a luxury. We learned by being published in a magazine alongside different authors: one month with Nazario, another with Gallardo, the next with Marti ... There was an undeniable resentment between us which was actually very healthy and motivating. I would think, ‘Damn, look at what he’s done, I can’t sleep!’ This was our ‘university’, really.”
In 1983, Max moved to Mallorca, his home to this day, and in a four-page story in a future-themed El Víbora special, he invented Peter Pank, a crazy, aggressive punk reincarnation of J.M. Barrie’s fantasy, with shades, safety pins and a massive Mohican. Out of this came Max’s first award-winning graphic novel, an anarchic adult parody of the fairytale with nods to Disney’s animated version and to Eighties youth tribes, mutating the Lost Boys into punks, Tinkerbell into a sexy vamp, and Captain Hook and his pirates into big-quiffed rockers. It was serialised in English in Knockabout Comics 10-13 before appearing as a graphic novel from Knockabout (UK) and Catalan Communications (USA). Max revived Peter Pank in El Víbora in 1986, transforming him into a werewolf in El Licantropunk, and in 1989, embroiling him in a topical satire of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in Pankdinista!
Others might have milked this hit further, but throughout his restless career Max would always experiment with fresh directions, from tales of Greek and Celtic mythology or children’s adventures for newspapers to the erotic series Femmes Fatales for the French market. But it’s often in his one-off shorter stories that Max makes his boldest innovations. One early breakthrough (see extract above) was his 1985 tale in which he invents an encounter in 1937 between Disney and horror-meister H.P. Lovecraft and the tantalising drawings from their make-believe collaboration: “They were the most amazing, beautiful, and terrible anyone has ever drawn. Have you the slightest idea of what kind of movie would have come out of this, if only Lovecraft had lived a few more months?”
Another landmark story is Nosotros Somos Los Muertos (‘We Are The Dead’), Max’s impassioned, rough-hewn protest against the Bosnian genocide, which led to both a series of anthologies, under the same title, of comics by the Spanish and international art-comics avant-garde, and to his haunting black-and-white graphic novel, The Extended Dream of Mr. D, translated by Drawn & Quarterly.
Constantly refining his permeable style, Max arrived at a new precision and simple elegance in Bardin, a balding, big-headed everyman, who crosses the frontier between our world and the ‘superreal’ world. Here he meets the Andalusian Dog, grouchy for being kicked off the set of the movie named after him, Buñuel’s first film in 1929 with fellow surrealist Salvador Dalí. As the dying “universal inheritor of and custodian of Superrealist powers”, the dog has chosen Bardin to bequeath them to. Bardin can use his expanded consciousness to commune with his inner demons and the entire physical and metaphysical universe, revealing the three cancers as crabs lurking in his body (see above), and the gods as they really are, one of them an arrogant, three-eyed Mickey Mouse.
Max is busy on his next graphic novel, Vapor, also in English from Fantagraphics (see a preparatory cover above). “The idea came after reading Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony. This saint was one of the first hermits to spend years alone in the desert looking for God, but finding instead temptations from the Devil. I knew this subject since my youth through wonderful paintings by Bosch, Brueghel, Grünewald and Velazquez, and through the Buñuel film, Simon del desierto. I thought, ‘How would this work nowadays, when no one believes in God or the Devil anymore?’ So I developed the story of a man named Nick who retreats to the wilderness, because he’s had enough of the Big Neverending Show of the contemporary world, to find some silence to settle his thoughts and find the meaning of life. But, instead, he finds all kinds of distractions. It starts like a funny tale with occasional mystical discussions, but towards the end, when Nick meets Vapor - someone who has gone through the same experience as him years before - it turns into a metaphysical horror story.”
Adapting his graphic approach to this pared-down parable, Max taps into the desert landscapes and philosophical play in Krazy Kat and Inside Moebius, and is especially inspired by the strange American newspaper strip The Wigglemuch by British-born Herbert E. Crowley (1873-1939). As for casting his gaunt protagonist, “Nick got a face after I saw Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis at a great concert two years ago.”
In one episode of Bardin, the Superrealist proclaims: “Wake up, O cartoonists, wake up from your Marvel-ous dreams! Cartooning is an act of virtue! Let us undermine the syntax of sense, the logic of profit! Drawing is an act of love, free, anonymous and automatic!! It’s an act of selflessness and purity! Even though no one needs them, even though no one buys them or reads them, even though no one asks us or thanks us… WE SHALL DRAW COMICS!!” It’s tempting to interpret this as the defiant credo behind Max’s own commitment to making his ever-evolving comics, just waiting for you to discover.
Posted: May 1, 2012
This Article was originally published in Comic Heroes magazine.