Comic Book Classics # 5
We’re going back in time for this one. It’s the mid Seventies and I’m still living in Spain. I’m about seven or eight. Mum and dad give me twenty five pesetas to spend every fortnight or so. Plenty of money. Root liquorice is a peseta for two sticks, a bag of salted sunflower seeds is twenty-five céntimos, a Chupa-Chups, the king among sweets (with the cachet of having its logo designed by Salvador Dali), five pesetas. If you saved your money, however, you could blow twenty pesetas on a comic: a Tio Vivo, Pumby, TBO, DDT or – my favourite – a SuperMortadelo.
The great thing about the SuperMortadelos, was the guarantee of a Mortadelo and Filemón story. They were far and away the most popular comic-book characters in Spain during the 60s and 70s and entertained an entire generation of kids with their peculiar brand of wit and storytelling.
Mortadelo and Filemón are two secret agents working in a Spanish city (obviously Barcelona, though this fact is not made explicit). Mortadelo is tall, thin, bald and wears thick glasses. He is named after a Mortadela sausage which he resembles. He is a master of disguise and can change into all kinds of surreal-looking costumes, swapping them from one panel to the next. His boss, the put-upon Filemón, has two hairs growing out of the top of his head. Together they go on missions as required by their boss; El Superintendente Vicente (Vincent the Superintendent) and are often helped – or more likely hindered – by the inventions of their resident mad scientist, the bearded Profesor Bacterio (Professor Bacteria).
The two agents of the covert T.I.A. (an acronym which brings to mind the C.I.A. and reads as “aunt” in Spanish – as a spoof on the US TV series The Man From Uncle), go on missions to capture criminals, uncover plots and recover lost secrets. They usually fail – in spectacular fashion.
The humour is largely based good-natured slapstick. Unlike the US or UK comics (and their absurd rules regarding children’s comic-books), there is a liberal use of bombs, guns, dynamite, swords, spears, halberds, axes, knives, maces and other weapons to bash opponents (and each other) with gusto. Animals feature widely and are bashed about as much as the humans. Another element of the fun is the spoofing of Spy thrillers. Their one piece of high-tech spy gear is the ludicrous shoe-phone (the zapatófono), which rings – loudly – whenever they’re trying to tiptoe over a sleeping guard dog.
Many of the better stories were collected into BD-style albums. My particular favourite as a kid was Safari Callejero (Street Safari). The story is typically insane. A burglar breaks into Bacterio’s lab and releases ten lab animals that had been fed a particular experimental serum. These animals, when released, go on to rampage through the city. There is an elephant who can’t stop sneezing, a camel that’s always thirsty (and drinks swimming pools dry), a vampire bat that drinks only wine and a dog that’s become a master criminal. Mortadelo and Filemón are sent to retrieve these animals and stop them spreading chaos.
The artist, Francisco Ibañez Talavera (1936 – ), is a Spanish national treasure. Despite being influenced by other artists (most obviously Franquin), his style is unique. It involves the drawing of a lot of detail in places other artists gloss over. His hands all have four fingers (unlike the US convention of just three) with gnarled, swollen knuckles too. His depiction of animals (particularly elephants) is another delight. Apart from Mortadelo, his other classic strips include 13 Rue del Percebe (first appearing in 1961), Rompetechos (1964) and Pepe Gotera y Otilio (1966).
But Mortadelo is still Ibañez’s masterpiece. He is still writing the thing over fifty years after it first appeared. In that time it has covered major sporting events, become increasingly satirical (after the death of Franco) and has been adapted to film (Spain’s best ever box office receipts for a national film. Eat your heart out, Almodovar!). So, if ever I fancy a trip down memory lane, I get out the liquorice root and open my dog-eared 1975 copy of Safari Callejero and dive straight in. Sometimes I can even fool myself into believing the sun outside is shining…
Posted on April 6, 2010, in Comic Book Classics and tagged Chupa Chups, Filemon, floppybootstomp compress, Francisco Ibanez, Mortadelo, mortadelo y filemon, Pepe Gotera y Otilio, rompetechos, Spanish comics, SuperMortadelo, Tebeos. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.