Comic Book Classics — 22
Carlos Gimenez – Paracuellos
Graphic novels and comic books have, ever since Will Eisner’s day, told personal stories; true tales of suffering, survival and hidden (or forgotten) histories. Paracuellos by Carlos Gimenez is Spain’s best example. It tells of the author’s own experience in a Spanish children’s home in the 1940s and 50s, during the early years of the Franco regime.
Gimenez himself learned his craft on the treadmill of Spain’s comic book industry: mass producing quality artwork at a speed that others in Europe have been unable to match. He published many kinds of titles; Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical… he’s even produced the storyboards for Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Devils Backbone. Paracuellos is, however, very much a solo project, a story the author felt driven to tell.
The orphans of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the children of those on the losing side, the huge numbers of the poor and destitute were dumped in institutions like Paracuellos. Gimenez documents the cruelty, abuse, malevolence, contempt and disregard these children suffered at the hands of their fascist ‘carers’. He picks at wounds that he can’t heal; how the rich charity ladies, Catholic church, and the Francoist state did what comes naturally: turned on the poorest and weakest in society.
The comic book itself is inked in a style that complements the narrative perfectly. The cartoony style large heads of the boys a visual echo the malnourished state they lived in a lot of the time. The use of tight close-up framing adds to the sense of claustrophobia. These kids were locked in these institutions and at the mercy of their ‘carers’. Their powerlessness is expressed in the brittleness of their thin limbs and necks, the depiction of the cruelty of their gaolers (anyone who has ever experienced the treatment that nuns mete out to the poor, the sick or the weak would sooner be in jail – don’t let the wimple and false smiles fool you).
And so the books in the series chronicle a vicious and bitter coming of age. All the innocence and goodness in the boys is beaten or bullied out of them. They learn from their elders to be bullies, misogynists, racists and to be pitiless. Although some, the more heroic among them, stage their own small rebellions. Some even win small victories.
Among all this harrowing detail, however, there is still the warmth of nostalgia – for a childhood that has passed, for games, language, friends and experiences that shaped the author in later life. There is even a vein or two of humour and exuberance bubbling under the surface. It is Gimenez’s genius that he can transcend the anger and the wounds of history to deliver such a human book. It is, without doubt, one of my favourites.