Monthly Archives: April 2012

Comic Book Classics #23




Argentina’s (and Latin America’s) most popular cartoon strip of all time began its life as an advertising campaign for refrigerators. American manufacturer Mansfield commissioned the cartoonist Joaquin Salvador Lavado (Quino) to come up with a weekly strip to promote their goods in the press. One requirement they made on the artist was that the main character’s name should begin with the letter ‘M’.


Quino’s response was a strip inspired by Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ (that lasted a lot longer than the Mansfield brand!), revolving around the the lives and travails of a gang of children. The difference between both strips, however, are perhaps more telling. Where Snoopy, Charlie Brown and his bunch live in a world formed by their own psychological foibles and devoid of clearly identified adults, Mafalda (1962-1973) lives in a world where the real world does impinge. And Mafalda herself despairs about the state of the modern world.


Mafalda is also a girl. A bad tempered, opinionated, backchatting idealist who hates soup and injustice with the same venom. Mafalda has a baby brother (Guille) and a father who works in an insurance office and a mother who (to her daughter’s dismay) stays at home to look after the kids. Her friends encapsulate various stock characters from the Buenos Aires middle class. Susanita is a typical bourgeois snob, Manolito is the son of Spanish (Galician) grocer, Libertad the child of leftist intellectuals and Felipe the son of an engineer. The last member of the gang, Miguelito, has Italian grandparents who are fans of Mussolini. These characters are, however, so well developed as individuals and the humour is so acute.


The strip commented on all manner of issues both domestic and foreign, from the popularity of the Beatles and hippy culture to the war in Viet Nam and social injustice at home. Quino’s portrayal of Argentina’s middle class is so telling that he has been described as ‘a sociologist who draws’. Sadly, the atmosphere for social criticism in Argentina became increasingly unpleasant as the 1950s and 60s wore on (Dictatorships predominated with only the short-lived democratic interludes of presidents Frondizi and Illia to break it up). Quino himself had to flee into exile in the 70s where cartoonists (including Enrique Brescia and Hector Oesterheld and their families) became the victims of military dictatorships. As Quino had said, if Mafalda had grown up, she would have been one of the disappeared.


But the main delight in reading a Mafalda strip is the strong vein of humour running through it. The kids are no mere cyphers but hold their own as little personalities and the world they create has been popular throughout the world. They are still incredibly popular in Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia where collections of the strips still sell well 40 years on. Truly one of the worlds most influential comic strips.





How To Win The BBC Short Story Prize

Hint: Don’t Write Genre 


The 20-45 year old female narrator gripped the steering wheel and gazed out at the road ahead. The car ate up the black asphalt and road markings as she sped to her destination. It was a destination of some significance to her and the trip allowed her to meditate on her life. Soon a Crisis Generating Event (CGE) would unfold, we’d be told she’s married to an astronaut or a root vegetable would crash through the windscreen or something. But before that, you have to ladle on the back-story.


This formula; female driver on road trip getting all wistful followed by a CGE/confrontation, is the sort of stuff the judges  liked last year. When I say formula, I don’t mean formula-formula like those awful genre stories – you know the ones I’m talking about; westerns, crime, scifi, horror, romance, chick-lit or vampires. No, I mean bona fide mimesis-enhanced formula that’s dead clever and reserved for proper literature. Oh, and have her glance at her mobile or waiting for a text message or something that gives the story a contemporary feel, you’ll lose brownie points if you don’t.


So anyway, your heroine is in a speeding car and something is about to happen. She glances in the rear view mirror or she changes gear. This allows a flashback. Because rear view mirrors mean looking back, shifting gears signal a change in perception. See? Clever stuff, this. So what bit of her past should your female character think about? Her best friend at school? The day she stubbed her toe while making a sandwich? That awkward moment at John Lewis’s, wondering which set of coasters to buy her mum for her birthday? Nope, it’s the man in her life, that’s what she thinks about in her little flashback. That’s what the judges looked for.


And what a total wanker he is (was). What did our plucky protagonist ever see in him? OK, so at first she was wowed by his worldly charm (make sure he’s way older than her, of course), but then there is a cutaway to dialogue… she asks a heartfelt question, his answer is clipped and evasive. Uh-ho, trouble at t’ mill I’ll wager…


But don’t reveal all his terrible faults just yet, because it’s time for your CGE to happen. Put it in now. Crisis ensues, a turning point that mirrors her conflict with the man in her life. Feel free to mix and allude at will here, but make sure the ending gives no hint of resolution or (god forbid) a twist at the end or a punchline.( i.e. The narrator looked sniffily as the heat of the bonfire warmed her face. The journey had come to an end in one sense, but in another it hadn’t at all. Wednesday’s washing wouldn’t be ready until Thursday, she thought. The End).


And there you have it, a guaranteed winner. Of course the judges might decide to change the formula they want without telling you. Those bastards often do. Maybe the vogue will be for a middle class businessman who loses everything when he suddenly realizes he’s been dead for years (metaphorically as well as physically), another year it will be a harassed junior school teacher musing about a Pupil With Problems and comparing their own issues (see ‘man in her life’ above) to the hints and allusions to child abuse hanging over the poor ickle PWP.


So you never know what the judges will chose to favour next. It won’t be genre, that’s for sure, but whatever it is it will be dead clever, proper literature and it will signal a rebirth of the short story form as serious fucking shit. Or not.


Good luck with all your entries.


Easter Reflection


When Christianity Met African Possession Cults …


Our Easter story begins in days of the North American colonies. Not in the north, where the pilgrim fathers were busy developing their methods for ethnically cleansing the Native Americans, but in the slave plantations of the deep south. The slave-ships that carried their human cargo to Virginia, Carolina, Georgia and other southern states also brought with them the culture, language and religions practiced in Africa. Today, versions of these African religions still survive in the hinterlands of the former slave colonies. In Haiti they are known popularly as Vudon or Voodoo, in Brazil as Candomblé and in Mexico and Cuba as Santería. Despite their differences, these religions observe similar practices and rituals. They are known by anthropologists as “possession cults”, because their Gods can be enticed to descend into the world of men where they will temporarily possess the body of a host. Speaking in the language of the Gods, they will cure the sick, cast out evil and demonic presences and communicate their pleasure or displeasure to the faithful. In order to entice the Gods to descend, elaborate services are held. Dancing and singing are used to put the faithful in a trance-like state so that the spirit of the Loas (Gods) can enter them. Predictably, the Christian slave masters tried to wipe out these alien practices and attempted to convert them to the “One True Faith”.


American seventeenth and eighteenth Century Christians were serious people. Either puritan-inspired protestants committed to hard work, sobriety and Bible study or Catholics devoted to ritual and pageantry. I simplify, but only to emphasize the very real differences that existed between the religions of the slaves and the Christianity of the slave owners. No Christian would have tolerated spontaneous dancing or shouting in God’s house. They would have viewed the possession of a human being by God as sacrilegious or just plain demonic. On the contrary, Christians did their best to wipe out the beliefs of their captives. One of the key measures undertaken to justify the slave-trade was the conversion of the slaves to Christianity. Mass conversions and baptisms were a key feature of plantation life. The tactic worked. Most slaves converted and even the die-hard possession cultists gave their Loas new “Christian” names such as Sante Agatée (Saint Agatha) to replace their old African ones. In this sense, Christianity has triumphed over African religion, banishing it to a few ever-shrinking redoubts. Apart from the odd New Orleans witch-doctor, little more these days than a tourist attraction, African religions have vanished from American soil. Today the sacrifice of Haitian pigs and black cockerels are to be found mainly in the plots of horror story writers.


This is not, however, the whole story. Scratch beneath the surface of things and you find that America is now a Voodoo nation. Its religion is permeated with the language and practices of the possession cults they once tried to obliterate. Look again at any evangelical church service: The Holy Spirit can be enticed to descend into the world of men where it will temporarily possess the body of a host (usually the pastor or preacher). Speaking in tongues (the language of God), they will cure the sick, cast out evil and demonic presences and communicate their pleasure or displeasure to the faithful. In order to entice Jesus to descend, elaborate services are held. Dancing and singing are used to put the faithful in a trance-like state so that the spirit of God can enter them.


No eighteenth century Christian would recognize what goes on in these Evangelical services as anything other than Voodoo. This sea-change in religious practice has also had a profound ideological effect. Unlike Christians, believers in possession cults were always able to petition their Gods for material help; to become rich, get a better job, to cure a painful bunion and so on. Evangelical Christians have done away with that distinction. The asceticism and mistrust of wealth and money that was a feature of Christian rhetoric has waned and Evangelical preachers now claim that Jesus can make you rich in this life as well as the next. Mega-Churches, supposedly dedicated to the Jesus who only ever used violence to kick merchants out of the temple, now have branches of Starbucks and MacDonald’s within them. In essence, these all-singing, all-dancing Christians are Voodoo children at heart.



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