Eduardo Del Rio is a legendary Mexican cartoonist who has been publishing books, comics and press cartoons for over fifty years. His professional trajectory is unique in that he has concentrated his efforts on non-fiction works, specifically educational comic books. This tendency begins to manifest in the 1960s with his two seminal comic books Los Agachados (the stooped ones) and later, Los Supermachos (the super machos). Both these comic books are set in fictional Mexican villages and use stock characters to explain the political and economic reality of life. Apart from a political conscience-raising, he used these comic-books to promote vegetarianism, Buddhism, family planning and the joys of stamp collecting.
Rius is perhaps the first cartoonist to seriously consider the balance needed in order to make educational comics work, to include enough action, rounded characters and humour to draw in readers and keep them turning the pages. He is credited with helping to educate a whole generation of Mexicans as they followed the adventures of the laid-back electric-blanket wearing Indian Calzonzin and his tussles with the village PRI party boss, Don Perpetuo Del Rosal.
The context of Mexican political realities and a comic book industry that saw itself as a part of the entertainment industry, made Rius’s comics unique. As a trenchant critic of the government (from a radical left-wing position), he often faced official displeasure and harassment. At one point, he was even kidnapped by the Mexican secret police.
Cuba For Beginners (Cuba Para Principiantes) is an attempt to counter the anti-revolutionary propaganda that arose after the triumph of the Castro regime. Both the US and the Mexican media took a hostile view of the Revolution. Rius’s book does an excellent job of explaining the long view of Cuban history and the reasons why the Revolution occurred, the positive aspects of the regime change and to remind the Mexicans that they too had needed a Revolution to establish their sovereignty. The book became a best-seller, and together with another Rius book ‘Marxism For Beginners’ (a primer on Marxist theory), were translated into many languages and became international best-sellers.
And these two books also gave rise to the publishing phenomenon of For Beginners books. Naturally the world’s publishers simply ripped off the format (because international copyright law only applies to American comics. Funny that…). Today you can find these ‘For beginners’ type comics in bookshops all over the world. Rius, therefore, has had a major role to play in educational publishing. In style, nearly all these books ape the Rius formula. The images are complemented with cut-outs (like Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cut and paste animations) and take an ingenue through the subject tackled in a step-by-step fashion, breaking off at least once per page for a joke. Rius avoids the over-worded talking-heads format of many of his less deft imitators, because, well, the guy’s a genius and most other ‘for beginners’ books are just cheap knock-offs.
Cuba For Beginners, however, remains a joy. Not only a great introduction to the Cuban Revolution but also Cuban history as a whole. Later (1990s) Rius published a further volume criticizing the Castro Revolution and how it had betrayed its own ideals.
Rius still publishes uncompromising books that irritate the powers that be. His recent books have included critiques of Bullfighting, the Bible and an alternative history of Comic Books. Given his penchant for contrariness, his is a profoundly democratic standpoint.
The best illustration of this was the decision by Rius and his fellow cartoonists to suspend the publishing of the satirical magazine, El Chamuco in the year 2000. The reason? The left-wing cartoonists decided that the fall of the PRI government in that year’s election (after over 60 years in power), required that some breathing-space be given to the new government to help smooth the transition to democracy. They did this even though the new president (Fox Quezada) was from the right-wing PAN party, and the fact that El Chamuco was, at the time, the most influential satire magazine in the country (the closure must have also cost them financially). Cartoonists have long memories and they remembered how the ‘free press’ had lambasted president Madero after the Revolution and how that criticism had contributed to justifying the Huertista coup d’etat. Probably the only episode in history where a part of the mass media has done something for the good of people other than themselves. Relax, Rupert, it would never happen here.