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.