Argentine graphic novels: “The author-reader relationship has changed, forcing us to check old theoretical formulas”

A CONICET researcher analyses the history of the illustrated narratives and the place they occupy in the Argentine’s ordinary life.

Laura Vazquez, who holds a PhD in Social Sciences and is an assistant researcher of CONICET at the Gino Germani Research Institute, studies comics and cartoons from a historical and cultural point of view. For her, this field, also known as illustrated narratives, is framed within a greater area of studies: visual and graphic arts and more generally, within the history of the media, art, Argentine and Latin-American culture.

Besides, the researcher is a scriptwriter and a graphic novel critic. In 2012, she published Fuera de Cuadro, a book that collects her monthly reviews of the Fierro magazine and other publications.

How was the beginning of the Argentine graphic novel?

It started in the early 20th century, as an import product following the style of comic and custom strips of the North American press. The local market began to develop in the twenties and that led to the rise of the golden age of Argentine comics in the forties. Thus, the productions of Quinterno, Columba or Civita became companies. These are pre-television times, with audiences that began to approach the theatre, the cinema, the radio or comics and that was part of an offer where entertainment and culture were not opposed options. We refer to a mass industry and a source of employment for thousands of cartoonists.

Which were the influences?

The cartoonists of the first decades did not develop an Argentine style, in most cases, they were Spanish and Italian immigrants that landed on our country and found a promising opportunity with graphic novel, cartoons and advertisement. Some of them, in different ways, introduced Argentine archetypes such as the figure of “el gaucho” or “el compadrito”, certain emblematic places of Buenos Aires or some custom idiomatic expressions. The stylistic form and technique of the cartoonists came from a method developed by the North American and English syndicates. In the 40´s, the figure of the graphic novel editor, with unique characteristics of the publishing and mass industry, appeared.

Has the market changed over the years?

Yes, it has. During the 60’s there was a downturn in sales due to different factors: mass access to television, economic and political crisis in Argentina, the decline of minimum wages, the cartoonists’ and scriptwriters’ exile and the arrival of foreign graphic novels. In the 70’s, when the graphic novel becomes a cultural product, it developed a complex relationship between art and market and thus remarkable publishing projects such as Satiricón (1972), Skorpio (1974), El Péndulo (1979), Humor Registrado (1978) and Fierro (1984) emerged.

Which were the consequences after the drop in sales?

The reduction of the print run is a significant phenomenon but not the only one. The editors developed strategies to keep the industry afloat. Essentially, they tried to transform that disposable magazine into a permanent product. During a stage of contraction of the market, distinctive features were incorporated such as the hardcover, the edition numbers and the collectible posters, deluxe editions, and the boxes to keep them. Some went beyond the newspaper store and started to be sold in book stores. Besides, the genre changed its identity and the name ‘graphic novel’ was coined appealing to literary circles.

How would you describe the market nowadays?

On the one hand, I would say that there is a limited but solid market. On the other hand, there is a current feature called fandom or environment, which experiences exponential growth. Nowadays, the number of people attending graphic novel events is surprising. We could refer to an extended limited field where cartoonists have several employment opportunities ranging from the cinema, advertising graphic, visual arts or design. Furthermore, critical assessment and author recognition have become crucial since they determine success or failure of a piece. The author-reader relationship has changed, forcing us to check old theoretical formulas.

How was the role of the cartoonist in the different periods of Argentina?

It has changed its regulations over the years. In the 30’s and the 50’s, to be a cartoonist was the opposite of being an artist. This art vs. market tension was an intrinsic quality of the media and, for some professionals it was a real affliction. There is one emblematic case that illustrates this issue and it involves Alberto Breccia. He had always thought the arts from an evolutionary point of view because he considered the graphic novel was the forerunner of painting but, at the same time, he despised the major arts circles. In his contradictions, he perfectly expressed the ambiguity and complexity of the media. It is important to take into account the fact that these cartoonists were labourers who were part of a fordist production line where the originals remained in the hands of the editors and intellectual property did not exist. In spite of all these limitations, graphic artists like Breccia broke the rules of the language and conventionality.

When did this change?

From the 60’s and 70’s on, cartoonists and scriptwriters began to assume themselves to be artists because the rules had changed completely. Currently, symbolic capital is as important as economic capital. Instead of selling one million copies, they sell a thousand, but the most important fact is engaged with other issues.

You have recently published your book Fuera de cuadro… How do you deal with being a researcher and working as a critic?

The book is a collection of my interventions in the Fierro magazine. It was a pleasure to write the Ojo al Cuadrito section and the reissue of that material allowed me to approach other audience. For me, research and critique go together and I address them with the same seriousness, or clumsiness. The difference lies in the register: in my critiques I consult sources and develop the narrative with experimentation and fluently. Furthermore, I am interested in working for different audiences and fields with detachment and freedom as if there were no last word.

Laura Vazquez is an assistant researcher of CONICET at the Gino Germani Research Institute (IIGG). She holds a PhD in Social Sciences and has a degree in Social Communication at the University of Buenos Aires.

Currently, she is an associate professor and holds the chair of “Historia de los medios Argentina y Latinoamericana” at the University of Moreno. Besides, she is the director of the Congreso Internacional Bienal sobre historieta y humor gráfico “Viñetas Serias” and coordinator of the area of illustrated narratives, a course of studies of Communication Sciences, FCS-UBA.
The book Fuera de cuadro, ideas sobre historieta was edited by Agua Negra in September 2012 as part of the Drawn Languages collection.
As a scriptwriter, Vazquez published Entreactos and Historias Corrientes, both edited in Spain.

The third edition of the Congreso Bienal Internacional sobre historieta y humor gráfico “Viñetas Serias” will be held on October 8th, 9th and 10th of 2014 at the Faculty of Social Sciences, . The event has two previous editions that took place at the National Library of Argentina and it aims to provide a productive space for exchange, critique and analysis. The first circular is available at the official site of the congress:

By Vanesa Sangoi.