Mique Beltrán, cover drawn specially for an anthology edition of the comics magazine Cairo. It’s worth noting from a history-of-Spanish-comics perspective that the umbrella Cleopatra (the blonde) is wielding is drawn exactly like the umbrella carried by Doña Urraca, one of the earliest successful ongoing characters for the Bruguera comics publisher in the 1940s (her creator, who signed his work Jorge, is the father of the globally popular noir comics artist Jordi Bernet).
Beltrán, like Cairo more generally, was keen to forge aesthetic links between classic Spanish comics and classic US and Franco-Belgian comics, which had had a head start in critical appreciation in the 1980s. You can see Eisner, Hergé, Franquin, Kirby, Barks, Toth, Jijé, and Kelly here — not to mention perhaps most crucially Chaland — but his debt to the sophisticated design and pacing of classic Bruguera cartoonists like Jorge, Cifré, Figueras, Vázquez, Martz-Schmidt, Ibáñez, and Jan is also very real.
I guess this is the point where I talk about racial depiction in European comics.
The image above is Spanish cartoonist Mique Beltrán’s Cleopatra, a 1980s slapstick parody of adventure comics from the 1930s through the 1970s, and one of my favorite recent discoveries in my latest trawl through the less popular waters of European comics history. Beltrán’s stylistic lineage is clear: the precise delineation of Hergé set down with the near-grotesque verve of the undergrounds (her mouth; her waist) and top-spun with the overt cartooniness of E. C. Segar and the Fleischer cartoons; the slapdash elegance of his line also brings to mind Alex Toth, Dick Briefer’s humorous Frankenstein, and Yves Chaland at his most expressive. All in all, it’s gorgeous to look at — and it’s hilarious in a way comics only infrequently are, with expertly paced jokes and callbacks and references that don’t always translate across languages, but I’d be willing to give it a shot.
Except you may have noticed all the Asian and African place names on that signpost; yep, Cleopatra’s adventures, following European and US adventure-story formula, all take place in “exotic” lands, with a backdrop of “mystery” and “romance.” (Think Indiana Jones, but without actors and extras and stuntmen of color getting paid.)
This, for example, is how Beltrán portrays Chinese people (I’ve hosted these offsite so that nobody on the dashboard has to see them without specifically clicking on them. TW racism.):
And Indian people:
And black people:
(Apologies to everyone on the front-facing blog. Tumblr doesn’t let me hide the images there.)
Obviously, this stuff is a dealbreaker. (The “it’s parodying old racist comics” argument doesn’t remotely fly here, and is no excuse in any case.) I won’t be translating it or, if it does happen to show up in English, buying it. If I wanted to buy it in Spanish, it would have to be secondhand; it’s out of print, which is a shame from a cartooning-history standpoint and completely deserved from the far more important standpoint of not treating most of the people in the world like shit.
And this isn’t even close to the most egregious stuff there’s been in European comics, which can sometimes feel — especially between 1970 and 2000, and especially in “underground” or “adult” oriented material, although comics aimed at kids are by no means exempt — like a competition to be the grossest about race. And even though things have gotten better in a lot of areas, in the past decade, the growth area of gross caricature has of course been Muslim. You wouldn’t think it could get much worse than the beloved Arabian-Nights strip Iznogoud, a 60s and 70s contemporary of Astérix, but oh man it can.
I don’t have a conclusion. I’ve just been marinating in French and Belgian and Spanish and Dutch and Italian and Argentine comics for the past month and I guess I needed to say something to remind myself, if nobody else, that this shit is unacceptable.
Those who have followed my Mique Beltrán fixation over the past few months might be interested to see this early page from underground comics-and-rock magazine Star. His line hasn’t been pared down to a graceful swoop yet, and his composition is still underground-style cluttered; but I can see hints of his eventual mastery of shape, and it’s already relatively stylish for its milieu and, uh content.