Review by Peter Duncan
A few months ago, I reviewed the first part of a series of books called Gentlemind, the non-genre story of a men’s magazine and the people involved with it. It was something of a revelation, with a fascinating and complex story dealing with the lives and loves of an artist and his muse as they weave through the high society of New York in the early 1940s.
Gentlemind broke new ground in the subject matter that comics deal with, and was one of the most visually stunning books I’ve seen in many years. I personally regard it as one of the finest comics I have ever read.
Now, co-writer Teresa Valero has seen the first book in her historical series, Contrapaso, published in English for the first time by Europe Comics.
Valero, who is responsible for both script and art on Contrapaso, is a Madrid-born comics artist and animator who has previously worked on various TV Series including Tintin and Rupert the Bear, before undertaking roles as a pre-production coordinator for animated versions of The Pink Panther, Barbar and the Asterix in America movie. The Children of Others is the first volume in an ambitious series, taking the recent history of Spain as its background.
The story opens in Madrid in 1956, in the offices of La Capital, one of the newspapers struggling under the censorship of the fascistic Franco regime. At the beginning, the book appears to be a simple murder mystery, as an experienced crime reporter investigates a story he will never be allowed to publish while taking a young reporter with a difficult past under his wing for training.
What emerges is a complex picture of post-civil war Spain, where fear and shame and division are still foremost in almost every character’s mind, and factored into every decision they take. It depicts a country that, on the surface, is a normal modern society but where censorship and the need to maintain the civilized façade makes every action one to be carefully considered for “how it looks” – rather than if it is the right thing to do.
As the reporters dig behind the carefully maintained artifice of propriety, into a world of cruelty and intolerance, they find scandals and hypocrisy, sadly familiar in many parts of the western world, over the treatment of unmarried mothers, mental patients and “sexual deviants”. They are forced to navigate their way through the secret divisions in Spanish society between ex-Reds and nationalists that come between friends and colleagues, and colour all aspects of life with suspicion and distrust.
If all this sounds a trifle cold and academic, it most certainly isn’t in the hands of Teresa Valero. This is a book where you will grow to feel you know the characters as the author reveals their imperfections and humanity. Not just through their words, but through her expressive and rich artwork.
In one sequence the two lead characters, one on either side of the political divide that led to the Civil war, speak about their ideologies. One in anger, the other in disappointment, as they discover they have more in common with each other than with the leaders of their movements.
It is the “Falangist”, a former supporter of the right-wing, socially conservative party who ruled Spain at the time, who delivers the most damning indictment of Spanish society of the time, with the words, “we needed heroes and all we got was murderers”.
That seems to be the main theme of the book; that the true division in Spanish society was not between left and right or supporters of one political party or another, but between good people and bullies, between those who argued for their beliefs and those prepared to kill and maim and oppress those who disagreed with them. Between monsters and victims.
Perhaps it’s my background, having lived in Northern Ireland during the whole of what is euphemistically called, “the trouble”, that brings this aspect of the story into stark relief. I grew up in a society where good people on either side of an argument feared and hated each other, believed unquestionably in the justice of their own position, and avoided engaging with each other. Often leaving actions to the murderers when what we all needed were “heroes”.
That is almost certainly why I had such a profound reaction to this book, where one sequence, more than 100 pages into the book, created a more emotional response than almost any I have had to any comic I have read in the past.
And therein lies genius. By mixing a shocking history lesson, with social commentary that applies equally to today, with a story that is, at its heart, about ordinary people, people who will become real to you and who you will care about. Good people who can agree about almost nothing until faced with a greater evil.
The plot is complex and satisfying, and the art beautifully realized in an illustrative style that is unmistakably European and so difficult to describe without referencing other European artists. There are minor influences of manga in places, of 1950s magazine illustration, and the sort of beautiful painted colour plates in old children’s books. What stands out is that everything in the art is designed to serve the story, there are no pages with dramatic poses designed as pin-ups and colouring and even lettering are used to create atmosphere. Valero’s faces are simple but wonderfully expressive, layouts and varied so as to control and vary the pacing of the storytelling.
Contrapaso is a substantial piece of work, coming in at over 130 pages, and might just be the book to persuade those who think of comics as a childish medium just how much is possible.
It isn’t perfect. Here and there the translated dialogue is a little awkward, and I’m not a fan of the cover. There is a strange sub-plot around an underage pathologist that didn’t quite land, and the final denouement perhaps takes a little too long to be realised. But those would be picky criticisms that would not occur to me were I not writing a review.
I read Contrapaso “Volume One” in a single sitting, and then I read it again. Once again, I was stunned at what the European comics market allows writers and artists to do, the genres that are open to them. It’s sad that the digital version will almost certainly be the only opportunity for English language readers to see the book. But if you want to try something different from the usual diet of science fiction, horror, and super heroics, then this is an incredible place to start.
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk