Comic strips tend to be regarded as a quintessentially American art form, having largely developed in that country via newspaper strips, before dominating the world – and now, cinema – through superheroes such as Batman and Captain America. However, comic strips are an international language, with the French bande dessinée or Japanese manga being equally interesting and popular outcrops of the art form. Indeed, arguably the first ever comic strip originated in Glasgow, in, 1825, in the form of the satirical Glasgow Looking Glass.
As elsewhere, in Cuba newspaper strips and satirical political cartoons were popular in the late nineteenth century, but comic books – aimed at an audience of children – didn’t really appear the 1930s. Given the proximity of its powerful neighbour, these comics were primarily Spanish-language translations of Disney and superhero comics popular in the United States at the time. However, following the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, comic books achieved a new purpose and status.
As the new government wished to promote its revolutionary ideals, especially to a public who had often been functionally kept illiterate by the Batista regime, comic strips were just one of the popular art forms, which could be used to build a revolutionary national consciousness. American comics were in the dustbin of history, to be replaced by uniquely Cuban comics, written and drawn by Cuban artists, with uniquely Cuban themes.
One common theme, and one shared across Latin American and African liberation movements, was anti-imperialism in general, and anti-Americanism in particular. anti-imperialism. Cuban comics gleefully depicted the US as a decadent, corrupt, racist hellhole, paranoiacally obsessed with overthrowing communism. Cuban comics would subvert American comics, for example with Supertiñosa, a parody of Superman crossed with a proto-Howard the Duck who would work with Superman and other Yankee super villains, such as Captain America to overthrow Cuba.
Other comics would go back further, to colonialism, such as the character Yarí, an indigenous Taíno (the original inhabitants of Cuba) constantly struggling (and often triumphing) against the Spanish conquistadores. It’s impossible to imagine an American comic of this period taking on the Native American side. Similarly, if Black Americans were largely absent from American comics of the period, apart from brief appearances by the Black Panther or Falcon at the tail end of the 60s, Cuban comics would prominently feature Black Cubans.
This was because the comics were promoting a revolutionary stance, urging readers to work to become the new socialist man, and no one should be left out. This included ordinary people, whose stories would be told in the comics, but with a focus on them improving the quality of their and each other’s lives. If American comics focussed on teenagers’ tangled love lives, Cuban protagonists were encouraged to live modestly, cooperate with family or friends and contribute to community projects. If this sounds boring, it was possible for individuals to act in ways counter to the revolutionary ideal, in which case everyone would come comes together to get them back on the right track. No one was ever sent away for re-education, at least not in the comics.
Some of the most popular comics featured heroes of the revolution and the Cuban Independence movement, and the most famous comic comic book character would prove to be Elpidio Valdés, a colonel with the peasant Mambi army fighting for liberation from Spain in the 1890s. He would go on to star in the country’s first ever animated feature film, directed by his creator Juan Padrón in 1979. It may seem surprising that a country with such a rich tradition in graphic art, exemplified by its incredible film posters, would be slate to embrace animation, but ICAIC seems to have regarded it as kids’ stuff, and were deeply uncertain about how to promote Padrón’s first adult animated film, Vampires in Havana. Despite this, it would go on to be a runaway hit, and even produce a sequel, which would provide festival guest Ermitis Blanco with a foot in the door of the animation world. Blanco is an animator and comic strip artist who works in a comics field vastly different from the ’60s, one where he can be freely influenced by American comics and French bandes dessinées, and even freely collaborate with American creators. It’ll be fascinating to trace the development of Cuban comics and animation through his work.