ProfessorLatinX: You’ve co-created a number of graphic novels—in the form of fiction, memoirs, histories—, including Mr. Spic Goes to Washington (with Roberto Weil), Latino USA and A Most Imperfect Union (both with Lalo Alcaraz), and El Iluminado (with Steven Sheinkin). You even have a fotonovela, Once@9:53AM (with Marcelo Brodsky). Why the move to create stories and tell history through the visual-verbal narrative form?
Ilan Stavans: I came of age in Mexico City in the 1970s, a period known for its intense visual culture. After the Tlatelolco student massacre in 1968, the country’s culture, while under a repressive political system, exploded in countless fronts. Collectively, native-made films, TV, theater, journalism, and especially historietas (e.g., comic strips) offered a new aesthetics. That aesthetics didn’t apologized for wholeheartedly embracing U.S. popular culture. Its strategy was to appropriate, then subvert it through a phenomenon anthropologists call “transculuration.” Intriguingly, this worldview was rapidly embraced in other parts of the Hispanic world.
Chespirito is the perfect example. Is there a more beloved pan-Latino artist from that time? “El Chavo del Ocho,” “El Chapulín Colorado,” “El Doctor Chapatín,” and other characters created by Roberto Gómez Bolaños, inspired by superheroes and other pop icons, find power in their “midde-browness.” This was the same period that served as a platform for the work of Elena Poniatowska, Carlos Monsiváis, Subcomandante Marcos, and Guillermo Gómez Peña. The age difference between all us is wide (Poniatowska was born in 1932 and I in 1961). Still, there was something unique in the air. What made us all part of the same zeitgeist is the recognition that the border between the word and the image is astonishingly porous.
Of course, telling stories in words is different than telling them in images. But old ways of approaching culture are dying rapidly, especially among the millennials. They are quick, intemperate thinkers even more impatient with traditional literature than we were. The adage “an image is worth a thousand words” is nonsense. There is no discrepancy in value. The challenge is to make the two worth the same. I find enormous gratification in the graphic-novel form. As I see it, it poses an extraordinary challenge: How to find an equilibrium between word and image without allowing one to sabotage the other.
ProfLatX: Many still think that the visual-verbal narrative arts are only for young readers.
IS: Nonsense. It’s an impression that belongs to the 1990s. Today Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel are essentials in American literature. Among Latinos, the historietas of the Hernández Bros are staples of the cultural diet. Mark Twain, Edgar Alan Poe, and Emily Dickinson communicated in a specific way. That way belongs to the past. Nowadays HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Prime defined the way stories are delivered. The Sopranos, Transparent, and Game of Thrones are the equivalent of Charles Dickens’ serialized narratives, though in altogether different modes.
ProfLatX: The visuals and verbal elements that give shape to Angelitos invite readers into its storyworld only to then reveal dark truths about Mexico’s caste system as well as the Catholic Church. Can you talk a little bit about formal choices made regarding this tension?
IS: My objective was to tell the story of a charismatic priest nicknamed Padre Chinchachoma, whom I befriended in Mexico City in the 1980s. He spent his time helping homeless children. This was before the sexual-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. There was something out-worldly in him and something quiet pedestrian too. With a nod to Luis Bunuel’s award-winning movie Los olvidados, which is one of my favorites, my intention was to recreate my relationship I had with the priest, reimagining it around the devastating 1985 earthquake. It wanted to portray Padre Chinchachoma in all his contradictions while using him to investigate the intersection of poverty, education, and justice.
ProfLatX: In all your graphic novels, there’s always a bit of you, although in some it’s more autobiographically direct than in others. Does this say something about how you view the personal and the larger historical, social, and political forces that shape our everyday lives?
IS: It does, for sure. All knowledge is personal knowledge. Likewise, what makes a story universal are its roots in the local.
ProfLatX: Can you describe your process in creating Angelitos with your collaborator, Santiago Cohen?
IS: We met a few years ago after a friend of mine recommended a few of Cohen’s books to me. He also grew up in Mexico City, is Jewish like me, and thus was imbued in the same minority atmosphere I was before moving to the United States. Plus, he is an immigrant as well. I find his naïf style endearing: simple but never simplistic. He reminds me of Charlotte Solomon, who painted the story of her tragic life as the Nazis arrived in France in the 1940s.
After I proposed the idea of a collaboration to Cohen, I wrote a rough script, to which he added substantially. The drawing stage took a long time—maybe a couple of years. He would send me sketch pages and I would react to them. Then we then let the content sit fo a while and then fine-tuned it. Then, when it finally reached the publisher’s hands, the text still went through another layer of polish, in part because I wanted to retain the Mexico City street jargon.
From beginning to end, Angelitos took five years to materialize. In retrospect, the process was purifying. To engage in collaborations, you need to be patient. It’s like a marriage: you have to work at it constantly to make it successful, paying attention to details while looking at the broader picture.
ProfLatX: Who was the ideal reader/viewer you had in mind when creating Angelitos?
IS: Anyone interested in how myths are born. Anyone concerned with the roots of criminality. Anyone intrigued by the roots of illiteracy. Anyone scandalized by the breach of trust religious figures at times engage in. But also anyone troubled by stereotypes. Potential spoiler alert: in Angelitos, Padre Chinchachoma is accused of child abuse. Is he guilty, though? Or is he a saint?
To be honest, I’m thrilled that this graphic novel is part of the Latinographix series. It is a much-needed place for emerging and established graphic-novel artists to find a common home.
ProfLatX: Given that you have your finger on the pulse of so much Latinx pop culture, where do you see our future with graphic novels?
IS: Ours is an age of enormous creativity, one in which graphic novels by Latinos are meant to have a large impact. My concern is with the readership. For a variety of reasons, literacy is still in its infancy in Spanish- and English-speaking Latino households. Unfortunately, the book culture is still alien in it. Children are not given books at an early age. Parents don’t read with them. After a long delay, Latinos are finally—albeit slowly—making it to the American middle-class. But not with distinct reading habits, which is a shame. For reading habits are indicators of future success.
Of course, I want Angelitos to be reach non-Latinos. That isn’t difficult. The challenge is for the novel to be opened by Latino readers, young and old. There is a credo in Hispanic culture that literature that criticizes the Catholic Church is dangerous. Truth is, readers are in desperate need of developing critical skills. There is no such thing as a dangerous book. Only ignorance is dangerous. A mind that looks at knowledge with critical eyes, one that continuously shapes its own world view, is a healthy, vigorous mind. Like traditional literature, graphic novels are invaluable as tools to discuss taboo topics.
ProfLatX: From our planetary Republic of Comics, who can you point to has having had a deep, lasting impact on you as a person and creator?
IS: I love the work of ‘Rius,’ although I find his anti-Semitic views disgusting. I admire Will Eisner, Joe Secco, and Jules Feiffer. I’m a huge fan of R. Crumb. Also, Watchmen. In Spanish, I defined my worldview through Kalimán.
I also like Lewis Carroll’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, I’m at awe with the genre of graphic-novel adaptations of literary classics: Homer’s The Odyssey, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a story of Julio Cortázar, etc. I’m currently finishing an adaptation into Spanglish of Don Quixote, illustrated by Roberto Weil. It will be published in 2018.
I don’t want to die before doing a superhero saga in historieta format.