Mafalda, the girl who explained like no one else how the world works

13/10/2020

Few characters in the world are as iconic as Mafalda. Why, more than 50 years after its publication, has it not only remained in the collective unconscious but also become an archetype of social criticism with an unprecedented sense of humor? Here is a brief account of its origin and a humble tribute to its creative genius, who died at the age of 88.

Mafalda statue in Buenos Aires. Photo: Wikimedia
Mafalda statue in Buenos Aires. Photo: Wikimedia

Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1963. The cartoonist Miguel Brascó receives a call from Agens Publicidad to develop a comic strip that promotes - in a "covert" way - Mansfield's home appliances. The publicist only gives a couple of indications: that the style of the line combines Peanuts with Blondie and that the name of the characters begins with the letter M.

Brascó immediately thinks of a friend with whom he worked in the local magazines Tía Vicenta and Cuatro patas -just one year before- because the latter once told him that he wanted to make a children's comic book and because, besides being a good drawer, he considers him a great storyteller. His name: Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón, who signs his cartoons as "Quino".

From the family to the world

Quino began sketching a middle-class family in everyday situations. Then, Agens Publicidad reaches an agreement with Clarín newspaper to "gift them" the comic book, but the newspaper soon realizes about the "hidden advertising" and stops publishing it. Coincidentally, Mansfield products are never marketed and the campaign is canceled.

Brascó learns about the failed deal and proposes that Quino publicize the comics in Leoplán magazine. Shortly thereafter, Julián Delgado, editor-in-chief of Primera Plana magazine, asked Quino to publish his characters on a regular basis, and on September 29, 1964, the first strip of Mafalda was published.

As Primera Plana published news, Quino adapted his story to the topics that were more controversial: famine in Africa and its respective revolutions, the popularization of the mini-skirt, the phenomenon triggered by The Beatles, the Vietnam War, the atomic bomb developed by China and the beginning of its Cultural Revolution, and of course, the political situation in Argentina, which was hopelessly approaching a military regime.

Quino, without intending to, by putting the "news of the world" in Mafalda's mouth, gave a fundamental turn to the comic strip by adding a critical sense of humor said by a girl who barely discovers the world she lives in. And that way of giving us back our capacity to be amazed was what Quino used to create several unprecedented archetypes.

The evolution of publications

In March 1965, an Argentine newspaper wanted to publish the Mafalda cartoons, but the weekly Primera Plana refused because it considered its property. So Quino went to the archive and got an apprentice to return his original drawings. Soon after -on March 15- Mafalda started to be published in the newspaper El Mundo, one of the most relevant in Argentina, until it closed on December 22, 1967.

By then, Quino was already publishing a page of humor every two weeks in the weekly Siete Días Ilustrados, but it wasn't until June 2, 1968, that he used that space to relaunch Mafalda. In order to do so, Mafalda herself addressed a letter of resignation to the magazine's director -in which she included photos from her family album- and where she told more details about her family, her friends, and her personal tastes.

In 1969, the famous Italian semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco published Mafalda's first book in Europe; he wrote about her:

"Mafalda is truly an angry heroine who rejects the world as it is. To understand her, it is convenient to draw a parallel with another great character to whose influence she is not alien: Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is American, Mafalda is South American. Charlie Brown belongs to a prosperous country, to an opulent society in which she tries desperately to integrate, begging for solidarity and happiness; Mafalda belongs to a country dense in social contrasts, which would like to integrate her and make her happy, but she refuses and rejects all offers.

Charlie Brown lives in a childish universe of his own, from which adults are strictly excluded -with the exception that children aspire to become adults-; Mafalda lives in a continuous dialogue with the adult world, which she does not appreciate, does not respect, harasses, humiliates and rejects, claiming her right to continue being a child who does not want to take charge of a universe adulterated by her parents.

Charlie Brown has evidently read the Freudian revisionists, and is in search of a lost harmony; Mafalda, in all probability, has read Che. In reality, Mafalda has very confused ideas about politics, she cannot understand what is happening in Vietnam, she does not know why the poor exist, she does not trust the State and she is worried about the presence of the Chinese. Only one thing she knows clearly: she is not satisfied".

"[...] in addition Mafalda is, in the final analysis, a "heroine of our time," and one should not think that this is an exaggerated definition for the little person of paper and ink that Quino proposes. No one today denies that the comic book - when it reaches quality levels - is a testimony to the social moment: and Mafalda reflects the tendencies of restless youth, which assume the paradoxical aspect of a childish opposition, of psychological eczema reacting to the mass media, of moral hives produced by the logic of the blocks, of intellectual asthma originated by atomic fungi. Since our children are preparing to be -by our choice- a multitude of Mafaldas, it seems to us prudent to treat Mafalda with the respect that a real character deserves".

The farewell

Unlike other illustrators, Quino never relied on other scriptwriters or cartoonists to develop his story because he considered that he had to maintain personal, organic contact with his creation in order not to lose style and continuity. However, this way of working tired him out, and in May 1973 he decided that the characters "should start saying goodbye" and finally published the last strip on June 25.

Quino's World

Since he was a child, Joaquín Salvador Lavado (Mendoza, Argentina, 1932) was called "Quino" to distinguish him from his uncle Joaquín, an illustrator, from whom he adopted the taste for drawing.

Quino's work is not limited to Mafalda's adventures; he is the author of more than fifteen albums characterized by that perfect mix of tenderness, cruelty, and irony, always seasoned with an acid sense of humor.

Taking any of these books, which compile his work, appeared in various periodicals, is an invitation to do nothing more for the rest of the day. Unlike other humorists who get to cloy, Quino never tires. You can read eighty of his best cartoons in an afternoon and immediately grab the next volume and continue with the dose of laughter.

It is incredible how from a single subject -gastronomy, medicine, politics, etc- Quino can present more than fifty strips, all different and all loaded with great amounts of irony. His drawings may seem "simple", but few know how to capture the emotions in the faces of their characters so well. They don't cry, they really suffer; they don't just laugh, they are happy. As if that weren't enough, the details are to be noticed: you only have to look at his drawings where he portrays a room and realize that in the background you can see -in a tiny space- other parts of that home carefully detailed.

Anyone who has suffered, for example, the bureaucracy of a government office, will feel identified -and sometimes avenged- with his allusive strips. The same will happen to anyone who has a tyrannical boss, a meddlesome mother-in-law, or a cynical doctor, and that is where his genius lies: few like him to take an everyday situation, turn it around and show us the funny side of anything, including tragedy.

Another danger of becoming a regular reader of Quino is that one loses the ability to "behave" in places where it is required to "be more serious". You can hardly go to a classical music concert and not remember some of the situations depicted in his books -from the conductor who gets a ring off, to the musician chasing a drum that rolls at full speed across the stage-; the same happens in a restaurant, a shopping mall or any public square. His cartoons don't need words, but when they do, the dialogues are relentless. No one like him to use the element of surprise to his advantage.

In 1962 the world discovered Quino and two years later he left us Mafalda. Now, half a century after receiving these enormous gifts, we have nothing left to do but to be grateful for his strokes.

By Carlos Bautista Rojas and Diego Mejía Eguiluz, Original source: El Financiero