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“I had not dared to remember”: Trauma and Historical Memory in Recent Spanish Comics

By Sarah Harris1

Memory Boom.

Nearly seventy years after the end of the Spanish Civil War and subsequent repressive totalitarian dictatorship, and more than two decades after Spain became a democracy, an enormous number of novels2 and films3 about the Civil War and post-war, along with a flood of academic studies and conferences, emerged around the turn of the millennium. Though there are dozens, just a few of the most popular novels are Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina [Soldiers of Salamis] and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s bestselling tetrology starting with La sombra del viento [The Shadow of the Wind]. Films such as Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth], and television programs such as the recent hit El tiempo entre costuras [The Time In-Between, a.k.a. The Seamstress] have also garnered much international attention. Jo Labanyi has called this tendency in the late 1990s a “memory boom,” noting the frequent use of the “trope of haunting,” by which texts convey the traumatic past using haunts and fantasy to convey the horror of the unspeakable (94).

Recent controversial efforts to uncover Spain’s past have included the literal unearthing of hundreds of mass graves. In fact, Spain’s Socialist government declared 2006 the “Year of Historical Memory” and the Congress of Deputies passed a Law for the Recovery of Historical Memory in 2007.4 Vicente J. Benet remarks that in recent cultural production, as well as in news media, debates about the memory of the Civil War and Francoism are among the most frequent topics (349). Scarcely commented on by academics is a concurrent and noteworthy group of Spanish graphic narratives that represent, recover stories of the war and postwar, and mourn the loss of historical memory. In each case, authors and artists have expressed their intention that the stories within these works be considered part of a larger community experience shared by many others, even a whole generation.

Several of these books are winners of the Spanish National Comics Prize (established in 2007). To build on existing scholarly work on the role of literature and film in the process of the recuperation of historical memory in Spain, this article proposes examples in which distinctive characteristics of the comics medium, including collage and visual intertext, the interaction between text and image, use of color, page design, visual simultaneity of past and present, identification with specific characters, and the spaces (or gutters) between panels, make them a particularly suitable medium to convey collective trauma. In this case, the medium is used to represent the collective trauma of war, dictatorship, and repression in Spain’s early twentieth century. The present article draws examples from Miguel Gallardo’s 1997 Un largo silencio [A Long Silence], Carlos Giménez’s 2007 collection Todo Paracuellos, writer Antonio Altarriba and illustrator Kim’s 2009 El arte de volar [The Art of Flying], and Paco Roca’s 2013 Los surcos del azar [The Furrows of Chance].

Scarcity of Comics Scholarship.

The dearth of scholarship on this topic is at least two-fold. For one, it is a more extreme example of the general delay in public discussion about the atrocities of the country’s past, a delay both inherent to the nature of trauma and contextual to events in Spain. The term “trauma,” derived from the Greek, originally referred only to a physical wound, damage to the tissue of a body. Now the term often refers to a psychological wound that has not yet properly healed, one whose effects are long lasting. As Sigmund Freud established in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, it is impossible to prepare for traumatic events, and in their aftermath the events are unspeakable or inadequately describable. He explains, “We describe as ‘traumatic’ any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield” (33). This breach in defense causes a “disturbance on a large scale in the functioning of the organism’s energy” and “set[s] in motion every possible defensive measure” (Freud 33). Due to the nature of these disturbances a collapse in understanding lies at the heart of trauma, the events prevent survivors from experiencing them fully in the first place, let alone narrating them coherently.

As Cathy Caruth further explains, traumatic events are akin to “non-experience[s] […] causing conventional epistemologies to falter [which] problematises the relation between experience and event” (in Whitehead, 5). However, Anne Whitehead also explains, “Novelists have frequently found that the impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms, so that temporality and chronology collapse, and narratives are characterized by repetition and indirection” (3). Kevin Newmark also notes, “the language we use to understand the experience of trauma is also irrevocably marked by it” (254). In other words, though they are often described as such, traumatic events are not unspeakable nor are they unable to be represented, but simply are best conveyed differently from other events. Since the attention of this article is on a phenomenon in the Spanish community, it is also important to point out my belief, shared by many theorists, that communities can and do experience trauma, especially due to a violent group experience such as war. I borrow the words of Kai Erikson when noting that the twentieth century Spanish community saw a breakdown in many of the “basic tissues of social life,” and failed to create a public forum in which to heal its wounds (187). If we can call this a traumatized community, and we can say that writers’ and artists’ works are marked by traumatic encounters, then we can consider these books from the theoretical underpinnings of trauma literature. Further, it is clear that the fears of digging up the past continue to color political debates about the recovery of historical memory. It is these fears that the four aforementioned graphic narratives respond to head on.

Following civil war (1936-9) and four decades of repressive totalitarian rule (1939-75), dictator Francisco Franco died peacefully in his bed as a result of old age rather than assassination or violent rebellion. At this point, Spain enjoyed a supremely peaceful transition to democracy, a transition that many international historians touted as exemplary. However, the cost of this peace was, in part, leaving many structures (and leaders) in place, and denying citizens a political forum for denouncing injustices against them. Literary and film texts, especially memoirs, told some stories or the war and postwar, but more remarkably, the so-called pacto del silencio (“pact of silence,” also called a pacto del olvido, or “pact of oblivion”) managed to continue the silence imposed under the dictatorship in the political arena for several more decades.

Much processing of the violence of the early twentieth century happened in artistic and personal spaces (that is, in works of literature and film and in private conversations between individuals and small groups) rather than in political ones. Early exhumations of mass graves were even sponsored by small neighborhood groups and not by national or regional organizations. As Antonio Cazorla-Sánchez writes, “One of the triumphs of the dictatorship was to compartmentalize memories and experiences to the realm of the private, simply by denying a public space for free discussion,” a practice that continued during the transition (236).5 Moreover, as already mentioned, the number of these literary and film manifestations increased drastically several decades later.

A second reason for the paucity of scholarship about comics’ contributions to the recovery of historical memory is that there has been a historical resistance, more pronounced in Spain than in many neighboring countries including Belgium and France, or in the United States, to considering comics a field for legitimate academic study.6 This is unfortunate in the context of my present focus, because comics, different from other mediums, make use of specific visual components that provide interesting opportunities to relate traumatic and violent events. Spain, meanwhile, may be one of many countries where trauma comics are emerging as a powerful medium. To put this into global context, Hillary Chute’s incisive Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form notes that “[t]he form of comics is traveling so fast across the globe, including springing up in countries where long traditions have not been active, because of its connection to expressing conflict and trauma” (262) and furthermore, that “[l]ines on the page, in how they juxtapose time and space, convey the simultaneity of experience – the different competing registers – so often a feature of traumatic experience, such as the concomitant presence and absence of memory, consciousness, agency, and affect” (262). Specific to the analysis of the present article, comics’ page layouts and use of panels can manipulate the consumption of their stories, thus recreating, in the inherently fragmentary nature of sequential art, events that can best be told in fragments and images. In these fragments and images, in the phenomenon Whitehead has described in trauma fiction, cartoonists employ a medium that inherently imitates and “mirror[s] at a formal level the effects of trauma” (84). This description of the medium rests in part on what Scott McCloud has noted in Understanding Comics: “Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments” (67). Furthermore, similar to Whitehead’s aforementioned observation that “temporality and chronology collapse” in trauma narrative, comics allow past and present to coexist in space on a page.

Though not specific to the case of Spain, many scholars have already written on the connection between traumatic memory and comics. Hillary Chute draws this argument into its ethical implications, noting that comics:

provokes the participation of readers in those interpretive spaces that are paradoxically full and empty. To the extent that comics’s formal proportions put into play what we might think of as the unresolvable interplay of elements of absence and presence, we could understand the gutter space of comics to suggest a psychic order outside of the realm of symbolization – and therefore, perhaps, a kind of Lacanian Real. Comics openly eschews any aesthetic of transparency; it is a conspicuously artificial form. (17)

The consequence of this provocation is that readers participate in the recreation or representation of the story, removing the possibility that we maintain distance from the events narrated. Tom Gunning agrees when he notes that “the power of comics lies in their ability to derive movement from stillness – not to make the reader observe motion, but rather participate imaginatively in its genesis” (40). Elements of the reading experience, in that comics rely on simultaneous presence and absence, allow past and present to coexist on the page, and compel readers to participate in filling in gaps, add to their powerful impact and implicate readers as participants as we experience the violence in these graphic narratives.

These Comics and Spain Today.

Spain’s current comics scene is growing ever more vibrant and sophisticated. The rise of the graphic novel on a global level has played an important role, and comics in Spain have also increased their visibility in media and on-line. There has been some institutional support by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, which since 2007 has awarded an annual National Comics Prize to the best Spanish comic of the year. Public libraries and universities, which organize conferences and seminars, are slowly getting on board. The high quality of Spanish comics from the past fifteen-odd years suggests that the cartoonists themselves are also rising to meet these increased expectations. Recent comics and graphic narratives offer appealing and accessible options to audiences of nearly all sorts, so they likely won’t be ignored in academia much longer.

Purportedly co-authored by renowned cartoonist Miguel Gallardo and his elderly father, Francisco Gallardo Sarmiento, Un largo silencio is a text-heavy biographical / autobiographical hybrid with design choices that also make it a facsimile of a small notebook or diary. As seen in Figure 1, among the book’s very few images are collages of drawn and photographed copies of family documents, portraits, passports, and other various papers. The font of this book’s narrative mimics that of a typewriter, which the younger Gallardo uses in the first person to tell his father’s story as a survivor from the losing side of the war. The introduction explains, “mi padre se tuvo que convertir en una sombra durante mucho tiempo, y las sombras no tienen voz. Ahora yo le presto una voz pequeña, que es la suya” (5). (“My father had to become a shadow for a long time, and shadows have no voice. Now I’ll lend him a small voice, which is his”). Chute has remarked convincingly on drawing as a particular form of bearing witness that requires cartoonists to embody narrative through creating marks on the page with their own hands (25). In Un largo silencio, Gallardo has not only taken on the voice of his father, but also drawn and thereby embodied personal documents from his father’s life. In the introduction to this book, Gallardo states unequivocally that his father is a hero, his heroism coming from surviving the brutal violence and oppressive silence that marked his youth (5). The following quote from Gallardo is relevant for the entirety of the present article:

Mi padre estuvo 40 años callado como una tumba […] Cuando al final abrió la boca, fue para repetir una y otra vez la misma historia. Esta es la historia que me contó mi padre una y otra vez, hecha de trozos y retales, de piezas que no encajan, pero que yo sé que es cierta, y así voy a intentar contarla, dándole a mi padre una voz. Una voz que cuenta una parte de la historia cada vez mas olvidada, pero que los que la vivieron no la olvidarán jamás. (5)
(My father didn’t breathe a word for forty years […] When he finally opened his mouth, it was to repeat, over and over again, the same story. This is the story that my father told me over and over again, made up of bits and remnants that don’t fit, but I know it’s the truth, and that’s how I’m going to try to tell it, giving my father a voice. A voice that tells part of history ever more forgotten, but that those who lived through it will never forget.)

As Evelyn Hafter notes in a brief but salient article about the book, all of these elements (the artifact of the diary-like book, the use of first person, the type-written effect, and the inclusion of personal documents) have the effect of making a facsimile of the past appear to be a bona fide artifact of that past, reducing the distance between story and experience (Hafter, np). Furthermore, Gallardo’s introduction highlights other elements common to all of the comics under consideration: the delay in sharing trauma publicly, the cyclicality of traumatic memory, the immediacy of the millennial moment (“those who lived through it” were aged and dying), and the potential for truth in broken fragments.

Figure 1: Collage in Un largo silencio

Similar in certain themes is another biographical/ autobiographical hybrid titled El arte de volar; a collaboration between writer Antonio Altarriba and illustrator Kim. Called Spain’s Maus, this poetic book tells the story of Altarriba’s father, who in 2001 and at the age of 90 committed suicide by jumping from the fourth story of his nursing home. Altarriba, a professor in French literature and a scholar of Spanish comics, also narrates in the first-person, re-appropriating and giving voice to a member of the defeated Republican army, a man who had survived war, exile, dictatorship, and transition to democracy. Altarriba has stated that he understood his father’s decision to end his life as a response to a long series of frustrations, disappointments, and battles. He also emphasizes the ways in which his father’s life, spanning nearly all of the twentieth century, is closely tied to the concurrent history of Spain. It is, he writes:

la de muchos españoles sin tierra, sin trabajo, sin pan y sin techo […] No tiene nada de excepcional y por ello es más interesante, ya que él solo es uno más entre los millones de españoles que vivieron cuando la Historia les trajo: el fin de la Dictadura de Primo de Rivera, la caída de la Monarquía, la II República, la Guerra Civil, el régimen de Franco, la nueva Monarquía, la Transición. (7)
(that of many Spaniards without land, without work, without bread, and without a home […] His story isn’t anything exceptional, and that is why it is more interesting, since he is only one among millions of Spaniards who lived what History brought them: the end of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, the fall of the Monarchy, the Second Republic, the Civil War, the Franco regime, the new Monarchy, the Transition.)

Altarriba further notes that just as he is the son that inherited his father’s life and DNA, Spain is the daughter of her similar past, thus explicitly confirming a thread on intergenerational memory that runs through all of these books (“igual que esta España es hija de aquel pasado,” Grau n.p. [“just like how this Spain is daughter of that past”]). It bears emphasizing that both Gallardo and Altarriba choose to take on and appropriate the voice of an aging, silenced, or recently deceased father. In fact, Gallardo dedicated his book to his father, who died shortly after the emotion-filled event in which the author dedicated it to him.7

In an interview, Altarriba explains why he, like Gallardo, decided to write in the first person about his father’s life:

A pesar de que mi padre no hablaba mucho conmigo, yo tenía con él una extraña complicidad. Por eso en el álbum hablo de una alianza de sangre entre él y yo. A fin de cuentas la suya todavía corre por mis venas. La historia, por tanto, no podía contarse de una modo distante e impersonal. Había que hacerlo con la primera persona que […] en ningún caso, supone una traición a la vida real de mi padre. (Cerezo n.p.)
(Despite the fact that my father didn’t speak to me much, I had a strange complicity with him. That’s why in the book I speak about our blood alliance. In the end, his blood still flows through my veins. I couldn’t tell his story from a distance, or impersonally. I had to do it in first person, […] which in no way betrays the real life of my father).

Altarriba uses the image of flying to organize the book, not only though the gradual fall during his father’s suicide (each chapter represents the descent past one floor of the building), but also through flying as a symbol for his search for open spaces, for freedom. As will be made clear shortly, Altarriba’s father’s gradual fall, lasting 90 years, is also significant in terms of the coming impact, a delayed and, in a sense, liberating impact with solid ground.

Carlos Giménez’s Todo Paracuellos [All Paracuellos] is quite a different beast from the two previously mentioned comics. This work is a collection of his comic strip, Paracuellos, first written and published in two separate blocks of time between 1977-2003, and was later published in one definitive volume in 2007. Published in the same year the Historical Memory Act passed in Spain, this six-hundred-plus page collected volume portrays the abuses and horrors of the nationally run Social Welfare Homes of the postwar. Giménez himself lived in one of these welfare homes, and he explains that one of his motivations for writing these stories in the form he did was so that “que fueran considerados, no solamente como la historia de unos colegios raros y perversos, sino además, también, como una pequeña parte no muy importante en términos generales, pero en términos particulares, para los que nos tocó vivirla y para nuestros familiars, suficientemente importante como para querer dejar constancia de ella” (13). (“[That] these stories be considered not only those of some odd and perverse homes, but rather, also, as a small part of the history of the postwar. Perhaps not a very important part, generally speaking, but in speaking personally, for those of us who lived it and for our families, important enough to want to leave evidence of it”). In all three of these memoir-hybrids, paratextual information emphasizes the desire that the publication connect a personal memory to the broader experience of the Spanish post-war.

Paco Roca’s 2013 graphic novel Los surcos del azar (The Furrows of Chance) tells a tale about La nueve, conscripted Republican combatants against the Nazis in World War II. Unlike the first three works, which I have been calling graphic narratives, Los surcos is a graphic novel, a comic of historical fiction that is neither biographical nor autobiographical. However, many readers were surprised to discover this book is neither biographical nor autobiographical, perhaps because of its convincing frame story or the rigor of Roca’s research. The truth is that this book is a fictional biographical story about one character – that is, a fictional account of what plausibly could have happened to a man who really existed and fought against fascism. In it, Roca uses specific color palettes, a frame story, and visual perspectives to convey the importance of the historical events at the book’s center, while also working with the complications of giving and receiving testimony.8 Given the artistic freedom Roca has enjoyed since the enormous success of his 2007 Arrugas [Wrinkles], Roca now chooses subjects intentionally to raise awareness of underrepresented stories and historical events.9 Although Los surcos is a work of historical fiction, like all of the memoir-based comics included in this article, its author is explicit in his intention to recover (and, in this case, celebrate) a part of history that had nearly been forgotten or ignored.

Los surcos del azar has brought recognition to the role that Republican Spaniards played in fighting fascism, not just during, but especially after Spain’s Civil War. In addition to this powerful central story, the book also utilizes a frame structure whereby a Spanish author, named Paco like the book’s author, meets, interviews and draws the story of Miguel Ruiz, an elderly Republican living in France. Even Miguel’s surrogate family in France is oblivious to his military background. As a younger man, Miguel had lived through the Spanish Civil War, expatriation, exile in antebellum France, forced labor in camps in Algeria and Tunisia, reenlistment in the anti-fascist forces (this time the French), storming the beaches of Normandy, and participation in La Nueve which was the first company to liberate Paris. Most Spaniards don’t know that the first company to liberate Paris was made up primarily of their countrymen, and Paco Roca has stated in many interviews that he hopes Los surcos will help bring awareness to this fact. More broadly, he hopes his work will bring attention to the peculiar case of Spaniards who fought fascism for years yet were unable to find sanctuary at home following World War II.

Trauma and These Comics: Collage, Co-mix, Layout, and Fragments

Having introduced each book’s main ideas, and the intention of each creator to participate in a collective endeavor, the focus of this section is on specific examples of how these comics represent trauma. Most relevant to the recuperation of memory, they incorporate collage and visual intertext, create irony through the occasional disconnect between word and image, employ colors for specific purposes, employ visual simultaneity of past and present, use panels and page layout to manipulate the impact of their stories, provide strong points of view to encourage identification with their characters, and leave (to borrow the words of Scott McCloud) the blood in the gutter, thus recreating, in the inherently fragmentary nature of sequential narratives, events that can only be told in fragments and images. In what follows, specific examples of these techniques are pulled from the books I’ve introduced.

Un largo silencio makes use of collage, incorporating copies or scans of real artifacts of memory – photographs, letters, and official documents – in its pages, along with cartoon reproductions of other photographs and pages from old newspapers. Drawing on the wordlessness of traumatic memory, the sheer physicality of these collages makes real events that seem otherwise unimaginable. Paracuellos also uses a similar technique when it recreates the artifacts of letters (168, 216, and 220, among others) from children in the orphanages. This type of image and the constant reference to specific dates and places remind the reader of the realness of the events represented. As Ana Merino and Brittany Tullis note, “In each episode, Giménez was careful to include both the time and place in which the stories occurred, with the intention of creating a type of documentary record of those experiences” (215). Hillary Chute notes that by “[a]ctivating the past on the page, comics materializes the physically absent. It inscribes and concretizes, through the embodied labor of drawing, ‘the spatial charge of a presence,’ the tactile presence of a line, the body of the medium. The desire is to make the absent appear” (27). The inclusion of drawn realia in Paracuellos and Un largo silencio certainly fulfills this role for the stories, previously absent, of the suffering of many Republicans in the postwar.

In another technique distinctive to comics, perhaps the defining definition of comics as “essentially a hybrid, polysemic art, based on the encounter between text and image,” we can consider the technique of pairing text and image in these works (Groensteen 105). Mila Bongco calls the “relation between text and image […] a defining characteristic of comics” and notes that “the efficacy of the medium rests on the interdependence of the two mediums” (49). Art Spiegelman uses the spelling co-mix, noting in an interview, “You think it is a co-mix of words and pictures” (Hornblower 68). El arte de volar juxtaposes text and image to create irony, contrasting the triumphant Falangist (or Spanish Fascist) cry of Arriba España (“Up With Spain”), normally accompanied by a raised hand, with the image of the protagonist shoved down to the ground and stomped into compliance. The slogan (the words) of the fascists posits that the coup introduced the upward movement of the nation, while we see (in the image) the reality of those for whom fascism meant being stomped downward. The author of this book also re-appropriates the imagery of the Falange to critique the party itself, for instance when the eagle of victory and imperialism becomes a nightmarish vulture. Here, the protagonist rejoices at the loss of his ability to see the atrocities around him. In the page’s wordless images, we identify the ironic use of the symbol of the Falange as it plucks the man’s eyes from their sockets (Figure. 2). Spanish audiences certainly recognize the visual reference to Falangist propaganda in the eagle, the ribbon behind it, and the Falangist yoke and arrows replacing the crops.

Figure 2: Juxtaposition in El arte de volar

Paracuellos exploits visual/verbal irony as well. Because many of the children of the postwar left in the care of welfare homes had come from the war’s losing side, a major component of their care was indoctrination, seemingly through any and all means, into the ideology of the Falangist party. The role of comics in the Spanish postwar community is fascinating in such instances as Paracuellos; Giménez read and drew escapist adventure comics while in the homes, then used the medium to convey the experiences of having been interred there as an adult. The characters in Paracuellos receive, share, fight over, and draw comics too. It is also ironic, as renowned Spanish author Juan Marsé notes in the prologue to this collection, that the children read comics to escape their reality, “por ejemplo las de «Flechas y Pelayos», con su pretendido y repugnante adoctrinamiento del nacionalcatolicismo, ya contenían de algún modo el germen falangista de las pesadillas vividas por los niños de Paracuellos” (in Giménez, 1) (“for example ‘Flecha y Pelayos,’ with its attempted and repugnant indoctrination into National-Catholicism, contained the Falangist seed of the nightmares lived by the children”). In other words, comics provided an apparent – yet false – escape for the children of the postwar, and also, later on, provided Giménez with a means to expose the horror of those same times.

In response to the horror of abuse and totalitarianism, Paracuellos represents the stark contrast between the triumphant Falangist ideology, transmitted to the children through speeches and sermons, and the tragic experiences of the children themselves, and also with the normal childhood desires of those children. For example, in one strip, a particularly masochistic instructor delivers the words of Falangist founder José Antonio Primo de Rivera in near reverence. Meanwhile, the children who listen to these words are preoccupied by their basic bodily needs and unable to pay any attention to the speech. In illustrating the child’s desperate facial expression as he asks to use the bathroom, the medium provides a sharp contrast between the visual message and the text of the instructor’s message (Fig. 3, 134). As Carmen Moreno-Nuño observes, supporting this analysis:

The montage reveals the disparity between the official discourse and the reality within the Hogares by contrasting the words with images that belie them: the image of a child crying while, on the balloon, other children sing the praises of the regime (71) […] or the image of an ambulance carrying away a wounded child while on the balloon another song speaks of the happiness that reigns in the Hogar (159). (182).

Figure 3: Juxtaposition in Paracuellos

The layout of a page in a comic affects the impact of the story, potentially encouraging a particular reading experience. In Paracuellos, for instance, themes of abandonment and reconnection are highlighted, through page and panel layouts that heighten the bittersweet tone of the strip. For instance, several pages end with the long-shot of a lone Hogar, made more alone by the lack of text in the panel (Fig. 4). Furthermore, the perspective of the children is strengthened because many panels represent their (lower) point of view (Fig. 4). Moreno-Nuño agrees, noting, “With respect to the angle, the keepers are often seen towering upward from below, while the children are drawn in a downward perspective, highlighting the power relation between the two groups” (181).

Figure 4: Point of view and abandonment in Paracuellos

As mentioned above, trauma comics allow for the visual simultaneity (on the space of the same page, visible at the same time) of past and present. These depictions of traumatic experiences are accurate in the way that “past” trauma remains present for survivors, making itself known through symptoms such as the repetition compulsion, where wounds of the past emerge as flashbacks or nightmares in the present. This repetition compels the survivor to relive an inescapable and inassimilable past. In Los surcos del azar, Roca uses specific color palettes for his frame narrative, which consists of conversations between the two main characters, to add depth to the flashback story of Miguel and his wartime experiences. This framing conceit allows for reflection on the importance and complications of giving testimony, and it allows past and present to co-exist on the page, while also reversing from what we might expect of a flashback. First, the book starts with strongly enunciated images of the past, and not with the story of the interview. The past then interrupts and makes itself impossible to ignore in scenes of the present. The frame story, in this sense, is the past that encircles and invades an uncertain present. The visual simultaneity of both stories highlights the stubbornness with which the past inserts itself into Miguel’s present, no matter how much he ignores or denies it.

Second, the conversations between Paco and Miguel are drawn in neutral gray tones, and contained in panels with soft, almost blurry edges. In the present, there are no hard borders to the panels. The blurry, soft borders create the sense of the present as a dream world. Meanwhile, the wartime events that Miguel has experienced, and that he relates through these interviews, are drawn in strong colors and with black borders. They look more secure, solid, and in this sense, real. This use of color both brings vibrancy to the past events, as well as inverts the expectation for a typical “flashback,” which might include softness of both color and border. Visually, then, Los surcos del azar gives life to the events of Miguel’s story, making the past look more “alive” than the present, perhaps in a visual metaphor for Miguel’s own experience. He says that he remembers details from the war years much more clearly than he remembers events from that same day. The use of color on the cover of the book is another clear indication of the author’s intention: in drawing a facsimile of a photograph of the whole group of La nueve, and then providing clarity (through color) only to Miguel’s image, as if he were splashed with paint, we understand that this is the story of one man, but that he is part of a much larger group (Fig. 5). The implication of the cover is that Miguel’s story is but one glimpse into a shared, yet silenced, experience.

Figure 5: Color in Los surcos del azar

Los surcos uses framing to create in the reader a strong identification with the Paco character through using an angle suggesting his perspective for many panels (for example, pp. 20, 22, 23, 92, 160, 169, 181, 271, 281, and 284). From his point of view, we can see elements of his research: the notebook, the coffee drunk during interviews, the box of mementos from Miguel’s past, for instance. The reader can also identify with Paco in that most of us also do not initially know much about the story of La Nueve. Since the story begins by delving into a narrative of the past, with little or no preamble, and because so few Spaniards knew about the history of La Nueve, the readers take on the position of Paco, discovering bits of information, little by little, from getting to know a reluctant interviewee. Along with Paco, we catch glimpses of clarity, and gain some knowledge of Miguel’s fight against fascism.

Another technique relevant to comics and the representation of traumatic memory comes from the notion of “blood in the gutter.” Here, I borrow Scott McCloud’s phrase, which suggests that the space between the panels gives comics their unique impact. The veins, the action, and the lifeblood of the comic, the gutter is where much drama lives, and like blood, it’s essential and always under the surface of what we do see. Further, readers have to fill this space using our imagination and ability to complete incomplete ideas, thus playing an active role in reading comics, and further implicating ourselves in the creation of the story (McCloud 67). Bongco observes that “[t]he type of leap to be made dictates the flow and pace of the narrative. The rhythm [of] the narrative in turn depends upon the difficulty of the transitions the readers are asked, or rather, forced, to make, as the amount of bridging material that must be supplied in moving from panel to panel to comprehend the story is set (65-66). Chute observes further that the “gutter is where readers project causality from frame to frame; comics, then, is at once static and animate. It paradoxically suggests stillness (the framed moment inscribed in space on the page) and movement (as the viewer animates the relationship between the frames that indicate time to create the sequential narrative meaning of the page)” (16). Barbara Postema agrees, noting “there is always a gap between fragmented moments. In decoding the sequence, the moment of potential that the blank gutter signals has to be present, to be filled immediately by the following panel and new signifying processes” (49).

The gutter suggests the simultaneous presence and absence of information and forces readers to complete the story that the comics form fragments. For example, in El arte de volar, one of the most powerful images is the bedroom slippers left on the window ledge after Altarriba’s father takes his leap into the air (Fig. 6). We don’t see him leap, because the moment at which he takes flight is in the gutter. We simply see his feet from above, highlighting the distance to the ground, and then the aftermath of the leap, his slippers on the windowsill, with the words, “…Mi padre tardó noventa años en caer de la cuarta planta…” (“…My father spent ninety years falling from the fourth floor…”). The ellipses on either end of the text call attention to the moments before and after this image (moments that remain in the gutters). The layout of the page emphasizes the importance of this panel as well, as it stands alone on the third and final tier of the page, a hard stop that makes readers pause and rest on the important image and consider its interaction with the corresponding and surprising text. Text, page layout, and shocking image all work in consort to emphasize the moment in which Altarriba’s father leaps even though we don’t see the moment. In fact, Altarriba himself closes his book with a reflection on the appropriateness of the comic form for telling this particular story. “Su carácter mixto, combinando los valores plásticos y literarios, barajando la expresividad gráfica con el dialogismo teatral, integrando el espacio de la figuración y el tiempo de la narración en agrupaciones secuenciales muy distintas a las de otros medios audiovisuales, hace del comic un vehículo idóneo para todo tipo de relatos” (213). (“Its mixed character, combining plastic and literary values, shuffling graphic expressiveness with theatrical dialogism, integrating the space of figuration and the time of narration into sequential groupings quite different from other audiovisual media, makes the comic a suitable vehicle for all kinds of stories.”)

Figure 6: Blood in the gutter in El arte de volar

Throughout the collection Todo Paracuellos, there is explicit mention of its use of the space in-between panels to avoid showing “blood” or violence. While much of the collection pulls no punches in representing violence and heart-breaking emotional moments, there are other strips in which the narrator hints at imminent –perhaps violence that cannot be portrayed – only to cut away to a panel that calls attention to its own absence through the comments and reactions of observers (105, 124, and 177 among others). Instead of seeing the violence itself, we see the reaction of those observing the violence, and we empathize with the children upon seeing their huge shocked eyes. We must imagine violence that they cannot reasonably process or absorb. Giménez goes so far as to describe the violence in this way: “La España de esos años […] era una sociedad muy dura y muy violenta. Se sumaban en ella factores tales como la proximidad de la reciente guerra civil, el talante de los vencedores y el miedo y la pobreza generalizados. En este caldo de cultivo sólo monstruos podían desarrollarse. Y estos colegios, estos “hogares,” eran el monstruo lógico que engendraba una sociedad monstruosa” (22). (“Spain in those years […] was a very hardened and very violent society. In it, factors such as the proximity of the recent civil war, the character of the victors, fear, and generalized poverty abounded. In this fertile ground, only monsters could grow. And these schools, these ‘homes,’ were the monsters that a monstrous society logically produced.”). Giménez’s use of the gutter allows him to communicate the horrors he and many other children survived by implicating readers and “materializ[ing] the physically absent” (Chute 27).

Conclusions and Implications.

Like an individual, when a community shares a breach in the “protective shield” that holds it together, it also “set[s] in motion every possible defensive measure” (Freud 33). Many in Spain hoped to leave the past behind, to adhere to the pacto del silencio in order to move on to a democratic peace. This hope has proven to be impossible, necessitating a more direct confrontation with the violence of the nation’s past. While there are obvious differences in the techniques, intentions, and styles of these four examples of Spanish trauma comics, what all four share is an explicit intention that each contribute to a collective narrative. Each story indicates that it is representative of the larger shared experience, even a generational experience, of war and fascist repression. The techniques used by each artist exploit characteristics of the medium to recreate the very experience of trauma, marked by simultaneity of past and present or collage-style fragmentary memory. Further, these characteristics implicate the witness (reader) in piecing fragments together, in identifying, and therefore sharing experiences with sympathetic characters. The very humanness of embodying the experiences of self, parent, or fictional character, through drawing their violent pasts makes these stories authentic and visible. Comics allow the non-experience to be real, even if simultaneously present and absent. Whereas earlier expressions of collective trauma in Spain had been private and metaphorical, these works indicate a shift in national consciousness about the violence of the early twentieth century. They recognize the importance of public voice, in declaring themselves part of a larger whole. The timing could not be more auspicious, as “Those who lived through it” are now few and not much longer for this world (Gallardo 5).

In Los surcos, the elderly ex-soldier Miguel is initially resistant to being interviewed, intentionally missing their appointment, and then saying, “This is old people’s stuff. Who would be interested anyway?” Paco responds, “I think it should interest everyone, so that we don’t suffer anything like it again because of fascist ideas” (41). Like many Spaniards of his generation, Miguel had decided that it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie, even if this means ignoring the formative horrors of his youth. However, Paco insists, and once the process gets started, Miguel has to admit how important it is to make his stories known. Miguel later complains, for example, that “No one ever recognized the sacrifice” of the “many Spaniards who fought against Hitler,” to which the younger man replies, “It’s never too late” (240). Miguel’s response to this is key to understanding the context of all of these comics. He says, “I’m ninety-four years old and most of my comrades have probably died. With no recognition, of course. If that doesn’t mean it’s ‘too late’… then to hell with everyone!” (241). Here, as has been said by many authors, interviewers, and documentarians about Spain, this is a “now or never” moment. Over and over again in these graphic narratives of the civil war, the idea of “lend[ing] a voice” to a dying generation is present and compelling. In the final word balloon of the book, Miguel thanks Paco for making him recover a part of his life that he “had not dared to remember” (284).

As Antonio Martín writes about Carlos Giménez, “Se trata, pues, de no olvidar lo que es parte viva, dolorosamente viva de nuestro propio e indeclinable pasado, ése que ha dado forma a nuestro existir” (in Giménez, 10-15) (“It is about not forgetting what is partly alive, painfully alive, about our own and unavoidable past, that which has given form to our current existence”). If the intention of the recovery of historical memory is to communicate, narrate, and illustrate so as not to forget events of the past, these works make important contributions to the process.

When it comes to the fragmentary and repetitive nature of the experience (or non-experience) of trauma, comics bring a different narrative to the outpouring of works of – and about – the recovery of historical memory. My readings suggest that all four authors wish to connect personal and/or fictional experiences with wider historical, and shared experiences of Spain of the early twentieth century. In these four intense books, drawn reference material, the existence of panels and the spaces between them, the juxtaposition of text and image, colors, and the intentional design of pages, give moving testimony to the violent experience of a generation. Representative of a larger group of comics that explore the recovery of historical memory, these books use the resources available to their medium to communicate what is almost – but not quite – ineffable: memories of intense polarization, totalitarianism, child abuse, and suicide as a result of a life of deception and abuse. They retrieve and mourn shared community violence in a manner unlike any other medium.


[1] Portions of this article were first presented during the 12th Conference “European Culture” in Barcelona, Spain on October 24-26 2013, and published in European Culture, Eds. Enrique Banús, Maró Kazamiaki, Martí Bofill Sala. Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. (2014). The author thanks the organizers for permission to publish the updated version. Other portions were discussed with Enrique del Rey Cabero on Comics Forum (, and the author thanks Enrique for this clarifying conversation.

[2] See, for instance, Antonio Rabinad’s Libertarias (1996), Rafael Chirbes’s La larga marcha (1996), La caída de Madrid (2000), and Los viejos amigos (2003), Manuel Rivas’s El lápiz del carpintero (1998), Ángeles Caso’s Un largo silencio (2000), Andrés Trapiello’s Días y noches (2000), Dulce Chacón’s Cielos de barro (2000) and La voz dormida (2002), Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (2001), Pedro Montoliú Camps’s La memoria de cristal (2002), Juan Carlos Arce’s, Los colores de la guerra (2002), Jesús Ferrero’s Las trece rosas (2003), Eduardo Zúñiga’s Capital de gloria (2003), Juan Eslava Galán’s La mula (2003), Isaac Rosa’s El vano ayer, (2004) and Otra maldita novela sobre la guerra civil (2007), Luis Mateo Díez’s Fantasmas del invierno (2004), Juana Salabert’s La noche ciega (2004), Carlos Semprún Maura’s Las aventuras prodigiosas (2004), Juan Alberto Méndez’s Los girasoles ciegos (2005), Ignacio Martínez de Pisón’s Enterrar a los muertos (2005).

[3] See, for example, Vicente Aranda’s Libertarias (1996), Marcos Zurinaga’s Death in Granada (1997), Fernando Trueba’s The Girl of Your Dreams (1998), José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly (1999) and The Blind Sunflowers (2008), Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Imanol Uribe’s Carol’s Journey (2002), Antón Reixa’s The Carpenter’s Pencil (2003), David Trueba’s Soldiers of Salamis (2003), Luis Puenzo’s The Whore and the Whale (2004), Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), Manuel Huerga’s Salvador (Puig Antich) (2006), Emilio Martínez Lázaro’s Las trece rosas (2007), Marie Noelle’s The Anarchist’s Wife (2008), Helena Taberna’s La buena nueva (2008), Agustí Villaronga’s Black Bread (2010), Emilio Aragón’s Paper Birds (2010), and Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (2010).

[4] These laws condemn Franco’s regime, recognize the rights of those who suffered during the Civil War, abolish laws passed during the regime to dictate sentences, provide better financial benefits to the families of the victims of the dictatorship, allow occupation of land to identify mass graves, force local authorities to remove symbols of the Franco regime, ban political rallies at the Valley of the Fallen, and provide free access to public documents and files (Beaumont, 2008.)

[5] Unless otherwise marked, the author of this article is responsible for all translations from Spanish to English.

[6] See for instance, “El cómic sale del ‘gueto'” (“Comics Leave the ‘Ghetto'”) by Lucía González. This article considers the lack of serious study of the medium in Spain, while noting the establishment of the National Comics Prize as a step in the right direction.

[7] You can watch the presentation at

[8] Of Roca, one of the best-known contemporary Spanish cartoonists, Borja Usieto writes, “Si tuviéramos que escoger un paladín la novela gráfica española este sería con gran probabilidad Paco Roca, el autor al que se le debe (no en solitario aunque sí en mayor medida que a otros) el consolidamiento del cómic bajo la forma de novela gráfica en el tejido cultural de nuestro país” (227) (“If we were to choose a paladin of the Spanish graphic novel, it is likely Paco Roca would be it. We owe to him the consolidation of the comic, in form of the graphic novel, in the cultural fabric of our country.”) Usieto attributes much of this power not only to Roca’s considerable storytelling and artistic chops, but also to his decision to write for a broad audience, and that he never loses sight of this social objective.

[9] Arrugas is among the best known recent Spanish graphic novels. Los surcos del azar represents the increasing social consciousness of Roca’s recent work. He has since published a number of drawn commentaries on the current economic crisis in Spain, including a parodic supplement to El país called “Chronicle of a Crisis Foretold”. He has also been part of an Oxfam initiative, where he and the other most important comic artists in Spain today have started a free app (available in Spanish, Catalan, French and English) with short stories dealing with International Development and Foreign Aid. These pieces have also just been released as a book.

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