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“Spaniards and Queers and Comics: Oh My!” A Review of Queer Transitions in Contemporary Spanish Culture by Gema Perez-Sanchez

By Ellen Gil-Gómez
Pérez-Sánchez, Gema. Queer Transitions in Contemporary Spanish Culture: From Franco to La Movida. SUNY ser. In Latin American and Iberian Thought and Culture. Gracia and Geisdorfer Feal eds. Albany, N.Y.: State U of N.Y., 2007.

Pérez-Sánchez’s book is a welcome addition to the growing body of academic work in queer studies in Spanish and Latin American cultures. She argues that the “homosexual” body can be read as a text upon which the government of Spain routinely inscribed its own nationalist propaganda from the end of fascism through emerging democracy (she focuses on the 1960s to the 1980s). To show the complex relationship of body to text(s), the author chooses works that reflect the concerted effort of Spanish society to recover from the effects of fascism. Her choices are meant to demonstrate clear reinscriptions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender bodies as signs of progress. She believes it is necessary to consider the unspoken social effects of homophobia alongside the blatantly homophobic laws and policies of Spain in order to better appreciate how different artists, writers and filmmakers chose the “queer” subject as the road to freedom. By placing “high” cultural texts, mainly novels, and “low” cultural texts, comics and film, in conversation she reveals how the revolution of the queer should be read as both an effect of a reimagined democratic identity and, to a large degree, one directly responsible for the creation of that identity.

Pérez-Sánchez’s book is best located as an exploration of queer, feminist and cultural studies and Spanish fiction between 1960 and 1980. Three of the four analytical chapters of the book focus on novels by Ana María Moix, Eduardo Mendicutti and Cristina Perri Rossi. There are a number of references to the films of Pedro Almodóvar and others, as well as references to the function of comic books generally and to specific comic book characters alluded to in fiction. At best, these discussions only pepper the larger discussion of the work of the abovementioned novelists. It does not accurately present a full study of “high” and “low” culture on an equal plane, as the author posits in her introduction. However, as a study of fiction, it is quite interesting and effective.

The material that best locates the particular contribution that comics made to the emerging democracy of Spain is not the study of fiction, but rather the initial chapter’s overview of fascist policies of nationalism and their necessary contrast to homosexuality. This chapter – “Franco’s Spain and the Self-Loathing Homosexual Model” – outlines both a general discussion of gender binaries that interpret masculinity as active and femininity as passive as well as the peculiarities of Spanish law that took these binaries and created repressive and regulatory structures to repress homosexual behavior, desires, and citizens. The author suggests that Franco imagined that the economic lag of 1940s Spain, compared to the rest of Europe, was a direct result of its “feminized” position due to the homosexual “threat,” as opposed to the effects of fascism. Accordingly, documents repeat that masculine power is needed for government, for the church, for the military, and by extension for the nation as a whole. The author interestingly claims that under oppressive authoritarianism the entire Spanish population was “feminized” through curfews, silencing and physical limitations; in other words, experiences that would normally be the terrain of women were applied to all. She notes as an example, that the pre-war Ley relative a Vagos y Maleantes (The Law of Vagrants and Thugs) from 1933 does not mention homosexuality as a “crime,” but then, in post-war 1954 Spain, homosexuals are considered dangerous and subject to the legal reprisals of the work camp, segregation and surveillance.

Her discussion of comics stems from this introduction of homophobic policies under Franco which, in the 1980s, the Spanish government tried hard to erase and overcome. She analyzes the comic in particular because of its populist and urban connection as a cultural and ideological product. In order to focus on these two factors she places the state funded Madriz next to independent comics, including Anarcoma and La Víbora. Interestingly, she finds that the state funded comic, Madriz, because its collective of artists had access to money, actually challenged social boundaries – sexism, homophobia, class and language – more than comics created by individual artists which survived through capitalism. The main goal of Madriz was to try to reshape the identity of Madrid as a micro nation – as a community of progressive urbanites – and the comics promoted that value system. At the same time, Pérez-Sánchez argues that it used local language and expression, highlighted the work of women artists and subtly normalized gay and lesbian imagery. Because Madriz was always connected to state power, the authenticity of these issues were open to question. On the other hand, Pérez-Sánchez claims that comics that overtly attempted to appear “progressive” and challenge the old traditions did more to contribute to their continuation. The collectively created comic La Víbora positioned itself as having no ideology or political stance and intentionally included amateurish and rudimentary drawing styles as a counter-aesthetic to the more polished Madriz. Also in opposition to Madriz, La Víbora claimed to represent only “social survivors” post-Franco and tried to normalize sexual taboos and drug use as indicators of their lack of political aim. Pérez-Sánchez claims that what was left for La Víbora was not real change but taboo themes as sensationalism for sales, and thus continued sexism and homophobia.

Pérez-Sánchez’s book shines in its inclusion of interviews from rarely studied artists which show us more about the time periods they were working in, as well as their goals as artists and writers in a rapidly shifting social and political context. It is not particularly unique to consider comics connection to ideology, but Pérez-Sánchez reminds us that ideology – nationalist, economic, gender based or religious – can have quite a varied and sometimes unexpected impact on comics. This genre, long considered counter-cultural or marginal, can function either as the sharp edge of social change or the dull drone of conformity when it crosses path with the market.

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