“All through my wild days, my mad existence … I kept my promise”
Fantagraphics, purveyors of fine and snooty graphic novels for all discerning tastes, brings us Beatnik Buenoe Aires, which is about … wait for it … beatniks in Buenos Aires! I know, it’s uncanny! This is written by Diego Arandojo and drawn by Facundo Percio, and there’s no translator listed, so maybe it was written in bastard English? Beats me.
Here’s the thing: I know very little about Argentinian history. I know they fought in the “War of the Triple Alliance” with Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay (don’t ask me how I know this; I just do), they have cowboys, Madonna was inexplicably their first lady for a while, and their government liked to throw people out of airplanes for a while. Oh, and Diego Maradona played for their national team, although I’m not sure that counts as history. So I was pretty keen on reading a book that takes place in the 1960s, during a time when the art scene in Buenos Aires was experiencing a blossoming. It sounded nifty.
So here’s the problem: in the back of the book, there’s an appendix, explaining the stories. I have not read the appendix (I will, but I haven’t) because I don’t think an appendix should be needed. Appendices are fine for additional information, which is why the ridiculous annotations to Alan Moore’s From Hell are so much fun. But they shouldn’t contain information that is necessary to enjoy the story, and I have a feeling that that’s the case here. There are 13 short chapters in the book, each showing a tiny slice of life in the Buenos Aires artistic scene (we venture outside of the country a few times, and outside of the 1960s a few times, but mostly it’s in the city, in the 1960s). There are a few recurring characters, but generally Arandojo focuses on one or two characters per chapter. Each chapter makes a comment about the artistic urge, whether it’s positive or negative. So a photographer performs a monstrous act in order to create his art and prove to his lover that he really loves her. A man is inspired by hearing Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” for the first time. A man labors ridiculously hard on a piece of ephemeral art. A group of right-wing nationalists try to shut down a play, with tragic results. The writing is very oblique, which is fine, as Arandojo is more interested in small moments that make life turn into art, and he does a pretty good job with it. The characters are never that deep, simply because they’re not around long enough, but they are unusual and interesting, and their extremism makes them worthwhile to follow, just to see what inspires them to create or destroy. Because the chapters are so short, the intensity of the situations is heightened, making each vignette feel extremely important. As I noted, there’s an appendix, and without having read it, I feel it’s too necessary, because unless you know more about the Argentinian art scene in the 1960s, it feels like you’re missing a lot. There’s a fireman/artist in the first chapter, and he’s in the last chapter, but we don’t really know much about him, so it’s hard to get too invested in him. If Arandojo wants us to get emotionally involved with the characters more than as just curiosities, then the chapters are too short. The book is just that, a curiosity, but there’s too much of a barrier between us and the artists. This is most obvious with that final story, in which a right-wing group attacks a theater. At that time, Argentina was ruled by a military dictator (one of many over the years), and right-wing members of the military aren’t natural allies of artists, so it seems like the political aspect of the Argentinian art scene would be more important. Arandojo may have wanted to avoid that, and that’s fine, but by not putting the 1960s in their proper political context, the ending chapter comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. It’s a bit frustrating.
Percio’s rough, charcoal art is quite nice, though. He creates a world of moral blurriness, which goes nicely with the oddball characters in the book, some of whom are not very nice people. He uses whites to excellent effect, keeping some characters’ eyes clear to show a spark of madness in them, while lighting some characters almost from within, as at those times he does not obscure the whites with rough lines. His characters are all very interesting, some almost abstract because his faces are a bit too angular and they wear those Audrey Hepburn glasses. Others are ruggedly concrete, as Pencio gives them shabby clothes, even shabbier beards, and a weariness that weighs on them. His drawings of naked bodies are interesting, too, as he uses just enough smudginess that they’re not alabaster, but they still look at bit statuesque in comparison to the more mundane world (nudity is present both in sex and some art works, so both heightened emotional places). There’s a superb sense of Buenos Aires’s seedy bars and theaters, and a good sense of the power that is locked within these people, straining to get out (in some places, in a negative fashion). Of course, as it’s the Sixties, there’s also a good visual sense of the old-school clashing with the hippies, even if Pencio is wise enough not to push it. There are shiny people on the margins, lured in by the temptation of “art” (which is shorthand for sex in a lot of stories), and they look as uncomfortable as the artists do when they try to dress up. It’s a nice, understated dichotomy, illustrating a time period when clothing still meant something to society. Pencio’s art takes Arandojo’s oblique snippets and makes them breathe, which is pretty keen.
Despite not loving Beatnik Buenos Aires, I do like it, and I wish it had been better. I’m writing this on the 24th of June, so I have a month to read the appendix and get back to you about it. I kind of wish there wasn’t an appendix, because even though I wanted more context, at the same time the weirdness of the lack of context is strangely compelling. It’s not quite enough to make this a great comic, but it does make it intriguing. And as usual whenever I read a book like this, it’s about a time and place that many of us know very little about, and I dig finding out about times and places like that. If you’re interested, I have, of course, provided a link below, so have at it!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆