Monday, August 27, 2012

Pure Story-Telling Art

by Dylan Williams

Manuel Auad
Auad Publishing
240 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 0966938127

Will Eisner introduces this thorough monograph on Jordi Bernet with the observation: "Here was a man who was producing pure story-telling art." The only problem for English-speaking readers has always been that Bernet's work was rarely translated. As with comics of Attilo Micheluzzi, Sergio Toppi or Alberto Breccia, English speakers are always left wondering what the words mean that are coming out of the mouths of these deft drawings.

When Bernet's work was previously translated into English it was marketed as simple genre fiction or porn. The publishers never appeared to care about the masterful storytelling that Will Eisner recognized at first sight, and is underneath these classically-styled drawings. Bernet has never gotten the American reception that Moebius, Hugo Pratt, Jacques Tardi or Jose Muñoz received though he has come closer than many.

Auad's publishing of Bernet allows us to now see a fully-rounded picture of this artist. The over-230-page book offers all the different sides of Jordi Bernet the comic book artist, or at least far more than I'd ever seen in English. This well-designed hardcover book begins with two introductions, one by Eisner and the other by Joe Kubert. Both classic American comic artists refer to themselves as fans of Bernet's work. Following the introductions is an insightful, yet brief biography. I only mention that it is brief because, while it does cover all of Bernet's career, by the end I'm hoping for a full-length interview with the guy. The only one I've been able to find in English comes from the pages of Glamor, an Italian pin-up magazine about comics. At the end of Bernet is the first complete bibliography of the artist's career available in English. The biography and bibliography together bring to light a gold mine of little-known information about the artist. I don't get the feeling that, even in Europe where he is a well-known comic artist, there have been too many collections of this kind.

The importance of this influential cartoonist is undeniable, even here an ocean away from him in the United States. That point is driven home throughout the book in a series of appreciations by Bernet's peers and fans, like Sergio Aragonés, Carlos Trillo, Juan Gimenez, Eduardo Risso and Luca Biagini, all of who offer their own insight into the artist.

Bernet was born to the Spanish cartoonist Jorge Bernet. He was pushed to reach an early level of facility with his craft when his father died at the age of 38, leaving him the breadwinner of the family. Bernet convinced the editors that only he could serve as artist for the regular strip his father drew, Dona Urraca. The 15-year-old Jordi, who had already began his cartooning career two years earlier, continued his father's humor strip for two years, from 1961 to 1962. Auad's book makes it clear, by examples of early work and in bits of an interview with Bernet, that the artist had always wanted to do adventure strips in the style of his idols, Harold Foster, Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff.

The roots of Bernet's artwork are deep in the history of comics, especially North American ones. The first section of the book is laid out to illustrate the inspirations that drive Bernet artistically. His early work shows the mark of Foster, Raymond and Caniff but then you can see comic-book artists popping up in his style. Frank Robbins (creator of Johnny Hazard) and Bernet were good friends, as indicated in the biography by a great photo of the two with Mrs. Robbins from 1970. Auad's book gives us a sample of an early strip Dan Lancombe from 1968, which really shows the Robbins influence. Another strip (Paul Foran) shows the mark of both Stan Drake and Joe Kubert. While Kubert would be Bernet's most apparent influence,showing up over and over again in his work, it is Alex Toth who seems to hold one of the dearest places in Bernet's heart, as is clear from a great Western story called "Duel at the KO. Coral," written by Enrique Sánchez Abuli in 1998. It is a hilarious account of bear wrestling in the Old West and it is one long tribute to Toth. Throughout the story you see reworkings of an old Toth Roy Rogers story from the 1950s, and the bear's trainer looks straight out of a Toth comic. It's all done with an obvious affection, and you never really get the sense that Bernet is cheating. since it becomes clear during the course of Bernet that this artist loves to draw.

Bernet is often referred to as the most American of Europe's comic artists even by some of the people writing about him in this book. With each of these stories, and the previously published U.S. work, I'm struck by how European his art is. There is a quality in his work similar to the best of Sergio Leone's westerns. In almost all of Bernet's work the approach to sex and violence never looks as rooted in Puritanism as an American would portray it - a complex, adult version of genre fiction that rarely makes it into print in the U.S. but shares a lot with its American pulp forefathers. Strangely though, it never quite feels like the stories set in America are taking place in America. Or maybe it's an immigrant's America. Admittedly, it is more than all that. Bernet makes his characters feel and read like real characters and not just vehicles for ideas.

The best example of this is Bernet's most well known work in the U.S., Torpedo 1936, written by Enrique Sánchez Abuli, previously published in seven graphic albums in English. Auad's book delves well into the history of the series (which ran from 1982 to 2001) with an introduction to the section by Josep Toutain, the original series editor and publisher. Toutain retells the process by which Bernet ended up drawing the series he would become most associated with, and this book also explains in full the beginning of the series as drawn by Alex Toth, who was the one to name it.

The main character of Torpedo 1936 is an Italian American hit-man (Torpedo) named Luca Torelli. When originally drawn by Alex Toth in two stories in 1982. Torelli comes off as a gangster as played by George Raft. After Bernet takes over the art. Torelli becomes a real-life criminal associate of George Raft's: a ruthless killer with a lot of flair, who is also capable of small moments of conscience. Bernet is also interviewed a bit about Torpedo earlier in the book. "From early on I decided to 'lighten up' the characters. They were so mean-spirited, contemptible, almost evil, that I couldn't draw them very realistically. I decided to have elements of caricatures and thus making them look ridiculous." The Torpedo section of the book also includes a number of great pinup drawings, as well as some beautiful sketches and production drawings that really let the reader in on the process Bernet goes through drawing the character.

Interestingly, the Torpedo 1936 section of Bernet is followed by a collection of ads done in Spain for a whiskey company named Long John. But for this book, these ads would never have made it across the ocean into the hands of American comic art aficionados. The ads are drawn in the same style as the Torpedo series and this is intentional on the part of the advertiser. To an American, these ads really clue you into the different world for which Jordi Bernet draws his comics. It is hard to imagine a cartoonist ending up working for a major advertising company in the United States and being allowed and encouraged - and maybe even selected - for his ability to draw his own personal subject matter. Especially when his main character (a Torpedo) commits heinous crimes in story after story. Manuel Auad does explain that there was a negative connotation to the Luca Torelli character and that Bernet softened and toned down his artwork somewhat for the campaign.

For me, the most interesting series of stories drawn by Bernet is Clara de Noche, begun in 1992 and still being done. These stories represent a more complex side of Bernet and the writing team of Carlos Trillo and Eduardo Maicas (a well-known Argentine radio personality). The stories were marketed as a Bettie-Page style "adult" book when previously released in the U.S. under the title Betty By the Hour. The problem is that there isn't really anything pornographic about Clara, except for the way she is drawn. The stories are a mixture of light comedy with tragedy as told by men (Trillo, Maicas and Bernet) and from a uniquely Southern European point of view. The subject matter is adult but it becomes clear, as with the four two-page stories in Bernet, that there is more to these stories than the pinup-model-looking qualities of its star. Auad's introduction to the Clara section of the book begins "The highly-appreciated Clara de Noche has a job which has to be defined without beating around the bush: she is a hooker." Auad continues to point out the contradiction in making a comedy based on such a profession, "... an uninhibited series, imbued with humor which is redeeming although it is sometimes cynical, yet always playing it fair with the reader, with no corny double meanings." This section of Bernet serves notice that the U.S. market is in need of a complete and well-published collection of Clara de Noche.

Bernet had previously teamed up with the popular Argentine comics writer Carlos Trillo, to create a semi-science-fiction story called Custer in the mid-1980s. As Auad points out in the biography, Custer is an early predecessor to the reality-show genre, albeit a more salacious version. Custer is the main character, a sexy lady whose life the reader follows as if it were filmed by all-seeing TV cameras. Though it is light fare, Bernet brings a touch of his unique caricature to the work. In the story, Custer is followed by a funny little man hired by the network to keep an eye on the star. The character is genuinely funny and lovable in spite of the crass world around him, though even that may be a trick of the camera.

The last 50 or so pages in Bernet are perplexing for me as a reader. They include sections on two older series drawn by Bernet: Sarvan and Kraken as well as pinup good girl art by the artist. Sarvan, done from 1982 to 1984, is a beautifully drawn Frank Thorne style strip, full of wizards, dragons and sexy women - all done, as Auad notes, with more than a tip of the hat to Barberella. Most of my problems with the story only come from a personal distaste for this subject matter, but at the same time I realize that there is a complex artist at work drawing these stories. He does it quite well, but in the end it seems like he is capable of more.

Kraken (1983-86) is, as Auad puts it, ''A long-lived series, [which] tells about the adventures of Lt. Dante, who is at the head of a special paramilitary group in charge of watching over the 13,000 kilometer-long Metropol sewer system." Auad continues to point out that Kraken is "...a pretext for a kind of social and sociological comedy." Kraken is a great follow-up to Sarvan and Custer, in that it demonstrates the full range of Bernet's ability to tell a story. The art, as always, is polished and effective, but more than anything the panels glide along, leading you through a weird sewer world where a monster, the Kraken, is always ready to pounce on the main characters. There is a sense of fear and action, tempered with a psychological subtext of strange machismo that Bernet manages to capture more effectively than almost anyone in comics, something like Richard Corben's most recent work. It is a self-aware genre story that only comes off in the hands of a skilled craftsman. In the hands of most, it would descend into simple minded escapIsm.

Escapism is what most pinup artists depend on: the fantasy of the "perfect woman." Bernet has done his share of pinup art for magazines like the Spanish version of Penthouse. He likes to draw pretty women and he is good at it. There is an escapist quality to the pinup drawings collected in the last section of the book, entitled "Bernet's Beauties." The truth, though, is that the escapism is more innocent and childlike than the drawings done for Penthouse, which are presented earlier in the book. You get the impression that this is a guy who surrounds himself with images of the past and bygone days, and that this extends into his view of pretty women. There is even a photo earlier in the book's biography that illustrates the point. The artist described in this book draws a fine line between porn and eroticism. In the interview from Glamor magazine, Bernet says, "Pornography needs eroticism, otherwise it's junk. Something like that happens, in another field, with violence. If treated with ability, it may thrill you and be exciting. Without that element, it is boring and disgusting." The characters are more like "broads" and "dames" from the old movies Bernet loves, rather than dirty little drawings. This lightheartedness is represented by a little touch of the book's English language hand letterer Hobbie MacGuire. The "I" in "Bernet's Beautie's" has a little heart at the top of it.

Throughout Bernet, we readers are treated to short stories, in the classic O. Henry style. Not just in the sections on Torpedo 1936 or Clara de Noche, but in between them. One-off stories that give you a laugh or creep you out. In each, Bernet is able to make you want to just find out what is going to happen, the mark of a real storyteller. In addition, he is able to draw almost anything, not just pretty women or grotesque men. His illustrations for "Number One Joe," a simple war story written by Abuli, put the reader squarely on the wing of a fighter plane coming back from a mission. We are never allowed to see the pilot or navigator - instead, Bernet uses the plane itself as if it were alive.

The thoroughness of the book is illustrated by an amazing collection of varied work. From beginning to end we are treated with pages of artwork unseen in the United States. From Bernet's early humor attempts in the 1950s, to Frank-Robbins-style adventure strips in the 1960s and much more, the book provides you with just enough, not too much or too little. It makes me want to go out and hunt down the untranslated, 224-page graphic novel of Tex that Bernet did in 1996, as mentioned in the biography, and demand that a U.S. publisher put it out here. Bernet the book also effectively gives the impression of an artist who is constantly working and changing.

All of the work collected in this book is written by others. I wish that Bernet could be coaxed into doing more of his own writing, not that Enrique Sánchez Abuli, Carlos Trillo or others don't fill the job adequately - they do much more so than their mainstream U.S. counterparts. It is simply that Bernet's knack for straightforward storytelling makes me think of the straightforward stories he might tell.

Recent news has it that Bernet is working on books for the U.S. market, that may be published by DC comics as well as a collection of Clara de Noche and more. The Bernet collection comes at the perfect time to introduce us to the full scope of his history in Europe and offer other American publishers a glimpse of what they could be publishing by one of a number of European greats.

[Originally published in The Comics Journal 262, Aug/Sept. 2004.]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

All That Could Have Been: Jorge Zaffino

By Dylan Williams

Argentine comic-book artist Jorge Zaffino died of a heart attack on July 12 at the age of 43. "There are few artists working in comics to whom the word 'genius' applies," said comic writer Chuck Dixon. "Jorge Zaffino was one of those guys. He was a true artist's artist." Comic artist Steve Lieber said of Zaffino's skill at solving storytelling problems: "Any one of these problems requires real work and skill to resolve satisfactorily. Zaffino at his best could handle them all and make the effort invisible, freeing the reader to get lost in the story. His technique changed over time, growing more impressionistic, but he always seemed particularly interested in creating brooding moods and capturing remarkable subtleties of light and shadow. He'd create dense lattices of cross-hatching out of the most apparently casual lines, slapped down across his forms, lighting his figures in a way I'd never seen in comics before. The technique looked maniacal in flat reproduction. God only knows what the originals must have looked like."

Studying Light

Zaffino was born June 13,1957, the son of Lia Moschini and Jose Zaffino, an art instructor at the Pitman Academy in Buenos Aires. At Zaffino's request, his father enrolled him in private group art classes taught by renowned Argentine art instructor Julio Juaregui. He never went to college. Through the pages of Creepy and Eerie, young Jorge fell under the influence of American comic artists Alex Toth, Gene Colan and Frank Frazetta. Famed Italian comic master Sergio Toppi was an important influence as well. But the influences that would most shape Zaffino's unique drawing style came from outside of comics: Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio and Velazquez. "From fine art, he was almost obsessed by the way light interacts with the objects. He would copy hundreds of Rembrandts in order to figure out how it works," reports his son Gerardo, also an artist.

At 16, Jorge's father took him to the Villagran comic-art studios, run by brothers Enrique and Ricardo Villagran, where he initially worked as an unpaid assistant. "Jauregui was mostly an art teacher; you could say the Villagrans were his comic-art teachers," explained Gerardo. Jorge began at the studio washing brushes, emptying the trash and running errands. Within a year, he was drawing for the studio, doing pencils and background art. Zaffino's work for the Villagrans quickly earned the appreciation of his fellow studio artists. He was making a living at the studio by the age of 19, producing work for Argentina's comics publishers (or "Editorials"). Zaffino worked on the series Nippur de Lagash and Tierra de Elfos, but his most famous series was Wolf, a heroic fantasy written by Robin Wood for Columba Editorial. Wolf would become his most famous work; it is still reprinted in Argentina. He would return to the character throughout the '80s.

Coming to America

Zaffino's work first made it to the U.S. with Ricardo Villagran, who was then working with writer Chuck Dixon. Dixon saw Zaffino's art among samples Villagran had brought, and he wrote a story specifically with Zaffino in mind. Zaffino visited Dixon in America, using money he had saved from his studio work and from a series of children's book illustrations done for friends. Dixon said of meeting Zaffino, "On a personal level, he was a charming guy with a great sense of humor. He spoke no English and I no Spanish. But I always enjoyed his range of facial expressions as things I said to him were translated. Particularly if what I or another were saying was an attempt at humor. That dawning of realization and then his smile and laughter as he got the joke would crack everyone up all over again.”

The story they produced together was the three-issue series Winterworld, published by Eclipse in 1987. Zaffino worked from English scripts translated into Spanish by Ariel Maudet, who accompanied him on his U.S. trip. Gerardo Zaffino said of the guns drawn in Winterworld, "He asked me to give him my G.J. Joe cards to do the Winterworld saga. Of course, he made some changes.”

Later, Marvel editor Carl Potts helped introduce Zaffino to the mainstream U.S. market: "During this period, I was working to turn the Punisher into a major leading character. One of the Punisher projects I had in the works was a graphic novel written by Jo Duffy. The Punisher character and Jo's script seemed like good matches for Jorge's dramatic and moody style. Jorge teamed up with Jo and the result was the very successful Assassins Guild graphic novel (1988). Jorge's work was brilliant. I remember being blown away whenever Jorge mailed in a new batch of pages. Other editors and artists would sometimes visit my office and dig into the flat files to get a look at Jorge's latest work." Zaffino's detailed depictions of New York in Guild were aided by reference photos he took of the city during a second visit to the U.S. Marvel artist Walter Simonson said, "I was intrigued by his Winterworld work, the first of his art I saw. And I was blown away by [Guild]. That particularly graphic novel still remains a favorite of mine and, to this day, I keep it on the bookshelf below my taboret for easy access and reference. It isn't that I ever find myself drawing the Punisher but, as with all the material that captures my imagination, I find it refreshes my own work to go back occasionally and reacquaint and re-inspire myself with another look."

Zaffino and Dixon teamed up on a second Punisher graphic novel, Kingdom Gone, in 1990. "This was another great project for Jorge," Potts said. "Again, it was just the right project for him and the graphic novel was very successful. Jorge and Chuck made a great team. As with the first Punisher graphic novel, Jorge gave all of his players distinct looks, body language and personalities. The tropical island setting in Kingdom Gone was very different from the urban landscape in Assassin's Guild. Jorge excelled in portraying both environments."

Darker Material

Zaffino and writer Dan Chichester began a series of collaborations with Critical Mass, an edgy Marvel series written by Chichester and divided into chapters drawn by different artists. Here, Zaffino shook off the detailed realism of his earlier work, developing a calligraphic economy of line that accentuated his emerging expressionistic style. "I think Toth always fed his simplicity," said Zaffino's son Gerardo. "Although he covered the pages with lines, the composition was very simple. I remember watching his pencils and saying, 'Hey, when are you going to finish them?”

Other projects of note during this period were Hoover (a two-part science-fiction detective story written by Carlos Trillo and one of Zaffino's occasional returns to the international market), two Hellraiser stories ("The Vault" written by Marc McLaurin in Hellraiser 2, and "The Devil's Absolution" written by R.J.M. LOfficier in the Hellraiser Summer Special), a Conan story ("The Horned God," written by Dixon for the black-and-white magazine Savage Sword of Conan), and Seven Block (a one-shot written by Dixon in 1990 for Marvel's Epic imprint). With these books he moved from more escapist adventure material toward a darkly expressionistic and personal style.

Comic artist Bill Reinhold summed up the impact Zaffino's work was beginning to have on his peers in the U.S. "I first saw Jorge's work in the Winterworld series for Eclipse. I thought that was nice art, but it was his Punisher, Conan, Hellraiser and, Seven Block work (they should re-color that story and use his original painted cover) that blew me away. I was fortunate years ago to trade art with him through Chuck, Dixon. Chuck said that Jorge wanted to collect American comic-book art. So I have a page from Punisher: Assassin's Guild and from his Conan story. I'm sorry that we don't have more Zaffino jobs to look forward to.”

Zaffino was well suited to drawing serious, brutal, emotional subject matter.A personal favorite. of his was a series of covers he did for Marvel's The 'Nam. Chuck Dixon says, "His work displayed a raw power that is unmatched. He was like Joe Kubert in that you can see his 'hand' in the work. What seems like delicate and deliberate line work in reproduction would, on close inspection of the pages, be revealed as brutal and varied ink lines that looked as though they were thrown down casually. But they weren't. Jorge worked hard to achieve that look of spontaneity. Often he would finish an entire sequence only to tear it up and start over again."

Declining Output

Continuing with Chichester, Zaffino drew a dark, ongoing series called Terror Inc. for Marvel, reviving the Schreck character from Critical Mass. Zaffino began the series at the height of his ability. Though his skills never wavered, his work had changed by the seventh issue. As Dixon explains, "He had a few admirers on editing staffs but they tried to use him on monthly schedules and Jorge wasn't built for that." Gerardo adds, "By the time he was doing Terror Inc. he wasn't doing too well personally. If it wasn't for the personal issues he was facing, he wouldn't have had any trouble with the deadlines."

Zaffino's goodbye to the U.S. comic market was a Batman story called "The Devil's Children," written by Dixon, which appeared in Batman Black and White #2. Though it's a simple detective story, his stark visuals carry great emotional impact. As his son said, "He wanted to create a mood, a climax. You can almost walk among the characters in his comics."

After leaving work in the States, he spent time reflecting on his art and his personal life. "Jorge had not been well for many years, as he suffered from a persistent depression which is the reason for his producing so very little work these last years," said fellow Argentine comic artist Quique Alcatena to's Splash. "This perhaps excessive professionalism brought him into conflict with deadline-minded editors, and Jorge got fewer and fewer jobs. Moreover, he was in a search for utter simplicity and synthesis in his line - he reneged from the more elaborate work he produced in the late '80s as being too cross-hatched, a fact which did not fail to earn his peers' applause, but which did not make him reader-friendly." According to Dixon: "He preferred special projects that allowed him to delve into the story and fully explore it. He was no prima donna or temperamental soul. An easier guy to work with I cannot imagine. He just wanted the best work from himsef. Many of the projects that I and others presented are probably still gathering dust on shelves somewhere."

There is still English-language material by Zaffino which has yet to see print. "Chuck then approached me about publishing Wintersea" says Carl Potts, "the follow up to the Winterworld miniseries. I was all for that! Unfortunately, the project did not get published before Marvel hit hard times and the company abandoned publishing creator-owned titles." There is also a host of foreign work that has never been translated. In addition to Wolf and Hoover, a 24-page sketchbook of his work, titled Illustraciones, was published in Argentina in the '90s by Abel Saidman and Carlos Devizia. In recent years, Zaffino had focused on his painting, of which the U.S. market has only seen glimpses, and continued to illustrate books published in Argentina.

Zaffino's work had a powerful impact on artists whom he would never meet, like artist Tommy Lee Edwards: "I was struggling with how to turn my thinking into strictly black and white. How to create depth? How to render the form on an object or figure? Studying Zaffino's work aided me in ways I will always appreciate. He answered many of my questions, and started me on asking new ones. He helped me gain the courage to draw with a brush." John Paul Leon told the Journal, "Jorge Zaffino is a special artist to me. Unfortunately; I never met the man, but his work is so vigorous and audacious that I can only guess he must have been very passionate. His work does not instruct, it questions."

(For more information, visit [currently abandoned, but available via]. Special thanks to Gerardo Zaffino, Lia Moshcini, Victoria Guerrero, Jesse Hamm, Gabriel Greif, Mike Manley and Chuck Dixon for their help with this piece.)

[Originally published in The Comics Journal #248, November 2002. Images, from the 1998 reprinting of Hoover, from Illustrationes, from an unfinished comic page, cover of The 'Nam Feb. 92, an unused Batman drawing from Illustrationes, and an uncredited photo of Jorge Zaffino]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

To What End Will I Go

To What End Will I Go
A Comedy In 32 Pages And Three Years by Dylan Williams

Mid-1990's minicomic.