critical texts


Padrón: The found humor
Nelson Herrera Ysla
Padrón: The found humor
By: Nelson Herrera Ysla
One day, when I asked Juan Padrón why he was no longer the prolific, unbounded cartoonist I had met years before working in the Cuban press. He just told me that he draws in ten months between eight and twelve thousand drawings for the production of an animated film which, beyond the shadow of a doubt, leaves him with almost no free time to be the cartoonist he used to be and he was not anymore. I refused to believe the shy, modest, affable, soft-spoken artist I had in front of me could be making fun of someone by blurting out to him that astronomical figure of drawings. I started to suspect all that could be true, however, when I visited him at the Cartoons department of the ICAIC, where he is presently working. Verified the fact, caught red-handed, I brought myself to write about one of the most serious contemporary Cuban humorists who —sad news for many readers—, says good-bye to his rich graphic aspect to completely devote himself to that fascinating craft of the twentieth century: filmmaker. However, even when he does not make drawings (or caricatures?) on pages and pages of weekly magazines and Cuban newspapers as he used to do in the recent sixties, Juan Padrón (known without distinction as Padroncito) devotes the little time he has to collaborate monthly with the Prisma magazine of the Agencia de Prensa Latina. Being younger than he though, certain day in 1963, Norberto Fuentes asked him point-blank if he was interested in working for the Mella magazine together with the large group already working at that important publication of the Cuban youth... and he did not think it three times. He left a terrifying trail on the streets of Cárdenas, similar to that shudder he felt in 1962 when he though the time had come for him to become a cartoonist. In Havana he joined Virgilio, Roberto Alfonso, Rostgaard, Fundora, Newton Estapé, Víctor Casaus and an outstanding draftsman who later devoted himself to writing songs and play well the guitar: Silvio Rodríguez. They all used to make that memorable section called El Hueco (una historia muy profunda) [The Hole (a very deep story)] in which Padrón used to collaborate with no more than one or two caricatures. After the first drawings they asked him to make up to six per week. It was still 1963 and he was just sixteen years old: that was the beginning of his career. When he was called to do his compulsory military service (SMO), he kept on collaborating with a serial of caricatures about everyday life in the army, which he himself entitled Reclutas SMO (SMO Conscripts), until the magazine was closed down. This event did not discourage him: he was already quite convinced that he was a cartoonist (although not full-fledged yet). At that time, the company Ediciones en Colores sprung up. It was like the support for what was later known as the Cuban comic boom —since they went so far as to publish four magazines of different regularity, with twenty-four and thirty pages. Padroncito used to collaborate with all of them and he could not cope with so much work. He creates his first characters: Kashibashi (a samurai with a child’s face) starting from the increase and popularity Japanese films like El Bravo, Los Siete Samurai, and Harakiri, among others had in Cuba and he also created Barzum, a sort of extraterrestrial resultant from his enthusiasm for science fiction. In both characters Padrón uses the traditional patterns of modern comic for children. He is not interested in the context, the atmosphere, and the references that later would have an important place in his work. In 1967 he ends up his SMO and Ediciones en Colores also comes to an end. But there were many projects and plans and thus arises El Sable, a humor supplement in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper, in which Padrón satisfies one of his deepest personal desires: to become a permanent worker in a publication. This safety at work and the team he finds there, leaded by the tireless, talented José Luis Posada, made arise bunches of ideas he had long before and because of which he could barely sleep. He discovers the dearest aspect of his imagination: black humor, and he puts it into characters we recall today with inevitable nostalgia and clarity: Vampiros and Verdugos (recreated not long ago on the big screen with the film Vampiros en la Habana, an authentic, ripe product of the Cuban film making). But while he worked in that direction, he kept at the same time a close relation with magazines for children through the pages of the Pionero magazine (in the strictest white humor, of course). Does this double artistic projection place him perhaps at the same level that Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde? He laughs at the slightest insinuation... but says nothing. By that time Padrón used to make twenty and even thirty caricatures of different content per week. In black humor he starts to detail backgrounds, atmospheres, unusual situations: every character appears defined in time and space, with its appropriate costume, language and gestures. A greater ease in the lines can be noticed: the find of his own way of drawing, which he would use with great skill in the character that would conquer with all his heart the coveted attention of children: Elpidio Valdés, in the year 1970. His boundless interest for new discoveries in humor leads him to create the serials: Piojos, Comejenes, Zoo-ilógico and Cerbatanas, a crazy fauna with a thousand different thorny problems and plenty of things that could be said, verging on the grotesque. In that way, Padrón widened his creations, emerging obviously as a sensible, ingenious, and extraordinarily capable cartoonist to whom any publishing obstacle could defeat. The spectrum of his characters covered at a given time both adults and children, being from the past, the future, household pets, tiny ones and gigantic ones, imaginary beings, everything you could possibly want. El Sable is replaced by La Chicharra, and some of Padrón’s characters disappear along with the magazine. He decides to resume a line he had developed at the very beginning of his career (to deal with local customs) and keep doing that for a while. La Chicharra is replaced by Dedeté, in which he keep drawing his comic strips Comejenes and Zoo-ilógico regularly, and from time to time Cerbatanas, along with caricatures about historical and psychological matters. In 1973 he begins to collaborate with the ICAIC animating short films by Elpidio Valdés (an action Cuban graphic humor had to pay dearly for). From the pages of Dedeté he launches a new serial so as to make clear that he was not resting on his laurels: Abecilandia, little prints with all kind of problems among themselves and with the rest of the world too, and which later inspired other Cuban cartoonists to make serials about bullets, screws and little animals from all over the world. Padrón pushed so much his luck at the ICAIC that he ended up as the cartoons director at the end of 1975, and weeks later it was the end for all his comic strip characters, remaining only his relation with the children through the Pionero magazine. This is a relation that has never ended and which allows him to design bills, posters and billboards with an enormous pleasure. At the end of 1977, the Prisma magazine entrusted him a humor section in which Padrón recreated a special world full of variety and richness of forms and contents: the primitive society, recalled, mythicized, sublimated by this modern warlock, an enthusiastic and passionate reader of men history. For the Mar y Pesca magazine he created a serial named Marcelino, investigador submarino contra Everardo, tiburón asesino, —maybe the largest title ever given to a modern comic strip—, which was obviously devoted to the adventures of seamen and did not have the long existence and luck the others did. , only after an turbulent artistic career, full of ups and downs, glories and sorrows, in which he gave life to almost a dozen serials, Padroncito devotes the scarce time he has today to reveal the complexity of the individual and the society recreating the primitive world while he keeps the children on tenterhooks with his effective animated films. Padroncito evokes those years in which he used to fight vices and faults making the younger and the older people laugh with works of an unquestionable moral values and aesthetic quality not without nostalgia. One of his greatest virtues is his versatility to deal with any subject (either in the so-called white humor or in the black one or in any other color). He did not suffered trying to get a “style” of his own, a stroke he could be distinguished from the rest of his craft mates for: his line pointed to efficiently answer the matter, the chosen anecdote, and if for this purpose the drawings needed to be delicate or thick, with strokes excessively stressed or barely drawn, suggestive or meager in its background, he always chose the best solution. I am not exaggerating if I say the works he did when he was in his twenties are extremely imaginative, compared to only a few others in our country. Working in harsh conditions, Padroncito always came out with new proposals and ideas to keep the flame of the good humor and the good art burning. His readings of Pfeifer, Quino, Fontanarrosa, Sempé, the Mad team (especially Jack Davies) and of some great Spanish humorists from the sixties —Vázquez, Peñarrolla, Conti, Jan—, left a mark of his size on him, made to measure for him. In the recent years a greater influence of the cinematographic language can be noticed, especially in regards to the concept of production. What a filmmaker (like him) tries to get by means of the set design, costumes, lights, atmosphere, the cartoonist Padrón is also tries to get it. When I asked him about the special atmosphere he gets in his comic strips on the primitive world, he stated to mention all the possible smells in those dark caves, all kind of vermin, dusts, smoke, fire, all together with the man. If it is about Elpidio Valdés, then he insists in the accuracy in the military ranks, the kind of weapons, the guerrilla everyday life objects, the verb expressions, in short: everything. “For me, making a comic strip is making a movie, and vice versa”: that was the last thing I heard. (Taken from Revolución y Cultura, Nº4, 1986, pages 40 to 47) Translated by René Cruz Fernández