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Drawing the past: the graphic novel as postmemory in Spain.

To paraphrase noted philosopher Paul Ricoeur on the role of telling stories as an approach to past traumas, we must not only have body counts, but also narrative accounts (15). In Spain, narrative gives life to the memories of Civil War (1936-1939) and oppression during the Franco era (1939-1975). This historical memory is a complex web in which discourses about forgetting, remembrance, individuality, collectivity, reconciliation, vindication, justice, and commodification coexist. In 2008 Jo Labanyi noted that the memory boom that had begun in the late nineties was beginning to ebb, having reached a "saturation point" (119). (1) Nevertheless, writers and filmmakers and other artists continue to produce works that confront the past, in many cases with more self-reflexivity about the memorialistic process. In addition, historical memory has increasingly gained visibility in less traditional, less "serious" media and genres. (2) The presence of irreverence, however, does not signal the end of engagement; in the case of comics (traditionally considered less than the novel or even film), there has been an explosion of interest in the combined drawing/telling of suffering during the war and after. (3)

Comics constitute the intersection between image and word, allowing articulation and silence in the same visual space. In this article I focus on the graphic novel in particular as a site of expression for inherited memories of the Civil War and Franco era in the twenty-first century by examining two recent works: El arte de volar (2009) written by Antonio Altarriba and illustrated by Kim, and Un medico novato (2013) by Sento Llobell, known professionally as Sento. (4) My objective here is to demonstrate how these two graphic novels take advantage of the multifaceted visual nature of the medium and explore the active space of creation in the absence of personal experience to construct narrative images of Postmemory. "Postmemory" is a concept coined and developed by Marianne Hirsch in reference to the act of recovering and representing "inherited" memories by the descendants of Holocaust victims: "Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that precede their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor recreated" ("Past Lives" 420). (5) According to Hirsch, Postmemory is not exclusive to the pain of the Holocaust ("Surviving" 11) and it is clear that this concept is helpful in addressing the issue of memory crossing generations in Spain today. (6) While it is true that the term Postmemory has in some cases been applied to any current text about the past in uncritical and indiscriminate ways (Martin-Cabrera 132), I demonstrate here how these two works are not merely historical but are also self-reflexive about the inherited nature of their memory. (7) Based on the memories of two men whose lives were altered by the Civil War--Altarriba's father in El arte de volar and Sento's father-in-law, the young doctor Pablo Uriel, in El medico novato--these works act out Postmemory by playing with the question of biography/autobiography, silent and fantastic imagery, and political engagement. These graphic novels illustrate (literally and figuratively) that the past is temporally and experientially distant. They highlight and embrace the fact that those who are producing cultural works of historical memory did not live the national traumas themselves; their approach is characterized by the obligation to (re)construct and (re)present them by means of an imaginative act mediated by previous narratives and not personal experience.

In Un medico novato, paratexts underline the reconstructive task of the work. The annex at the end titled "Album de recuerdos" includes photos, letters, documents, etc. as traces of the past, which complement the fictive elaboration of the story. In another paratext, the book jacket, Sento notes that the work is based "en hechos reales y en documentos de la epoca que nuestra familia ha conservado, lo que nos ha permitido reconstruir las partes de la historia que no encontrabamos en los recuerdos escritos de Pablo Uriel." As such it is clear that the presence of historical source material does not render the novel as something other than that in a way that would pit history and fiction as antagonistic opposites. As Hayden White notes, "The conjuring up of the past requires art as well as information" (149). (8) Moreover, according to Hirsch such an active search for connection by filling in the gaps of knowledge characterizes Postmemory: "It creates where it cannot recover. It imagines where it cannot recall" ("Past lives" 422). Here one finds the intimate relationship between the image and the imagination. In fact, Sento concludes the prologue stating: "Hemos disfrutado convirtiendo en imagenes algo tantas veces imaginado. Ha sido un placer dibujar esta historia y percibir el aprecio de los que la han ido leyendo."

While El medico novato makes us of paratexts, El arte de volar underlines its reconstructive task by playing with the autobiographical and narrative voice of the protagonist. This voice starts off being that of the writer, but quickly becomes that of his father: "y ahora, una vez muerto, el esta en mi. Asi que puedo contar su vida con la verdad de sus testimonios y la emocion de una sangre que corre por mis venas. De hecho voy a contar la vida de mi padre con sus ojos pero desde mi perspectiva" (14-15). Blood signals inheritance, memory as part of his DNA. The story is not his, but it is a part of him and he tells is as if it were his, as if he were his father. Altarriba approaches his father's life as being intimately familiar and unseen/unlived all at the same time. As Hirsch explains, "Postmemory most specifically describes the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they 'remember' only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right" ("Surviving" 9). While it is certain that this narrative appropriation points to the familial bond, it must be recognized that this strategy also depends on the medium. Ana Merino and Brittany Tullis clarify:

By creating interior monologue through the use of captions and relating dialogue through traditional text balloons, thereby positioning the voice of his father in first person, Altarriba manages to play with the possibilities offered by the interplay of text and image that characterizes the comic, using multiple levels of expression to portray the universe inhabited by his father; to express and insert all the materials that he had accumulated about him over the years. (221)

In this way El arte de volar plays with the conventions of the autobiographical graphic novel. The unique tension that one finds in this sub-genre surrounding the identity of the author, the result of the juxtaposition of the extra-textual existence and the visual fiction of the text (Chaney), is transformed in this work due to Altarriba playing with the first person account. Only at the end when the author himself appears do we see a conflict of identity, seemingly as a kind of catharsis. For Altarriba, as Merino and Tullis claim, "writing this graphic novel has served as a form of therapy, and the exploration of his father's memory has indeed aided him in overcoming his personal traumas" (221-22). If comics memoirs often take the form of confession (Duncan, Smith, and Levitz 247), here the admissions are personal and projected at once. The freedom to depict himself and himself as his father is a product of the medium, exemplifying an individual's desire to connect with the experiences of another.

For Hirsch, Postmemory is powerful precisely because it fills the gaps in an overtly creative manner, an activity "often based on silence rather than speech, on the invisible rather than the visible" ("Surviving" 9). In both works silence is embraced by the visual nature of the medium, using the image to approach trauma in the absence of verbal articulation. (9) In Un medico novato, the anxiety that preceded the war and the massacres committed by the rebels are represented through images without dialogue, or images with ironic dialogue. The former describes the reaction of Uriel seated in his kayak when the war breaks out--his only commentary after hearing the paw paw of the gunshots is "Madre Mia!"--while the latter is seen in the first mention of violence. When the prisoners are assuring themselves that nothing will happen to them, as they have done nothing wrong, the next frames depict, without words, their execution (see fig. 1). The power of these silent images stems from the medium's capacity to both lead the reader and allow for open reflection. Maaheen Ahmed notes that "Comics panels ... punctuate the story's flow, guide and even flavor interpretations according to their content, shape, and relationships with the other panels" (9). By placing images of violence without commentary in a panel following a panel in which the unlikelihood of violence is voiced, this sequence underlines the senselessness of the war for those caught in it and the limitations of language to address such trauma for those trying to understand it.

If the unifying thread between Postmemory and its subject is not recollection but rather an imaginative and creative investment (Hirsch, "Past Lives" 420), it is unsurprising that fantastic imagery stands out as an expressive element and, it must be noted here, an element well-suited to comics. In El arte de volar, a mole that lives like a parasite in Altarriba's father's chest, eating his life, represents his depression (see fig. 2). And there are other animal allusions in the work; the residents and employees of the senior's home become beasts in the last pages, evoking another graphic novel that depicts a father's trauma through the art and eyes of his son, Art Spiegelman's Maus. In Un medico novato, animalization is also seen as a visual strategy, underlining the dehumanization of the imprisoned by comparing Uriel with a pacing tiger in a zoo (133). For Ahmed, the medium's "use of figurative language or images is significant for openness" and is employed "to increase its scope of signification" (13-14). (10) Here the juxtaposition of memory with fantastic imagery, the animalization of problems and people, highlights the fact that the reconstructive task of these texts is a creative endeavour.

The other notable image of fantasy in the work is the encounter between the dead, all assassinated, and god in heaven. God expresses his incredulity at their premature presence there and the dead explain that it is due to the Falange having put holes in their heads (see fig. 3). In another frame from the same series, god asks the dead about the role of the church in the violence; one of them answers, pointing out the close relationship between the Spanish Catholic Church and Franco's nationalist forces: "Oh, perdona Senor, pero los sacerdotes tambien visten de uniforme, tienen jefes, medallas y objetos brillantes, estan muy organizados, pero la mayoria ha perdido la fe original. Y hay mas, Senor, ellos y los militares han constituido una sociedad: 'La Cruz y la Espada,' cuya finalidad es defender los intereses de los banqueros" (113). These oneiric frames exemplify a tendency identified by Colmeiro, influenced by Labanyi, with regard to historical memory in cultural production --"the trope of haunting":

some writers and directors dealing with the subject of the Spanish civil war and the dictatorship have recurred to other non-realistic modes, in an effort to better capture the work of memory, the experiences of trauma, the silences and the voids of the past, the historical discontinuities, and the elusive nature of historical narrativization ... These haunting narratives thus make visible the disappearances and absences silenced in normative historical accounts, and replicate the process of confronting a difficult past that still needs to be dealt with in the present (29-30).

While Hirsch explains that memory is an act of mourning ("Past Lives" 420), Postmemory mourns with the power to raise the dead, to give visibility to the forgotten. As such, the frames not only give voice to the victims in life, but also in death. If you can draw the living, you can draw the dead.

The hypocrisy of the church underlined here points to the political potential of the graphic novel. As Manuel de la Fuente Soler observes, "el comic autobiografico da cuenta de la madurez del medio, de la superacion de sus propios prejuicios de la emergencia de una serie de autores que hacen gala de su subjetividad para expresar sus ideas politicas" (262). (11) In the case of Un medico novato the political engagement does not manifest itself as a defence of any ideology in particular. It defends the innocence of those imprisoned and executed by the Franco-led rebels, but it does not do so from a partisan perspective. In fact, when it does make reference to different political parties specific to the Republican side of the conflict, it emphasizes the moderation of their positions; the more radical elements (anarchist, communist) are omitted. The focus is on the abuse of power by the victors, the Falange, and the church in particular, although even in the case of the latter one must recognize that in the book the bad priests are those who have lost their faith while one of the victims is the good priest who would give sermons against the atrocities committed by the rebels. Nevertheless, in the following example a series of frames that takes advantage of the interplay of the visual and articulated speech--one sees how the ironic dissonance between holiness and violence with regard to the Church's participation becomes a clear demonstration of this war's horror. A priest thanks a soldier of the Civil Guard for having donated a watch to the parish, a watch that belonged to an executed prisoner. The juxtaposition between the words of the priest, "Que Dios te pague tu buena accion" (56) and the near-silent image of the corpses is powerful (see fig. 4). As Silvia Adler explains of the comics form, "Silence functions... not only as a simple absence of speech ... but also as a vehicle of a large variety of emotions and mental states ... Moreover, the narrator may turn off the vocal channel in order to invite the reader to gain understanding through observation and deduction" (2278). In the face of articulated hypocrisy, silence screams as a response.

In El arte de volar, however, the social class and resulting political position of the protagonist is of central importance, from his childhood until his death. De la Fuente Soler summarizes that Altarriba's fighting for the Republic would mark him for life as he later attempts to adapt to the post-war reality of the corrupt Franco regime (266). Although in the first moment in the development of his political ideals as an anarchist he notes "las ideas me gustan pero destruyen y matan para imponerlas ... yo prefiero la costura a la ruptura" (48), after a beating at the hands of a group of Falangists, his tone changes and he states, "Las circunstancias se encargaron de dejarme las cosas claras ... y resultaba evidente que ya no eran tiempos de costura sino de ruptura" (52). After the war and after post-war imprisonment he attempts to rebuild a life under Franco rule, but then the economic system too oppresses him. In another fantasy series of frames, the protagonist is crushed by a giant coin (that appears similar to the cookies he produced as his business), a symbol of his company, capitalism, and his financial ruin (his cookie-making business was lost due to corruption) (see fig. 5).

In this sense, the Postmemory of this graphic novel does not coincide with the polished and sanitized imagery of the Francoist victim, a victim for all. In an article from 2012 Antonio Gomez Lopez-Quinones maintains that the problem with historical memory in Spain is not its excess, as many have decried following the aforementioned boom, but rather that it does not express the heterogeneity of experiences nor the political reality that gave rise to the conflict and drove the reprisals after. In other words, given the understandable desire to construct a victimization narrative that everyone can accept through discourses of human rights, democracy, etc., the resulting memory is rendered neutralized and meaningless. Martin-Cabrera calls this kind of neutralized memory "collective victimization": "the agents of violence and aggression disappear as they conveniently delegate any juridical and ethical responsibilities to society as a whole (they too were victims after all)" (131). However, Altarriba's father is not a victim for all, he is victim for who he is, what he did, and what he believed. His struggles are not represented as the simple emblem of a united nation against a common enemy in which nobody is complicit and all suffer under a single culpable entity. His struggles are not so broad but rather are often the byproduct of his social standing and beliefs in Spain at this time, being at odds with the regime under which he lived. By appropriating the memory of his father in this graphic novel Altarriba approaches the collective but he does so without losing the individual. His personal trauma does belong to the web that is collective tragedy, but it is not subsumed by it. As such the text gives voice to the regime's victims in a way that resists the apoliticization of memory.

While it is true that all memory is processed as a narrative construct, Postmemory embraces the creative and imaginative nature of the task as a necessary part of inheriting the legacy of trauma, which flows from generation to generation. In El arte de volar and Un medico novato this active process of recuperation manifests itself in the creative and communicative capacities of the comic--the word and the image. Because they have not lived the war, it is true that Altarriba and Kim and Sento do not have personal recollections of its trauma. But it is also true that it is a part of them, and they reconcile the dissonance of identity through inherited memories by embracing the creative and imaginative necessities of approaching the past by drawing it, writing it, and sharing it.



Adler, Silvia. "Silence in the graphic novel." Journal of Pragmatics 43 (2011): 2278-85.

Ahmed, Maaheen. Openness of Comics. Generating Meaning within Flexible Structures. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2016.

Altarriba, Antonio, y Kim. El arte de volar. Alicante: Edicions de Ponent, 2009.

Chaney, Michael A. "Terrors of the Mirror and the Mise en Abyme of Graphic Novel Autobiography." College Literature 38.3 (2011): 21-44.

Colmeiro, Jose. "A Nation of Ghosts?: Haunting, Historical Memory and Forgetting in Post-Franco Spain." 425"F. Electronic Journal of Theory of Literature and Comparative Literature 4 (2011): 17-34.

De la Fuente Soler, Manuel. "La memoria en vinetas: historia y tendencias del comic autobiografico." Revista Signa 20 (2011): 259-76.

Duncan, Randy, Matthew J. Smith, and Paul Levitz. The Power of Comics. History, Form, and Culture. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Ferran, Ofelia. Working Through Memory. Writing and Remembrance in Contemporary Spanish Narrative. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2007.

Gil Gonzalez, Antonio J. "Comics and the Graphic Novel in Spain and Iberian Galicia." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 13.5 (2011). Web. 21 May 2017.

Gomez Lopez-Quinones, Antonio. "A Secret Agreement: The Historical Memory Debate and the Limits of Recognition." Memory and Its Discontents: Spanish Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century. Ed. Luis Martin-Estudillo and Nicholas Spadaccini. Hispanic Issues On Line 11 (2012): 87-116. Web. 21 May 2017.

Hirsch, Marianne. "Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile." Exile and Creativity: Signposts, Travelers, Backward Glances. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. 418-46.

--. "Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory." The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 5-37.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2002.

Labanyi, Jo. "The Politics of Memory in Contemporary Spain." Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 9.2 (2008): 119-25.

Llobell, Sento. Un medico novato. Barcelona: Ediciones Salamandra, 2014.

Martin-Cabrera, Luis. Radical Justice. Spain and the Southern Cone Beyond Markey and State. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2011.

Merino, Ana and Brittany Tulis. "The Secuential Art of Memory: The Testimonial Struggle of Comics in Spain." Memory and Its Discontents: Spanish Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century. Ed. Luis Martin-Estudillo and Nicholas Spadaccini. Hispanic Issues On Line 11 (2012): 211-25. Web. 21 May 2017.

Ricoeur, Paul. "Imagination, Testimony and Trust. A Dialogue with Paul Ricoeur." Questioning Ethics. Contemporary Debates in Philosophy. Ed. Richard Kearny and Mark Dooley. London: Routledge, 1999. 12-17.

Stafford, Katherine O. "Remembering the Perpetrators: Nationalist Postmemory and Andres Trapiello's Ayer no mas." Dissidences 5.9 (2014): 1-18.

Tronsgard, Jordan. "Ver el pasado no visto: postmemoria en Rabos de lagartija de Juan Marse." Un hispanismo para el siglo XXI. Ed. Rosalia Cornejo-Parriego y Alberto Villamandos. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2011. 261-77.

White, Hayden. "Introduction: Historical Fiction, Fictional History, and Historical Reality." Rethinking History. A Journal of Theory and Practice 9.2-3 (2005): 147-57.

Winter, Ulrich. "Images of Time: Paradigms of Memory and the Collapse of the Novel of Contemporary History in Spain (2000-2010)." Memory and Its Discontents: Spanish Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century. Ed. Luis Martin-Estudillo and Nicholas Spadaccini. Hispanic Issues On Line 11 (2012): 12-34. Web. 21 May 2017.

(1) See also Jose Colmeiro.

(2) For example, the "sex-comedy" film No lo llames amor ... llamalo X (2011) by director Oriol Capel is about the making of a porn film set in the Civil War because, as its director states, the Civil War sells.

(3) Although he does not mention comics in particular, Ulrich Winter maintains that "the image" has become the defining characteristic of memory in twenty-first century literature: "The central paradigm shift between the 1980s/1990s and the 2000s ... involves the transition from a narrative logic of the image. The term 'image' is used here to evoke two different memory-related contexts. As an epistemological paradigm, 'image' refers to the increasing plausibility in contemporary theory of a knowledge of the past that is visually or imagistically organized" (17).

(4) Sento has since published Atrapado en Belchite (2015) and Vencedor y vencido (2016), the second and third volumes in the Trilogy about Dr. Uriel.

(5) Juan Marse captures this dynamic in his novel Rabos de lagartija (2000) by giving the narrative voice to a non-witness; his "memories" belong to others as he tells the story of his Barcelonan family from the dream-like perspective of the womb. Nevertheless, he tells the story as if he were living it; the inherited memory is vivid and an intrinsic part of his identity. For more on Postmemory in Rabos de lagartija see Tronsgard.

(6) For a list of studies on Postmemory in the context of Spanish literature and culture, see Stafford. See also Ferran.

(7) The self-aware reconstruction of the memory of others is what separates these texts from previous works such as Paracuellos by Carlos Gimenez, whose comic strips portrayed his own life experiences. For more on the intersection of individual and collective histories in Gimenez's work, see Ana Merino and Brittany Tullis (213).

(8) Linda Hutcheon has also written much about the debate on the role of history and fiction. "We only have access to the past today," she explains, "through its traces--its documents, the testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials" (55). In addition to referencing the kind of texts one finds in the "Album de recuerdos" she also clarifies that historical narratives and fictional narratives are parallel creations, thus granting fiction power as a vehicle for understanding the past: "Knowing the past becomes a question of representing, that is of constructing and interpreting, not of objective recording" (70).

(9) On the other hand text is also employed to fill silence as violent onomatopoeia. In El arte de volar, for example, "PLASS!!" or "PLASH!" are employed to signal a fist striking a face, first as family violence, later on in the streets as political factions clash.

(10) For Ahmed, "openness" refers to the potential for active reader participation and reflection (4-5).

(11) It is worth mentioning that the political comic is not new. In the case of Spain, Antonio J. Gil Gonzalez explains that "The political and ideological instrumentation of the comic strip had already been tested in Spain during the Civil War by tebeos such as the Falangist Flechas or the Carlist Pelayos."

Leyenda: Fig. 1. Llobell, Sento. Un medico novato. Barcelona: Ediciones Salamandra, 2014. 29-30.

Leyenda: Fig. 2. Altarriba, Antonio y Kim. El arte de volar. Alicante: Edicions de Ponent, 2009. 201.

Leyenda: Fig. 3. Llobell, Sento. Un medico novato. Barcelona: Ediciones Salamandra, 2014. 11.

Leyenda: Fig. 4. Llobell, Sento. Un medico novato. Barcelona: Ediciones Salamandra, 2014. 56.

Leyenda: Fig. 5. Altarriba, Antonio y Kim. El arte de volar. Alicante: Edicions de Ponent, 2009. 167.
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Author:Tronsgard, Jordan
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 1, 2017
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