On Tuesday, prizewinning Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río, better known by his pen name Rius, died in the town of Tepoztlán, Morelos.
During his life he published around 120 books, all of them educational, and all featuring a unique style which has captivated Mexican students and intellectuals for decades.
Rius’s typical work could be called “The Graphic Social Documentary.” A down-to-earth, unpretentious narrative shares the page with his cartoon characters (Mexican Indians, bureaucrats, cops, drunks, old ladies in black shawls) whose speech balloons may question, confirm or pooh-pooh the narrative, usually in lively, ungrammatical and often funny street slang.
Along with copious drawings, there are old, Monty-Python-style photos and what look like clippings from the first Sears catalog, each contributing new information on the subject in question.
Rius’s books often deal with politics, religion, nutrition or health, with titles like Marx for Beginners, Mexico’s Foreign Debt, Uncle Sam’s True History and Palestine: From the Wandering Jew to the Wrongdoing Jew.
Rius’s books on religion offer an investigative, historical perspective (The Myth of the Virgin of Guadalupe, The Mormons, The Masons) or a philosophical attack (Manual of the Perfect Atheist).
The title of his most famous book on health, La Panza es Primero, is a parody of the phrase which appears on half the statues in Mexico: “La Patria es Primero” (The Fatherland Comes First), only Rius has substituted “belly” for fatherland.
This book and others, like Don’t Consult Your Doctor! discuss everything from vegetarianism, herbs, dentists and white bread to detailed instructions on how to grow sprouts. The proliferation of health food stores everywhere in Mexico, even in small villages, is almost exclusively due to Rius’s publications.
Most of the material in the above-mentioned books first appeared in the now defunct weekly comic books Los Supermachos (no translation necessary) and Los Agachados (those bent over with work, or The Downtrodden).
A typical Agachados story begins with a fat, slovenly fellow named Nopalzin lying drunk in the street. A friend pours a bucket of water over him, stands him up, and tries to convince him he should get a job:
“Save a little every week and in no time at all you’ll have a nice nest egg and won’t have to work anymore.”
“But I ain’t workin’ now!”
“You mean you won’t even consider getting a job?”
“You’re sayin’ you want me to work . . . so I kin stop workin’?”
Nopalzin soon finds himself arrested (for peeing on a government telegraph pole) and tossed into the town jail, which happens to be crowded with a group of his friends, locked up for being subversive, and huddled around the local school teacher, who is speaking.
The teacher’s words now become the narrative portion of the rest of the book, a study of the American Indian and his way of life, including details of his betrayals by the white man which the general public may never have heard about.
Rius’s take, however, is backed up by heavy research and his must surely be the only comic books in the world that include a scholarly bibliography at the end!
Many years ago I used to buy Rius’s comics to improve my Spanish and inevitably ended up learning much more than grammar and vocabulary.
I liked his unusual teaching style so much that, in 1990, I managed to write to him and to arrange to visit him at his home in Cuernavaca. There I asked him how he had become a combination of teacher and cartoonist.
RIUS: I spent some years in a Catholic seminary with the Salesian Fathers, who specialize in teaching, and I think something of that wish to be a teacher has stayed with me to this day. Anyhow, when I left the seminary, I had to find work. I ended up doing all kinds of jobs: washing glasses in a bar, selling soap from door to door, working as an office boy. Then I got more of a permanent job with a well-known funeral agency and this place was really my “university” because I have no valid diplomas of any study beyond fifth grade. You see, studies in a seminary don’t count in this country.
Now, there were some Spanish republicans working in a bookshop next to the funeral parlor and they were the ones that got me interested in reading, let’s say “leftist” literature: Karl Marx, novelists of the ‘30s like Steinback and Dos Passos, people who were writing social novels . . . . Then one day I was doodling at the funeral parlor just to kill time and in walked the editor of a humor magazine called Ja Ja (Ha Ha), and he asked me why I wasn’t drawing what we call humor blanco (white humor), the kind of cartoon you find in The New Yorker.
So the next week I started bringing him cartoons without captions, a pure copy of Saul Steinberg’s style. That’s how I got started back in 1955. I kept working at the funeral parlor and during my lunch break I’d trot my cartoons over to Ja Ja. In the same year I started doing editorial cartoons for Ovaciones. After a while, I was doing political cartoons for nearly every newspaper in the country.
PINT: Eventually your political cartoons got you into trouble, didn’t they?
RIUS: They accused me of being a communist. It was the time of the Cuban revolution and I was clearly in favor of Castro. Suddenly, three or four newspapers dropped me. It reached the point where nobody would take my cartoons and I figured I’d have to leave the profession and dedicate my life to selling soap. Cartoons didn’t seem like good business! That was when I ran into a friend of mine who did comic books. He suggested I write one of my own and the result was Los Supermachos.
PINT: Los Supermachos is hardly a typical comic book. How did you come up with that particular style?
RIUS: True, there weren’t many precedents for comics dealing with political subjects. The only one I knew of was Pogo. I can’t say I was exactly inspired by Pogo, but it did help me develop a formula for dealing with politics and characters symbolizing certain social classes in Mexican society.
PINT: If Los Supermachos represented an entirely new genre, how did you get it off the ground and how did it become so popular?
RIUS: Well, I had been doing cartoons for 10 years. People knew my name and started buying the comic. It was a gradual process, though, and I’d say it took 10 issues to reach a large enough circulation for it to stand on its own. When we had 40,000 readers, the editor felt we had made it. Success!
PINT: Is it true your publisher “stole” Los Supermachos from you?
RIUS: Well, I did Los Supermachos for two years, 1966 and ‘67. At that point, when the comic became popular, the government saw it as something extremely dangerous, especially because of its influence on students. So they simply bought the publisher. He took the comic away from me and gave it to some other artists and writers. This was by direct order of the president of Mexico. The comic book was either to disappear or be transformed into something less hostile to the government. So, since there was money to be made from it, with a circulation of 200,000, they just took it away from me. The editor gave these other people two months of secret training and they took over and kept producing “my” comic book for another eight years.
PINT: This time you weren’t planning to go back to selling soap?
RIUS: No, a friend, Guillermo Mendizabal, who loved Los Supermachos, actually sold his car, mortgaged his house and started a publishing company called Posada for the purpose of producing a similar comic with a new name, Los Agachados. In one week, I had to invent new characters, a whole new comic book.
PINT: And Los Supermachos?
RIUS: It continued to deal with politics, but with a new ideology. My character, Calzonzin [a tall Indian wrapped in an electric blanket] was turned into a sort of “running dog” for the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party].
PINT: Los Agachados outlived Los Supermachos. Why did you finally stop producing it?
RIUS: I was worn out! Unlike the authors of comics in some other countries, I didn’t have a team of six or seven people helping me. I did everything, starting with the research and ending with the inked pages. The only help I had was from my former wife for the coloring. It was heavy: I had to produce 32 or 34 pages every week. There was no time for vacations (and no one to pay for them), no time to get sick. In order to have time to get married, I had to get three issues ahead of myself.
Eventually Rius was able to turn the reams of material first published in the pages of Los Agachados into more than 100 books, many of which are still popular today and easily found on the shelves of every bookstore in Mexico. Like the earlier comics, they are distinguished by their accuracy, surprising detail and the ability to make the reader laugh out loud at the turn of every page.
Eduardo del Río will be sorely missed by several generations of Mexicans (and a number of foreigners as well), many of whom consider him their country’s greatest teacher.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years, and is the author of “A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area” and co-author of “Outdoors in Western Mexico.” More of his writing can be found on his website.