Monday, December 26, 2016

Q&A with David William Foster on Latin American Graphic Narratives

Comic narrative traditions expand well beyond the multi-billion dollar Marvel and DC universes. Just as Christopher Pizzino has written about literary communities unfairly dismissing comics as juvenile in Arresting Development, Professor David William Foster
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has examined the role of provocative graphic narratives in Argentine and Brazilian cultures, where authors and artists are grappling with issues like modernity, globalization, and cross-cultural identity.
He illuminates the different social, political, and historical conditions from which these Latin American graphic narratives emerged in his new book El Eternauta, Daytripper, and Beyond: Graphic Narrative in Argentina and Brazil

Dr. Foster is Regents’ Professor of Spanish and Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University, where he also leads the Brazilian Studies Program. He is author of numerous books, including Argentine, Mexican, and Guatemalan Photography: Feminist, Queer, and Post-Masculinist Perspectives, Queer Issues in Contemporary Latin American Cinema, Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema, and Gay and Lesbian Themes in Latin American Writing.

We asked longtime UT Press author Dr. Foster about his latest research and how it intersects with the extensive research he's done on Latin American cultural output over the course of his career.

El Eternauta’s author Héctor Germán Oesterheld was disappeared during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina. How did this and his text’s political undertones help to solidify graphic narrative prestige in Latin America?

Although the term “graphic novel” was not in use at the time—nor is it particularly common even today in Argentina—what we recognize as such, as a more sophisticated version of the venerable comic book, was already extensively published in Argentina. And such publications had already begun to include running series and book-length plot developments. Osterheld was at his prime when he was disappeared, and that fact enhanced his reputation within the artistic community and its various circle of followers. Moreover, the fact that the science-fiction plot of 
El Eternauta look eerily like a parable of the military dictatorship of the 1960s through the 1980s—that is, quite avant la letter—only served to solidify the fame has to the present day, some 70 years after it was first created. 

H. G. Oesterheld and F. Solano López, El Eternauta

What do you hope readers will come to appreciate about Latin American graphic narratives?

First of all, that this format existed in Argentina quite some decades before anything like it emerged in the United States and that it exemplifies the way in Buenos Aires reaffirms, over and over again, its role as the most innovative Latin American center of cultural production. While there is today a major Brazilian production that I represent in the book, it is much more recent, although it has its own dynamic creative parameters, because São Paulo, in the Portuguese language, vies for the attention Buenos Aires merits in Spanish. Nowhere else in Latin America is there anything of the creative qualities of the production of these two countries, although promising material is beginning to come out elsewhere. Interestingly, Mexico continues to host a large mass popular inventory of a more traditional comic book nature, without out yet having anything approaching the overall artistic/intellectual tenor of the Argentine and Brazilian material.

How has globalization informed Brazil’s graphic narrative output?

Brazil is the country in Latin American that has most vigorously embraced globalization. This is for many reasons, but a principal one is in order to promote its national interests beyond what it views as having as a national language one that is spoken in only one major country of the world, unlike Spanish, which can point to a dozen major societies that use it. Thus globalization for Brazil means, among other things, showcasing its ability to compete in a world language like English. Hence, one finds in Brazil a significant cultural production in or that references English, along with many pro-American sociocultural attitudes in Brazil.

F. Moon and G. Bá, Daytripper

You’ve done extensive research on Latin American visual arts—photography, popular comics, narrative and documentary filmmaking. How does this book intersect with the research you’ve done on these other visual mediums?

When I was a university student in the late 1950s and early 1960s (my PhD is from 1964), visual culture as not a part of so-called Spanish departments. So I concentrated on what was, which was literature. But while I still work extensively with literary texts, I began to discover that my real talent was with visual culture, that I had a “knack” of quickly grasping the visual. Moreover, it was not difficult to see the continuities between the literary and the visual, beginning with the way so many films are based on literary texts or how photographs or other art work may illustrate literary texts. If there is anything original about my career, it has been the ability to sense where the profession is going and thus to be able to pioneer new research areas. I have been a pioneer in these areas of visual arts, as I have been in Latin American Jewish studies and Latin American queer and gender studies. The good fortune to work with so much material has certainly enriched immeasurably my career.

The literary text in a graphic novel is often more spare than traditional prose. Is your interest in linguistics issues heightened by the economy of language typical of this literary medium?

I am always interested in—really, quite obsessed by—language issues. Like everyone in the “Spanish” profession, I started as a language teacher and still find time to include much commentary about language in my teaching and to focus on language matters in my writing. But I must confess I haven’t really given much thought to whether the so-called spare nature of prose in the graphic novel requires particular commentary. Certainly, the semiotic burden is born by the image: one can have a graphic novel with no language, but not a graphic novel with no images. Some graphic novels have fairly extensive prose texts—Fábio Moon’s and Gabriel Bá’s work for example—but the first thing that occurs to me is that the lives of common citizens that are often featured in the graphic novel simply means that “real everyday” people speak a sparer language than so-called exceptional people might in, say, a novel of psychological development. But undoubtedly, your question goads me to be more reflective about this matter, and I will include it in the course on Latin American graphic narrative that I will be teaching in Spring 2017.

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