Beatnik Buenos Aires

Transporting the reader back to the arts scene of Argentina in the sixties, Fantagraphics’ translation of Beatnik Buenos Aires, by Diego Arandojo and Facundo Percio, is an atmospheric exploration of the interconnected lives and passions of the artists and dreamers searching for meaning in the smoky cafes and dim streets brimming with an energy only found after the sun has set.

With no central plot, Beatnik Buenos Aires weaves together anecdotes and episodes from the true lives of various artists, writers, and other creatives that lived and worked amidst an artistic landscape now sixty years past. In the opening note, Arandojo explains how the comic grew out of interviews and research that were part of his documentary on the same time period. While more an artistic exploration than a traditional nonfiction comic, the pages of this book are inhabited by very real people. In various chapters, they move from center stage to the background and then return, inviting the reader to sit alongside them in the cafes full of voices and poetry and debate about the meaning of art and life. In piecing together these separate stories, a greater whole takes shape, a whole that offers glimpses into who these people were, into the things that drove them so fiercely to create, to understand, to leave their mark on the world.

Arandojo’s writing is restrained, moving from dialogue and narration to poetic quotes and references to the existing work of the comic’s subjects. The Buenos Aires he captures is not always a place of beauty. Many of these artists struggle in darkness. A man seduced by a charismatic leader stands in front of an oncoming train. A boy’s piano playing serves as a source of both beauty and strife. The subjects of these stories are sex and violence, politics and passion. This is not an idealized view of the artistic process. Rather, it carries the reader into the tumult and conflicts that form the soil from which so much art has grown. Quiet, sometimes grim, tinged with social upheaval and glimpses of the unreal—Beatnik Buenos Aires seeks out the beating hearts amidst the successes, failures, and raw humanity of the people it explores.

Arandojo’s script is brought to marvelous life in Percio’s hazy charcoal artwork. The Argentina we encounter in these pages is a time past; it is almost a dream. Its subjects are all-too real, but their longings are mythic. Under cover of darkness, huddled together in shared isolation, adrift in a world they seek to understand—Percio’s characters live and love and fight under the dim lights of the cafes they call home.

As a comic, Beatnik Buenos Aires seems to have a simple goal—to capture some piece of a time that is past and the people who lived there. Its themes are as varied as its subjects, but the book and its creators do not set out with a message. They bear witness. And in the closing pages, as Arandojo provides some context for each chapter, the lives of these creatives are set down so that we might catch a glimpse through a window, or through the cigarette smoke of a noisy room—and in that glimpse, perhaps we see the world a little differently than we did before.

The publisher does not offer a specific age recommendation, but the book will appeal most to older readers. Generally subdued and occasionally bleak, Beatnik Buenos Aires does include strong moments of realistic sex, nudity, and violence. Combining this with the overall themes and content, the book aims comfortably at an adult audience with potential appeal to older teens.

In total, Beatnik Buenos Aires is a quiet book hovering at the edges of complex lives and big questions. With controlled writing and a strong artistic style, it’s a worthy read for any audience interested in artistic and cultural history, realistic stories, or comics operating with more traditionally literary sensibilities. Intriguing and well-delivered, it may lack the wide appeal of some other titles on the shelves, but for the right audience, it’s a book worth both reading and revisiting.

Beatnik Buenos Aires Vol.
By Diego Arandojo
Art by  Facundo Percio
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964032

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Argentinian
Character Representation: Argentinian

The Silence of Malka

Winner of the Best Foreign Graphic Album at the Angoulème Festival in Belgium and recently translated into English from the original French text, this version of the traditional Jewish legend of the Golem is innovative for me, a person who has collected these legends for a long time.

Inspired by oral stories told to the author by his grandmother, the story follows young Malka and her family from the pogroms of the Russian shtetl to the Argentine pampas to better their living conditions at the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, things are not much improved for them in this new scorched country. A visit from the prophet Elias to Malka’s uncle results in the creation of a Golem to aid and protect the new comers. Their mythical Golem, created from the earth, resembles a human and lives among the people as a neighbor peacefully for many years.

As time passes, however, another danger emerges when the Golem aids the family in taking an ill child, on the recommendation of their doctor, to the indigenous Old Wise Medicine Woman, Tomasa. The child is fine but the Golem and Tomasa’s young niece, Rosita, notice each other. Events escalate when Tomasa prepares a love potent which backfires horrifically. The Golem murders Rosita and then, running amuck as the Golem often does in the variants of these legends, he continues his murderous journey. Years later Malka, now an adult, meets Elias and is told the Golem’s story and instructed on how to destroy the monster who has continued his murderous journey as a bodyguard to corrupt politicians and gangsters.

The story is equally violent and hopeful, with a wide and vivid array of brightly and menacingly illustrations ardently activating this powerful tale. The imaginative layout and strong artwork bring, simultaneously, a historical time alive and subtly highlights the relevancy to today’s political environment. All while reworking one of the most powerful Jewish legends and breathing fresh air into its creation.

Prefacing the story is an essay by the author describing the genesis of his story and a concise history of the Jewish journey from Russia to a land of promise. There are also numerous sketches, figure studies, and full page watercolor paintings that follow the story itself, enclosing the hardcover graphic novel in a circle of love, memory, tragedy and hope.
Highly recommended.

The Silence of Malka
by Jorge Zentner
Art by Rubén Pellejero
ISBN: 9781684052875
IDW, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)