Bernardo Fernández (Bef): "You can build a complete universe with just a sheet of paper and ink": A Conversation with Radmila Stefkova
Bernardo Fernández, better known as "Bef" (Mexico City, 1972) is a Mexican writer, comic artist and graphic designer. He gained popularity with the crime novel Time of Scorpions, winner of the Silverio Cañadas Memorial Prize in the Semana Negra in Gijón, Spain. He is one of the most recognized graphic novelists, as well as science fiction writers, in his country. His most prominent graphic publications include the comic Monorama 1 & 2 (Resistencia, 2007 y 2009), Spiral, a recursive comic (Alfaguara, 2010), Uncle Bill (Sexto Piso, 2014) and The Yellow Instant (Ocean, 2017). Bef is a big promoter of graphic narrative and is frequently found in workshops, conferences and book fairs.
Radmila Stefkova: Tell me about your beginnings, how and when did you start writing and drawing books?
Bernardo Fernández: It has been my main vocation since I was very young. I always drew, since I can remember I have always been drawing. The toy that kept me quiet was a sketchbook. When I was four or five years old, my mom, who is a preschool educator, told me, "let’s make a comic story." She divided the page for me with two lines, four vignettes, and in that moment, I knew that by dividing the page you can build a complete universe through drawing and narration. With something so modest, like a sheet of paper or cardboard and ink. Seeing the cartoons on television in the seventies was what shaped my vocation for graphic narration even further. At fifteen, I began to read tons of superhero comics, especially Batman, and around the age of seventeen I started ordering comics from the United States. It wasn’t common in Mexico at the time. I used to order them with my friend David Cándido, another kid who read comics ,and we got Dark Knight, Storm, and Watchmen. It’s been almost thirty years now. I had it clear from the beginning, but in Mexico there was no way to publish comics other than the popular comic strip, the Mexican historieta.
RS: You work with several genres: police novels, comics, graphic novels. How do you decide the way in which you are going to tell a story? What can a graphic novel express that a traditional textual narrative cannot?
BF: I don’t know, I also ask myself a lot about this, but it's a very intuitive for me. There are stories that come and that I think work best with this conjunction between the word and the image. Uncle Bill was a case in which I was very tempted to write it and not draw it. I have never drawn the characters for my detective novels. But it is totally intuitive, I don’t have it rationalized. Also, from my generation, I was the one who drew with more modest resources. I was very insecure about my drawing until recently. At first, I started with scripts, then with stories and novels. My narrative project was to draw the comics with words, stealing many resources from comics. My detective novels get a lot of influence from Frank Miller. For me it is a single project with two faces. It took me a long time to get encouraged to draw stories. I never thought that, from my entire generation in the last thirty years, I was going to be the one to publish the most graphic novels in this country.
RS: You mention several people who have influenced you. To understand Bef, what books and people should we keep in mind? Who inspires or teaches you?
BF: There are two key authors. The Canadian cartoonist Seth, with his novel It's a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. It is my favorite graphic novel. It’s an autobiographical novel where he speaks of his obsession with another cartoonist who published in the fifties and Seth discovers that they draw very similarly, separated by thirty or forty years. It is a fundamental novel in my work for two reasons. One, because it uses the retro line, a clear line for drawing, but it also deals with very intimate, very small stories. Of course, I am attracted to making comics with an epic story and apocalyptic fantasy, but I like intimate stories more. At first glance, they appear small, but they tell something very big. For example, The Yellow Instant or Uncle Bill are stories of very small dimensions, very human, but they contain these distortions that seem profound to me. The other author is Chester Brown, also Canadian. His Playboy is the discovery of sexuality through masturbation, by looking at Playboy magazines. After thirty years, he published Paying for It, about the life of a client of prostitutes. Two complementary works on guilty sexuality in a seemingly utopian society, like Canada's. They deal with the great emptiness. The graphic resources of Brown are also minimalist, and it seduces me a lot. And of course, in all the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, we all come from the trinity of Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore. But the direct influence on my work is, on the other hand, from Charles Burns. During my travels in South America, I discovered that Burns has been extremely influential in a lot of South American cartoonists, in Mexico not so much. I don’t think he knows this, but he has a huge influence on Peruvian and Chilean artists. I also have a weakness for Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes, but I don’t feel much influence in graphic terms. I was influenced by the Belgian cartoonist Yves Chaland. They don’t use the term “graphic novel,” but rather “album,” and he has a very nice one called The Elephant Graveyard. In the eighties, the French-Belgian artists decided to reassess and regain the aesthetic of Tin Tin, of the clean line. The Graveyard by Chaland is an exploration of Africa in the fifties. I first encountered his work at the age of fifteen to seventeen, and it blew my mind. Since then, there’s been an ongoing joke that I’m trying to copy him for the past thirty years. There are two Mexican cartoonists, one is Abel Quezada, a newspaper cartoonist, great master of cardboard politics, and the other is German Butze. He did a series called Los Supersabios, fabulous adventures of two students. It's a very strange comic book in Mexico, because almost all the popular comics are inspired by melodrama and this one is a hilarious science fiction adventure with a clean line drawing. Finally, cinematographically, I am influenced by the work of the Cohen brothers and the early work of Jim Jarmush.
RS: The genre of the graphic novel is still studied primarily through its history and development in the US, Europe or Japan. What should be considered in order to understand the Mexican graphic novel? Does it have different characteristics? A different development?
BF: What happens is that Mexico was a crossroads of four very powerful traditions in graphic narrative. Of course, there is the American and Canadian tradition, the later has always been on the margin of this, but it has been very important. On the other hand, there is the Franco-Belgian tradition, which sometimes includes Italians and around which all European comic traditions flourish, the Spanish and German traditions, for example. The Japanese tradition, of course, has a massive power. And finally, the one that is somewhat invisible, at least in Mexico, is the South American tradition with centers in Argentina and Chile as big cartoon producers. They began to value comic art many years before it happened in the United States. They started collecting it in the form of books and were very aware of the fact that it is a literary vehicle. Brazil also has a huge cartoon industry, but it has the language barrier, or at least it had it in the past. In Mexico these four traditions were crossed, the North American, European, Japanese and South American. We could get European comics through Spain, American comics by Marvel and DC without a problem, South American comics with some difficulty, and Japanese comics. In the USA at that time, for example, it was impossible to get anything from Valerien and you couldn’t find Batman in Paris in the beginning. What we had here was this crossing, and we are a kind of a crossroads of these four traditions. Artists had the opportunity to embrace the tradition that they liked the most. In Mexico, there is no national identity within graphic narrative, the authors are very diverse, precisely because they had access to all this material.
RS: Is there influence from artists like José Guadalupe Posada?
BF: The root of the entire popular graphic, and I'm talking about the cartoonists and also the graphic novelists, is Posada. But he died in 1915, it's been a long time. Since the thirties there has been a big tradition of popular comics, a gigantic industry. But they are disappearing, because the writers did not see themselves as authors but as producers of a smaller craft. The comics were meant for people to read on public transport, aimed at the popular and semi-literate classes. The authors saw themselves as modest collaborators of a bigger entertainment industry. On the other hand, they didn’t know how to renew themselves in terms of discourse. The few comics that survive seem like they were drawn in the seventies. There is a group that is in the middle of these generations and that takes refuge in the political cartoon, which is the case of Eduardo del Río (Rius). Rius started with comics and turned them into books. With his twelve books, without knowing it, he became the first antecedent of the graphic novel in Mexico, that is, the comic that arrived at the bookstore and that now has a totally different status from the popular magazine. The three big names from that generation are Rius, Helioflores, and Rogelio Naranjo. All of them collaborated with newspapers. They created Uno más uno, which later disappeared and became La Jornada. Magú, the Fisgón, Luis Fernando, and Manuel Ahumada all collaborated. Cara de memorandum by Manuel Ahumada is the first attempt at a graphic novel, based on lyrics by the rock singer Jaime López, but it remained an attempt that wasn’t published until 25 years later, in 2012. The work by Jis and Trino was an ice-breaker with their character Santos, which begins with a parody of Santos the luchador, but he is this delirious, strange, drug-addicted character. They gave themselves the liberty of a sensational eschatology in their comics. They were a great inspiration for my generation. What I wanted to emphasize is that all these contemporary authors didn’t come out of the popular comic industry and its rigid structure. It's another environment, another era. Also, many of us came from self-publishing. There is a very strong link between contemporary comic production and counterculture in Mexico.
RS: How do you see the graphic novel scene in Mexico currently and its future? Has there been changes in terms of readership, publishing, authorship?
BF: Totally, this process should have happened a long time ago, it was a bit slow. But I was always very optimistic about the future. In spite of my lack of talent for drawing, what I did have was persistence. I sensed that we had a virgin space that needed to be economized. It’s true, a big editorial like Oceano published one of my graphic novels and it happened because I started publishing police novels. I had to enter through the door of the novel, and it was a very difficult building to enter. My editor at that time told me that the graphic novel is “quantum physics”, it is very complicated. And a few years ago, when this genre started to bloom, the same person came along saying, “let’s publish a graphic novel.” I said, “wasn’t it quantum physics?” He responded, “yes, but quantum physics has come a long way.” This process should have happened in Mexico in the eighties, it took thirty years. But now it is happening and there are many authors, several of them self-publishing and several of us publishing with established editorials. Edgar Clement published with Planeta in 1994 but at that time they didn’t know what to do with his book, commercially. We’re at a different stage right now. Ricardo Peláez finally completed Complot Mongol and published it with the Fondo de Cultura Económica, it was a stellar launch in the International Book Fair in Guadalajara. Now there is also institutional support. There are several scholarships, congresses, last year IBF in Guadalajara opened a salon dedicated to comics and graphic novels. I think for the first time I see a horizon and some possibilities and right now the “ball is on our side,” on the side of the authors. And we have an obligation to provide quality material, because there is interested readership out there. My book, El instante amarillo was a success and Uncle Bill had to be reprinted. I think it's the first graphic novel in Mexico to have a reedition with the same publisher.
RS: What projects can we expect in the future?
BF: I'm completing a new graphic novel. More than a novel, it is a graphic testimony. My oldest daughter has autism, so what I'm doing is writing a testimony of the moment when her mother and I were given the diagnosis. There isn’t much precise information about autism. I don’t have a title yet. Miguel Gallardo suggested that I call it Everything I Don’t Know About Autism and I like that because it also looks like the titles that Rius used for his books and it has a didactic nature. There is a chapter that is drawn totally as a copy of his style, as a posthumous tribute. It was very difficult to copy, the drawings seemed very simple, but the construction was very complex.
Radmila Lale Stefkova
University of California, Santa Barbara