In Argentina, Liniers is a comics superstar. He’s been creating the daily strip “Macanudo” for more than a decade and it’s been a big international hit, published from Brazil to the Czech Republic. A collection of the strip will be released in the U.S. next year by Enchanted Lion Books.
His new book — his first to be released in the U.S. — is “The Big Wet Balloon.” The new title from Toon Books is a beautifully drawn tale of two children, Matilda and Clementina, on a rainy Saturday. It’s simple, elegant, playful and beautiful. Toon Books is also simultaneously releasing a Spanish language edition, “El globo grande y mojado.”
Comic Book Resources spoke to Liniers about the new project, the large influence American comics have had on this and other projects — and a whole lot more.
CBR News: How did you get started as a cartoonist?
Liniers: Well, it’s very hard in Argentina to live as a cartoonist. It’s a very small market and there’s basically just one spot you can get that will assure you a real life job, [Laughs] which is a daily strip in a newspaper. Then you get a paycheck every month and it’s like a real job, as my parents would say. I was really lucky because the type of cartooning that I love, that I really wanted to do when I was growing up, was daily strips. Then I was immensely lucky to get one of these spots. Not on talent, just being at the right spot at the right time. This door opens and you go through and grab the hat like in Indiana Jones as it closes and you’re on the other side. [Laughs] I was really lucky to get that spot. I was doing a weekly strip called “Bonjour.” I don’t know why the title was French, I don’t even speak it. [Laughs] Then I went from that to a daily in another newspaper and my parents sighing with relief. [Laughs]
What is “Macanudo” like? Can you describe the strip?
It’s a schizophrenic daily strip, I guess. It’s all over the place because I love everything about comics. I didn’t want to do just a “Calvin and Hobbes”-type strip with a little kid, but I wanted to do that. I didn’t want to just do experimental Tony Millionaire stuff, but I wanted also to do that. I decided I was going to do whatever I wanted with this space, so sometimes the humor will be absurd, sometimes it will be sweet, sometimes it will be dark or cryptic. What I like about that is it takes the reader by surprise. You never really know what will be on the other side of the joke. Sometimes there’s not even a joke. Sometimes it has a punchline and sometimes not. It’s very confusing, but I like it like that.
“The Big Wet Balloon” is very influenced by your children. Does your family life play a big role in the strip as well?
Yes. I draw myself within the strip and I draw myself as a rabbit. About fifteen minutes after I drew the first rabbit I went, “Wait, Matt Groening does the rabbits.” Then I went, “He’ll never find out that this guy from Argentina draws himself as a rabbit.” A few years later my sister called me on the phone and said, “Do you remember this friend of mine from school? She’s the girlfriend of Matt Groening and he wants to meet you.” I’m like, “What?” Basically he’s now married to my sister’s friend and he’s really nice. We’ve had lunch a few times. Everything’s ironed out. He was fine with it.
Even before I had kids, a lot of my work is related to childhood. I find really interesting that moment in life when you’re the most “yourself” that you are. I have a three year old, Clementina — she’s in the book — and she’s completely Clementina. [Laughs] All her urges are wild and crazy and she’s just herself. Then everybody starts shaping you and you become what you become, but that moment in time I find really interesting and I always have. Now with them I get to see it from all sides, not just trying to remember what it was like. It’s fun.
When Francoise Mouly approached me to do a book, in “Macanudo” I have a character Enriqueta and she has a little cat called Fellini and they talk to each other, kind of like “Calvin and Hobbes,” but not as good, sadly. [Laughs] She wanted to do just those strips in a book. I remember telling my agent, “Say yes to anything because I want to meet Art Spiegelman.” [Laughs] Of course I also really wanted to meet her because in the ’80s a couple issues of “Raw” magazine really destroyed my brain and reassembled it in a different way. Another publishing house called Enchanted Lion wanted to publish “Macanudo” and I really wanted that to happen as well so I said to Francoise, maybe I should do just a book for you guys? Since she liked the girl with the cat I started thinking, maybe a boy with a dog? [Laughs] Then one day it was summer and my girls — they were three and five years-old — they were on the porch of this house that we had rented. It was raining and the five-year-old ran out going, “This is great.” The three-year-old was freaking out, like, I don’t know what this is, I haven’t seen this thing happen very much. Suddenly I was like, that’s the book. I started taking photographs and sketching on the spot. I talked with my wife because I don’t really like to put them in the comics, but also, they’re great. I just I’m in love with this book way more than the others just because of these two kids that I’m a big fan of.
What was it like working with Francoise Mouly on the book?
It was great. She really understands comics. I couldn’t fight anything she said. On the one hand, she’s very opinionated. She will go, you should do this and this and this. On the other hand, she’s right. [Laughs] I have this great admiration of her as an editor. I also have a publishing house in Buenos Aires [where] I publish other cartoonists and so I really respect the editor.
You said that you started working on the book right then and there after getting the idea on that rainy day. How do you usually work?
It’s never the same because, especially when you’re a daily strip cartoonist, it’s very important not to repeat yourself. There has to be a surprise somewhere in there every day for me to have fun just drawing the thing. Something has to take me by surprise, so I never work the same way from one book to the next. Also the books that I do outside of the strip are never the strip in another format. I already have a strip and I don’t want to do that.
You’re always conscious about trying to do something different.
I also do this thing with a friend who’s a musician named Kevin Johansen. He’s a really good musician, and we started doing this show where he plays guitar and I draw while he’s playing. I couldn’t do that like I do the cartoons because the cartoons are very slow and rational and you’re thinking and trying to draw very well. With this you have just three minutes to finish this big thing. It’s way more intuitive and whatever happens happens. One time we were doing this show with a big canvas and I had to paint this in two hours. The curtain opens, he starts playing and I send kisses to my fans. I grab the cans of paint and all the brushes were bigger than the holes in the cans. [Laughs] You can’t stop the show and buy some brushes. So I just put my hand in there and said, let’s go. You can’t doubt. It’s fun because those situations bring stuff out that you wouldn’t normally do when you’re relaxed at your house and listening to Radiohead.
Did you always know that the book had to be in watercolor?
I always thought of it as watercolor. For one thing all my strips are ink and watercolor. Very old fashioned. I’m not very good with computers. Also they had to be water-y. Even if I was good with computers, I think it would have been in watercolor.
The credits mention that the book was done in ink and watercolor and drops of rain.
[Laughs] Teardrops of my girls. They were out playing, having fun in the rain and eventually they were like, Daddy, we want to come back in.” I’m going, “No no, have fun, daddy’s working.” “But we’re cold!” “Yes, but your schools are very expensive.” [Laughs]
You mentioned a collection of the comic strip is coming out in the U.S. soon?
Next year “Macanudo One” will be coming out from Enchanted Lion. I’m really looking forward to that. My influences, of course, are very Latin and I live in Argentina, but I have always read and been influenced by American comics and movies and literature. I was reading “Bloom County” in the ’80s, “Calvin and Hobbes.” I love Gary Larson. I hope American readers will get a kick out of it.
At some point a few years ago United Features called me and said, we want to have a meeting with you. I was like, this is the payday, man! [Laughs] I went to this big corporate building in New York and I started talking with these people — who were very nice — but they saw my strip doing all these things that the strip shouldn’t do. I think that’s the reason why it works. The fact that it doesn’t have a character, but it also doesn’t not have characters. Sometimes it’s all these strange types of humor and not just one type of humor. At some point I remember this woman told me — because I draw some elves with spiky hats and they fly around — elves are not like that. [Laughs] I was like, elves are not like anything, they don’t exist. [Laughs] This thing is an art form and I love it and it’s just boring to read most of them. You find two that are great. Like “Popeye.” It’s not like anyone can do “Popeye.” Seger did a great “Popeye” and that’s it. It’s like saying, “I’m going to write ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ too, because if Shakespeare could do it, I can do it.” He was Shakespeare. He was amazing. It’s not like everyone can do “Popeye,” but they just force it and keep changing authors. I don’t get that. Just find some new guys.
Here in the U.S., the daily strips keep getting shrunk. Do you have the same problem in Argentina?
No. Actually we’re getting bigger because the newspaper realizes if it’s good and if it’s original, it’s something that they can bank on. The newspaper without comic strips is the saddest newspaper. It’s like, we’re all going to die, Syria this, HIV that, and then nothing. You have to put something sweet in there. Something that says, “It’s okay, we’re not all going to die.” Something that’s weird and funny. My strip is “Macanudo” and macanudo is an Argentinian word meaning “cool.” I started publishing this strip in the midst of the worst economy in Argentina in 2002, the towers had fallen, George Bush was President, and so the newspaper was just pessimism and horrible news, and we’re all going to die, so I made them publish that little word, “Macanudo,” every day. This little word would be there every day. Because it’s not so bad. In the newspaper everything was bad but you look out the window and the birds are singing, the trees — it wasn’t “Armageddon” or “28 Days Later.”
So what else is next for you?
There’s this crazy thing in Buenos Aires which I’m beginning to develop, which will be a lot of fun — a movie with one of my characters. A live-action movie with this big huge monster that I draw. That will be fun. The guys who are doing it are really good. I think it will be fun. Even if it’s a really bad movie, I am looking forward to it. Just the process of it will be so much fun. I remember reading about John Irving being very nervous about the film “The World According to Garp” and someone told him, don’t freak out, it’s like seeing your characters you developed having a really bad haircut. So I think I’m ready for that. [Laughs]
“The Big Wet Balloon” hardcover is available now from Toon Books. You can also read a preview of the Spanish-language edition of the book right here on CBR.