RIP Gus Arriola

Okay, much as I’m political-junkieing as much as anyone else, there are plenty of other things to talk about, and in this case this involves a man close to my family, but who I never met — at least to my knowledge. I’d almost say you should just go here to this extensive and excellent interview first before reading onward, but if you’d prefer an introduction first, read on.

Gus Arriola, who passed away this week at the ‘had a good run? no, a great run!’ age of 90, was one of two high profile comic strip artists that my grandfather was good friends with, thanks to all of them living in Carmel and Pebble Beach. The other was even higher profile — Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham — and I still own books by both that come from my grandfather’s library, autographed by their respective authors. Ketcham’s work continues as a franchise to this day, comfortable and unchanging.

Arriola’s? Mostly lost in the mass of history, more’s the pity, though there’s a compilation of strips and biography which is available and which I’ll implicitly recommend without having looked through it yet (the library has a copy but I’ve urged a coworker unfamiliar with Arriola to check it out first). But for a while there it was one of the best comic strips in America, and all the more so because it wasn’t set in America, but Mexico, where Arriola’s father had come from. As the article I link indicates, Arriola himself learned English while growing up in Arizona from reading comic strips, and without putting too fine a point on it, his future seems to have grown from that simple path to create said strip.

The strip was Gordo, which had been initially created by Arriola just before World War II. To let him tell the story in quotes:

“Gordo wasn’t my fault. Not in the beginning,” he wrote in a first-person article that appeared in The Herald in September 2006.

“I was assigned to design characters for ‘The Lonesome Stranger,’ (a 1940 cartoon spoof of “The Lone Ranger”) and they wanted Mexican bandits, which were terrible stereotypes then. One of them was a fat little fellow, which sort of changed my view on the kind of character I wanted to do for my comic strip.

“I cleaned him up a bit, made him a bean farmer and named him ‘Gordo,’ which is a nickname I had heard for fat guys.”

Arriola’s visual skill in these early strips is unquestioned — having already honed his cartooning trade with work on Krazy Kat and Tom and Jerry animations, he was able like Walt Kelly to translate his work from movies to the newspapers. But as he frankly admitted, to quote the interview I linked up top:

The early Gordos were very stereotypical, yes, and the dialogue was very broken English. A couple of editors started complaining that it was hard to read, and salesmen said it was difficult to sell. So little by little I began clearing up the dialogue and cleaning up the characters myself in order to appeal to a wider audience. When you do a humorous story strip based on human interest you can’t help but make social commentary. As I did different stories and introduced new characters I discovered that some of them were going to have to be a little brighter than my main characters. Gordo changed through the years, as I did, and got a little more information.

As time went on and Arriola fully hit his artistic and creative stride, Gordo became one of the jewels of the comic pages, never a breakout hit — 250 papers or so is a comfortable level to work on but is dwarfed by the truly massive strips, then and even now — but, like one of his inspirations George Herriman, holding a strong cachet among appreciators of the art.

It was the Sunday strips that were the absolute winners — check this link for an example of Arriola’s skill with both visuals and language (note, for instance, who the supposed drawer of the strip is), and even this is one of his lighter efforts. He grew more skilled and creative with time, like a musician whose initial work makes a splash but whose later work leaves an audience excited and in awe. In a way, he very much was a link between the world of Herriman and the world of, say, Bill Watterson, continuing the tradition that argued that there was not only a place for multicolored creativity in the room of the Sunday strip but a duty to aim high each time.

He touched more fully on Mexican culture as he went — strips focused on traditions such as the Dia de los Muertos, for example, or the spiritual artwork known as ojo de Dios — while introducing newer characters, most often in the form of talking animals, to observe, comment and have fun. There were classic goofy types — two drunken earthworms, for instance — but there was also Bug Rogers, an artistic, beatnik-dressed spider, whose webs were astonishing creations, and which gave Arriola a further chance to experiment — always one of the best features of comics and animation in any form. The fact that I can’t find any Bug Rogers strips online right now is a sad thing, but trust me — they were always a trip.

Arriola’s life was full but not without loss — his beloved son Carlin died after an illness at the age of thirty-five, and a key character in the strip based on him, Pepito, quietly disappeared as a result, making only one last appearance in the final strip as a voice on a tape recorder, an image all the more poignant when you realize this might well be a reflection of the reality of how Carlin’s parents kept him alive in memory after his passing. And while Arriola’s retirement of the strip and from active work in 1985 was more than understandable after forty-plus years of effort — no surprise that others did not continue the strip, it was as much an individual creation as Peanuts, as Krazy Kat — it’s a pity that it didn’t last longer into an age where Arriola might have been tempted to establish a Web presence, however low-key, to help preserve it.

He passed after having suffered Parkinson’s disease, no easy thing for anyone but surely all the more frustrating for a visual artist (and one of the reasons for his retirement, as he noticed the initial tremors settling in), but with his wife of 65 years by his side. His legacy is too underrated still but there, among those comic artists who are Mexican and American and make no apologies for being both — most obviously Los Bros Hernandez or the brilliant Lalo Alcaraz, but hardly limited to them — and each are all as different from the others as they are similarly incredibly skilled in their work. With the upcoming comic protest protesting how in most papers, in Alcaraz’s words, “We’ve got one black guy and we’ve got one Latino. There’s not room for anything else,” it’s good to honor the memory of someone who helped kick the doors down sometime back in his own way. Some of his views might be seen as of another time to a newer generation, perhaps — but let him sum up Gordo’s appeal in the conclusion of that long interview I’ve linked:

As a funny strip that had some heart and soul, because that’s what I poured into it. Something that was unique in its time, which it was because it was the only one in the paper that had a definite ethnic background. Gordo was a Mexican from Mexico. I don’t know what the rest of the comics are these days—they aren’t called anything. I guess they’re just Americans.

UPDATE: Maggie Thompson’s short appreciation of Arriola is a good read, and with a tip of the hat to her I’ll quote what was Arriola and his wife’s farewell to their audience when the strip concluded in 1985:

“Dear Friends — After 43 years of relentless delineation, today we draw … a conclusion.

“Through this popular medium, we have tried to maintain a daily awareness of our southern neighbor, creating an interest in its history and culture with entertaining human-interest situations. We hope that it has made some measurable contribution to inter-American understanding.

“Given the nature of current rising tides, it behooves us to steer Gordo’s little ark of decorum to saner shores.

“To all of you who have written such warm words of appreciation and to the publishers, who provided the forum, heartfelt gracias.

“We leave with a line from Yeats — ‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

“Ta ta! Hasta la vista! Love, Mary Frances Sevier and Gus Arriola.”

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