'Peanuts' of Latin America heads north

Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau has called him "a cartoon master working the outer edges of sweet dementia." Gary Larson, the man behind "The Far Side," has wondered why he "doesn't enjoy a higher profile" in the US.

Wonder no further.

Joaquín Salvador Lavado, known as Quino, is widely regarded as the best cartoonist ever to hail from Latin America. Now the Charles Schulz of the Spanish-speaking world is coming to America.

As celebrations mark Quino's 50 years of work, US readers have a fresh chance to explore his work. Last month, the first English translations of his most famous creation, Mafalda, a 5-year-old inspired by the Peanuts series, began appearing in US bookstores. Quino's publishers hope the little girl's view of the world as it was then - an optimistic Argentina of the 1960s, preoccupied with the Vietnam War and US-Soviet arms race - resonates with a modern US concerned with Iraq and WMD.

Quino's publishers say the interest is already there. "For the last four or five years, I have received around 50 e-mails a month from English speakers who come across Mafalda and write to ask why they cannot read the strip in English," says Daniel Divinsky, Quino's publisher at Ediciones de la Flor.

Mafalda first appeared in Argentina in 1963 and ran for a decade. Published during a time of economic optimism and cultural openness following the dictatorship of Juan Perón, Mafalda is a record of the dreams of the aspiring middle class, a theme illustrated early on when Mafalda's family gets its first TV set.

But it was at the height of Mafalda's success that Quino suddenly stopped doing the strip, a decision the little girl's fans still ask him about. In fact, for years Quino had an ambivalent relationship with his most famous creation, which overshadowed his subsequent work.

The Argentine writer and journalist Andrew Graham-Yooll, who oversaw Mafalda's translation into English, suspects Quino's decision to stop doing Mafalda might have been linked to Argentina's turn from the optimism of the 1960s toward the bloodshed and violence of the 1970s, which would culminate in the murderous military dictatorship of 1976-83.

"I wonder if Quino just said for the time being there is no place for this little girl in a society that is seriously shooting itself," says Mr. Graham-Yooll. Quino turned down requests for an interview.

Others see a brave artistic decision to quit while at the top. "I love Quino because he stopped doing Mafalda. Mafalda is like the Beatles. When they were at their best - pah! - they quit," says Miguel Rep, called "the most original cartoonist that Argentina has produced in recent years" by Quino himself.

Quino's later work is as likely to make the reader think as laugh. In a cartoon published weekly in Argentina's Clarín newspaper and syndicated widely, Quino tackles such topics as the claustrophobia of urban life, inequality, lust, and greed, always choosing to condemn their practice instead of their practitioners.

"Quino takes on these big issues, these universal themes, but he presents them at a basic level. All politics are personal, they say," notes Clay Bennett, the Monitor's editorial cartoonist and a Quino fan.

Quino is not for every taste. Frequently, cartoons deal with suicide, frank depictions of nudity, and jabs at the "yanquis" to the north. A book of his work titled "The World of Quino" appeared in the United States in 1986, but his humor failed to catch on as it had throughout Latin America, much of Europe, and as far a field as China and Japan.

Quino is sanguine yet sober about his contribution to the world.

"I don't believe humor can alter anything," Quino once said. "But sometimes it can be the little grain of sand that acts as a catalyst to change."

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