New Internationalist

RIUS: Method in his madness

Issue 080

I want to read and write,” a Brazilian peasant once said, “so that I can stop being the shadow of other people.” A fundamental truth is caught up in the emotion of those words - for communication, successful communication, is a must if development is to mean anything. Certainly there can be communication without development; but there cannot be development without communication. On this page PETER STALKER profiles Rius, a radical Mexican cartoonist.

Photo: Peter Stalker
Photo: Peter Stalker

Rius’ radical bi-weekly comic, ‘The Underdogs’, is a best-seller amongst the Mexican poor. Here we look at some examples of the work that Rius has done in ‘The Underdogs’ aimed at communicating the sort of basic useful information not available in the ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ comics that he competes with on the news-stands. Then, on page 18, there is a profile of ‘Famille et Developpement’, sub-Saharan Africa’s self-help magazine which reaches half a million readers in 17 developing countries.

For a communicator it doesn’t always pay to be too successful - as Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Rio knows to his cost.

‘Back in 1969 1 was kidnapped by the Army and taken during the night to a deserted mountain. They stood me next to what looked like a grave and pointed machine guns at me.’

Fortunately it was only a warning - to try and dissuade him from attacking the government. That was a time of student rioting and they felt, wrongly he says, that he was one of the intellectual leaders. The present Mexican government is however more tolerant of criticism. ‘Now for the first time we can even do cartoons against the President.’

His purpose however is to educate rather than attack. Working under the pen name of RIUS he is probably best known to English-speaking readers for cartoon books like Marx for Beginners and Cuba for Beginners. But in Mexico he turns out a comic book every two weeks called Los Agachados (The Underdogs) which also tackles important subjects in a way that ordinary people can understand. Each issue sells over 100,000 copies.

Comic sales in Mexico are often high. However, as Rius explains, ‘they are all American comics; like Superman and Batman for children and romantic comics for adults. Mine was the first really Mexican comic.’

His output is distributed through ordinary commercial channels - and that has caused him problems. The publisher, back in 1965 when he started, was only in it for the money and was eventually dissuaded from using Rius by the government.

‘They were afraid of the influence it was having particularly in schools, talking about things like corruption and electoral fraud, and told the editor that he should be more "practical".’ The editor took the practical step of sacking Rius.

Now fortunately he has a publisher more sympathetic to his ideas, and his political views. These it seems have been formed in rather strange surroundings.

‘I started out training to be a priest in a seminary. But I gave that up and went to work in a funeral home. I worked there for seven years. I was in charge of the telephone. It was very quiet. So I was able to read a lot of political books by American and Mexican writers.’

After that he began submitting humorous and then political cartoons to the Mexican newspapers. He worked for many but was eventually fired by one after the other for his political views. Then he moved onto more political magazines, some of which like Politica were eventually closed down by the government in 1968. He still, however, does produce cartoons for political magazines in addition to his books and the bi-weekly comic.

And his work does have an effect. His comics and books on food for example have helped change the way many Mexicans look at the way they eat.

‘The most important effect of the food books was the creation of a National Consumers Institute which is now attacking the transnational food companies, and explaining, for example, how white bread is made and how bad it is for children.’

He faces strong opposition of course. ‘It is hard to fight what the television programmes from America say, and all the things they are trying to sell.’

And even with very respectable sales he is still a fairly small operation and knows that he can only get through to a certain section of the population.

‘It is difficult for the peasants to use my books, firstly because many of them cannot read and secondly because they cannot afford the 20c to buy the comics.’

But he does get through to the younger urban Mexicans. His book on the Story of Capitalism is very popular and is even used as a text book in high schools. In fact the demand from schools is such that he is now thinking of branching out from being a one-man industry (not strictly true, his wife colours the comics) and employing other cartoonists. The aim is to produce comics that will try to explain everything from Hegel to Relativity Theory. That sounds ambitious - especially since he still wants to produce his books and political cartoons for Mexican magazines. How does he manage it all?

‘Well’, he shrugs; ‘I’m crazy’.

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