10.4185/RLCS-2016-1093en | ISSN 1138 - 5820 | RLCS # 71 | 2016 | |
The promotion of democracy in political cartoons. The themes of cartoons in the Basque newspaper Egin (1977)
Aitor Castañeda Zumeta [CV] [ORCID] [GS] Universidad del País Vasco (UPV/EHU) - email@example.com
Translation by CA Martínez Arcos (PhD in Communication from the University of London)
Graphic humour, which is a journalistic genre that emerged in the second half of the 19th century, has a long tradition in Spain. Authors such as Iván Tubau have defined it as “the best in the world” (Tubau, 1973). From the perspective of social communication, graphic humour is an opinion genre in journalism (authors like Armañanzas and Díaz Noci have also termed it “iconographic opinion”) that is used to express certain ideas that otherwise would be difficult to transmit.
In Spain there are very well known illustrations, like the ones drawn by the Bécquer brothers, which were published in Madrid in the 19th century in underground almanacs and in the 1991 book Los Borbones en Pelota (“The Bourbons in the Nude”), which showed pornographic cartoons and illustrations of the court of Isabel II. In this regard, Ramón Reig recalls some curious anecdotes that took place in Spain during the Franco regime as a result of graphic humour:
Similarly, in modern times, we have witnessed the bickering between El Jueves magazine and the Spanish Crown, as well as the bloody attack of 2015 on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine. All these conflicts have been caused by the “threat” of cartoons and illustrations.
This is because graphic humour as a social phenomenon does not only seek to make people laugh, but it often aims to sublimate the personal situations of the creator, in order to get rid of an internal burden that otherwise would not be overcome.
One of the most prominent authors in aesthetic theories, the German Juan Pablo Richter, who has also written a benchmark essay on humour, argues that after every pathetic tension, people ordinarily experience the need for the rest that humour provides (Richter, 1812: 147). In the same way, the Spanish author Gil Fernández, who studies Aristophanic comedy, concludes that:
Finally, Galician Professor Siro López, in a book that precedes the essay by Celestino Fernández de la Vega, O segredo do humour (“The secret of humour”), argues that:
Subtlest humour comes from the oppressed minorities who use it to pause their difficult existence (...). People who suffer or have suffered often have defence mechanisms that manifest in the great talent of using humour as evasion” (López, 2005: 22)
If all of this is true, there is no doubt that the authoritarian pressure practiced through the centuries on Spanish people could have given them acute sense of humour, which has been reflected by their best artists through their iconographic opinion. This is the focus of this study, taking as a starting point one of the most conflictive regions of Spain in political and social terms: The Basque Country. The study will focus on the socially tense transition of 1977, and the graphic humour of one of the most combative newspapers that have ever existed in the region: Egin.
1.3. The interests and graphic humour of Egin
Egin (“make” or “making” in Basque language) was a leftist, nationalist, bilingual, newspaper, which was launched on September 29, 1977 by the publishing company Orain (from Hernani, Guipúzcoa). Its emergence changed, together with Deia (“call”), the Basque newspaper landscape, firstly, because both newspapers changed the geographical scope of dissemination; although at that time the “Basque press”, which would cover at least the Basque provinces, did not exist as such . Like Deia, Egin started with editions in the Basque provinces and Navarre, but also had offices in the French Basque Country, thus covering the space culturally known as “Euskalerria” .
They were nationalist newspapers that aimed to “serve their country”. While Deia was close to the Basque Nationalist Party, Egin was an ally of the broad spectrum of the Abertzale left, which devoted large spaces of expression to certain groups hitherto silenced by the official press.
Egin also had a strong impact on the newspapers of that time, of which only El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco and El Diario Vasco adapted themselves to the modern times. These newspapers are currently the senior media of Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, respectively. In 1980, Egin had a circulation of 41,400 copies per day (OJD, 1981), and its limit was always of approximately 50,000 (Mainer & Juliá, 2000: 214).
Initially the newspaper responded to the multi-faceted spectrum of the Abertzale left, but during its last year its editorial board split in two due to an attack perpetrated by ETA in Pamplona . The condemnation of this event resulted in the resignation of then-director Mariano Ferrer, and the subsequent radicalisation of the newspaper, which became an advocate of the then outlawed “Herri Batasuna” (Coca & Martínez, 1993: 31). The paper was closed by the National Court of Spain on 15 July, 1998, for its relation with the terrorist group. The accusation was later dismissed but the newspaper was never reopened.
1.3.1. Socio-political context of the Basque Country and Navarre in the late 1970s
According to data provided by Coca and Martínez, the 1970s were a particularly conflicting time in the Basque Country:
The repression by the regime began to weaken during the last years of the dictatorship, which contrasted with the social desire to overthrow Franco. In the Basque Country the terrorist group ETA began to take shape and assassinated Carrero Blanco in 1973. The move towards democracy was especially rough, because the direction of the new regime was unclear. However, this direction was gradually clarified as the transition began. It is precisely in this period in which this research is framed.
On 15 December, 1976, Adolfo Suárez called for general elections for the so-called Political Reform, which paved the legal path to a new Constitution. The broad social support for this reform resulted on 16 January 1977 in the first general elections for delegates to the Spanish to courts, in which Suarez’s party was successful.
However, despite the political efforts to advance towards democracy, there was certain inertia inherited from the recent dictatorship. At the social level in the Basque Country, new movements emerged to promote amnesty for political prisoners and there were constant demonstrations of workers, including the one of 3 March 1976 in Vitoria, in which the State police forces killed 5 workers and injured more than 100 in an assembly of workers on strike.
At the journalistic level, the Prensa del Movimiento publishing group selected and leaked pieces of journalistic information, with the help of the civilian governments, yet to be democratised. They selected the versions of the events and their dissemination through the official press, being the national news agency Cifra the only one that provided information to the media at the national level. Specifically, the Association of Journalists of Vitoria made public their unease towards the framing of the events of 3 March by the official press (Díaz Noci, 2012: 199). As the freedom of the press became obvious, anti-regime publications like Deia and Egin began to emerge, and to receive attacks from far-right groups, as it is the case of Punto y Hora de Euskal Herria magazine, edited in Pamplona and attacked in October 1977. At the national level, it is important to mention the attacks against the satirical magazine El Papus in September of the same year, also by extreme-right groups.
The factor of national identity should be added to this tangled socio-political context in the Basque Country. In this sense, the case of Navarre deserves special attention because, as it will be shown later, the territorial conflict was particularly difficult to solve here because its provincial government, in the hands of Traditionalists, and the Members of the Courts elected in 1977 by the Union of the Democratic Centre (3 of 5), wanted to maintain its provincial government and strongly opposed sharing their statute with the Basque provinces, in opposition to nationalist and left-wing forces, which sought the political and administrative union of the two regions. The problem, which prevails to this day, had a special force during the transition to the current state of the autonomous communities, in which Navarre is finally left out of the Statute of Guernica (1979). References to this issue are a constant in Egin, as we will later see.
Therefore, 1977 is a year in which the transition to the current Constitution is near and the inertias of the previous regime continue to slow down the democratisation process of the country. In the Basque Country, the territorial conflict, labour tensions, the lack of freedom of expression and a society divided in the political realm made the content of Egin to be special academic interest during the selected year.
1.3.2. The “Solasjaipausa” section
Without a doubt one of the most interesting aspects of Egin was the “Solasjaipausa” (“Funnies”) section, which dedicated an entire page to graphic humour. It is worth noting that this section made many readers to begin reading the newspaper backwards because it was located in the last page (Lorente, 2015: 532). It is also important to remember that democracy was not yet consolidated at this time, so that graphic humour magazines such as El Papus were closed and attacked by extreme-right groups. In this context, Egin’s bet on this genre was, therefore, highly risky.
An immediate antecedent of “Solasjaipausa” is found in the Basque magazine Anaitasuna (“brotherhood”), which included a page with cartoons and pastimes, titled Zapaburua (“tadpole/little guy”), which included the work of the cartoonists who later joined Egin. This is the case of the then well-known cartoonists Juan Carlos Eguillor (from Bilbao), whose illustrations were already published in posters and the press, and Jon Zabaleta (from Guipúzcoa), who was also a prestigious illustrator of children’s books and didactic material for the teaching of the Basque language. Meanwhile, Antonio Olariaga, who created the character “Kaléko” (“Street child”) for Anaitasuna, began his career as a cartoonist in the Basque press in Egin, given that so far he had only worked as cartoonist and illustrator in Valencia’s Las Provincias newspaper (GFA, 1998, paragraph 1).
It was Olariaga who created the popular character of “Zakilixut” (“Stiff- penis”), which still appears in the last page of the Basque-language Berria newspaper. He also designed the structure of the page itself. The top of the page contained Zabaleta’s comic strip series, titled “Barraskiloa eta Elefantea” (“Elephant and snail”), which represents, with a childish drawing style, a dreamlike world where elephants and snails interact, usually in a silent way, and imply stories with sometimes not-so innocent messages.
The following comic strip was a Spanish series with a Basque name created by Eguillor: “Beltza-Superbeltza” (“Black-Superblack”), which satirised the vast urban typology of Bilbao through mass movements and crazy characters who spoke a type of Spanish that is full of Basque idioms. After this comic, Olariaga included his series “Zakilixut”, where the main character, a solitary young man obsessed with sex, compares everything he sees with obscene figures.
Next to these artists, and next to the comic strip of Eguillor, journalist Angel Lertxundi created, with the help of Olariaga, a daily comic text in Basque, titled, “Juana Bixenta Olabe, parlamentarien neskame” (“Juana Vicenta Olabe, the parliamentarians’ maid”). Juana Bixenta Olabe is a character who writes to members of Parliament who gathered in the Basque General Council, which was responsible for drafting the first statute of autonomy. With a particularly sarcastic tone, Juana Bixenta Olabe criticises the activities of her bosses and the political situation of the time. It is an editorial text in a newspaper that did not make use of this section, which constituted an action of greater openness.
The bottom of the “Solasjaipausa” page contained a pastimes section that included alphabet soups, crosswords, puzzles and brain games designed by Olariaga, both in Basque and Spanish. Therefore, the page was divided in four sections, and three of them were exclusively dedicated to comic strips.
Graphic humour was also commonly found in the inner pages of the newspaper, in the form of cartoons and illustrations by the abovementioned artists, as well as other cartoonists such as “Endika” and his “Txingurritxoak” (“Little ants”) series. In October 1977, the aforementioned artists had the opportunity to publish educational comics for children in the pages of the newspaper, under the collective name “Ipurbeltz” , which also had the participation of Jesús Lucas, Tomás Hernández Mendizábal, Mikel Plazaola, Alemán Almundarain and Hilario Urkia.
Figure 1. The “Solasjaipausa” page from the first issue of Egin.
Source: Newspaper section of the Central Library of the Leioa Campus of the University of the Basque Country.
1.4. Graphic humour as academic discipline
There are numerous studies about graphic humour as the symptomatic representation of a culture or social situation, usually in unsettling periods of history that allow for the development of a discourse around the portrayed society. All of these studies usually describe the themes and symbols reflected in graphic humour and this study follows this tradition.
Graphic humour should not be confused with comic. The former can use the narrative and expressive techniques of the latter, but not all graphic humour is translated to the publication in the form of comic. In our case, as it will be shown in the methods section, graphic humour appears in the form of comic strips or lineal sequences of drawings, which use the expressive resources of the short illustrated story. Therefore, and although they sometimes blend, it is important to differentiate the literature about comics and about graphic humour in particular.
In relation to graphic humour, at the Basque level the leading work is a brief article by JM Tápiz (2002), which collects the graphic humour appearing in the most popular periodical publications of the Basque provinces: Euzkadi, El Liberal, La Gaceta del Norte, Euzkadi Roja and La Lucha de Clases. The author points out that the comic strips published in these newspapers were almost small propaganda posters, which aimed to convince readers to agree with certain political ideas, which was exactly what the Spanish government, and even some Latin American countries, did throughout the 19th century (Ávila, 2002: Presentation, paragraph 4).
Another key reference is JM Unsain, who has carried out several studies on comics in the Basque Country from the second half of the 19th century to this day. For this study, we reviewed his article on graphic humour in the press of Bilbao and San Sebastian (2004), which identifies the main authors and their works in the press of both capital cities, from 1865 to 1936. This article does not focus on the analysis of content, but on the descriptive compilation of the history of graphic humour in the territory, based on previous research carried out by other authors and himself, such as his book on the history of comics in Euskadi (1990).
At the national level, important works are J Moreiro’s 2007 article about the artistic work of Miguel Mihura and Antonio de Lara Tono, which was published in the brochure titled “María de la Hoz”, of La Ametralladora (“The machine gun”), a magazine that supported nationalists during the Civil War. This work explains the graphic jokes and humorous texts contained in these works.
There are various works about the transition that are of particular interests, like those that examine Spanish society and its conflicts to achieve democracy. This is the case of Segado Boj’s 2008 doctoral thesis on the representation of the Spanish transition in the graphic humour of the daily press, from 1974 to 1977. This thesis combined quantitative and qualitative methods to identify the main themes of the comic strips and cartoons published by five major national newspapers. Segado Boj published several articles that were based on his doctoral thesis but they will not be mentioned here due to length restrictions. Equally relevant is Melendez-Malave’s 2005 doctoral thesis, which examines the graphic humour of El País, one of the newspapers with the largest circulation, during the Spanish political transition, from 1976 to 1978, based on content analysis and interviews to graphic artists.
Without leaving the Spanish context, Manuel Barrero, one of the creators of Tebeosfera, a website about Spanish-language comics and graphic humour (www.tebeosfera.com), published an article in 2008 (in Mundaiz journal) about the cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which depicted Mohammed with symbols related to terrorism and sparked unrest in the radical Islamist sector. Barrero argues that it is necessary to consider all comic images in their iconographical context to understand their meaning.
In relation to the aforementioned event, there is an interesting collection of essays presented in 2006 by the International Society for Humour Studies in Copenhagen, and directed by P. Lewis. These essays analysed whether the caricatures of Prophet Mohammed were actually comical and whether they marked a new research line on graphic humour. Seven authors presented their research and condensed their critical comments at the “Transnational Ridicule and Response” colloquium. These essays were published in the journal “Humour: International Journal of Humour Research”, which since its launch in 1988 has published more than 400 articles on humour. From these articles about graphic humour, we would like to highlight the ones written by Diners (1995), Forceville (2005) and El-Arousy (2007).
Making a leap to North America, there is a very relevant article by Francisco Sáez de Adana (2014) on the comic strips of the North American press of late 19th century and early 20th century, as a reflection of society. During this period, and starting with the famous “Yellow Kid”, Sáez used content analysis to identify the stereotypes, social classes and social types reflected in the funnies, comic strips and cartoons published in the American press.
To close this section, it is worth mentioning JI Lorente, a Professor from the University of the Basque Country, who delivered a paper on the graphic humour of Egin (2013) at a conference on humour and irony as weapons at the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (France). Lorente’s paper examines the graphic humour of Olariaga and Eguillor during the first period of Egin and the picture of the Basque society depicted by both authors.
2. Materials and methodological strategies
The term graphic humour has been already defined with the contributions of Armañanzas and Díaz Noci, but some important terms still need to be defined to avoid confusion.
Comic strip, as mentioned, is a lineal sequence of drawings; it is the most common form of graphic humour in publications, but not the only one. In our case, all of the units of graphic humour detected in Egin have this form. A cartoon panel is each one of the parts that make up the comic strips, i.e. the panel that contains a period of time in the story (Entrialgo, 2011: 277). Sometimes, a comic strip can be composed of a single panel/drawing, as it is often common in the case of Zabaleta. Thus, there are many different ways of structuring graphic humour narratives, as in the case of Eguillor, who instead of using a horizontal strip of panels, used a squared structure divided in four panels. In any case, it is necessary to distinguish all the terms used here since they tend to be used together.
The analysis included all “Solasjaipausa” pages published from 29 September to 24 December, 1977. The comic strips published during the rest of the year were discarded because on the Christmas Eve the characters of the comic strips only wish merry Christmas to readers, which breaks with the narrative sequence used throughout the year.
The only comic strip that does not change the days before Christmas is the one drawn by Eguillor. To understand Eguillor’s comic strips it is advisable to read previous issues, but this is not required in the comic strips of Zabaleta and Olariaga. However, we consider it was a good criterion to limit the sample to 24 December to be able to collect a sample of comic strips with sequential and narrative coherence.
From the humour pages we examined the comic strips created by the three aforementioned authors, and the text of Juana Bixenta Olabe, which despite of not being a form of graphic humour does provide an opinion that complements, as we shall see, the comic strips. From now on, we will refer to the totality of units analysed as “comic strips” or other short-hand synonyms, without forgetting that this sample also includes the texts of Juana Bixenta Olabe.
A total of 73 editions of the “Solasjaipausa” page and 292 comic strips were examined.
2.2.2. Qualitative methods
This method consists of the thematic classification of each piece of graphic humour, which sometimes are very abstract (mostly the ones by Zabaleta) and require particular attention: is not enough to read it; it is necessary to examine the interaction between characters, their environment, what they say, what they do not say, and of course, the topicality of the moment.
The newspaper itself proposes some specific glasses, which are the general perspective of the nationalist left. While not all cartoonists necessarily adopt this perspective, it greatly facilitates the point of departure of the themes that are addressed. Similarly, the aforementioned front-page message gives us clues about the reader of these comic strips, who as mentioned even started to read the paper backwards. Historiography is also used to locate the social situations portrayed in the images and symbols of the comic strips.
The objective is not to make a list of all the narrative elements of each strip, but to identify, based on the reality depicted by the newspaper, the diversity of themes that structure the strips and in many cases are recurring themes for some authors.
It is important to keep in mind that each comic strip can contain more than one topic, given they deal with diverse aspects of a plural society and often a theme can lead to another. The need for synthesis has led us to identify a single subject for each piece: the most outstanding. The list of detected themes is summarised in the following table to facilitate readability and avoid ambiguity.
2.2.3. Quantitative methods
The quantitative objective is to know what are the most recurring topics for each cartoonist. The quantitative section presents the number of comic strips in which a theme appears as well as the number of times in which a theme is used by each cartoonist. The following table summarises the findings:
Table 1. Analysis table
Source: Author’s own creation
In the table, 0 or 1 is added to each box depending on whether a subject/theme is explored or not in the comic strip in question. Once the entire table is complete, the values for each theme are summed up, and the frequencies across comic strips and authors are calculated.
We identified a total of 49 issues, some very similar to each other. Since the resulting list was too long, it was synthesised in 14 blocks, which are a little less specific than particular issues, but highlight the wider themes explored by authors:
With regards to the comic strips drawn by the comic artists, the following table presents the frequency of the most commonly used themes:
Figure 1. Total number of comic strip series distributed by theme.
As we can see, Zabaleta (BeE), is the artist who dealt the most with issues related to the defence of democracy, which are also the issues most frequently dealt with in general terms.
The displacement of traditional nationalism was addressed the most by Olariaga’s Zakilixut (Z), while the progressivism-conservatism binary opposition was more recurring in Eguillor’s “black city” (BSB).
The question of Navarre and the heated political scene in the Basque Country were often explored by Juana Bixenta Olabe (JBO), who was very hard towards the Union of the Democratic Centre of Navarre, contrary to the integration of the province in the Basque project.
4. Discussion and conclusions
It is interesting to find out that the issues covered the most by Egin since its inception are not the issues cartoonists explored the most, as they gave priority to the issue of democracy, which not only concerns the Basque people, but Spain as a whole.
The defence of Basque as a national language was perhaps “reduced” to the language with which at least Olariaga and Zabaleta expressed their ideas, while the defence of the language as such was only present in 5 comic strips and only represented 1'70% of the topics explored.
Also interesting is the model of nationalism that cartoonists seem to want to promote: almost 20% of the issues are related to the struggle between classic nationalist theses and the new trends of the Abertzale left, more associated to the working-class struggle and Marxism. The classic doctrine of regional law (fuerismo), associated to the conservative right, was crushed by nearly 15% of the units studied. The territorial question seems to focus on Navarre, which seems to remarkably concern the very observant Juana Bixenta Olabe. On the other hand, the most current events are explored in just 2% of the units of analysis.
It can be concluded that the theme of the studied comic strips is in full harmony with the philosophy of the first Board of Directors of the Egin newspaper, which aims to reach a broad sector of the Basque left, whether nationalist or not. However, the paper highlights the territorial issue, in which undoubtedly “the hard-working Basque people” also exist in the Navarre community, which the right-wing groups want to keep “sui generis”. The new “nationalists” are moved away from the trends of that time, and integrated into a new national project of which Egin is part.
 At that time, under the tutelage of Prensa del Movimiento (“Movement Press”), there existed the following newspapers: El Correo Español – El Pueblo Vasco, La Gaceta del Norte, La Voz de España, El Diario Vasco, Unidad, Hierro and Norte Exprés. The first two had their headquarters in Bilbao, but the second also had local editions in Alava, Eibar-Mondragon, La Rioja and Miranda de Ebro. For its part, La Gaceta had offices in Vizcaya, Álava, Navarre, La Rioja and Cantabria. None of these papers focused on the Basque region. The remaining newspapers can be considered to be provincial: La Voz, Diario Vasco and Unidad circulated in Guipúzcoa, and Norte Exprés in Álava, with headquarters in Vitoria. Hierro was a local newspaper from Bilbao.
Readers complemented their information diet with the so-called hojas de los lunes (“Monday sheets”), which were local publications distributed on the first day of the week, which was the day of rest of the official press. These papers were used by journalists to bypass the Movement Press and publishing news more freely. These types of publications existed in Bilbao and San Sebastian, with an average circulation of 93,000 and 72,000 copies, respectively (Coca & Fernández, 1993: 15).
 Historically, the term “Euskalerría” has been used to refer to Basque-speaking territories, such as the current autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Navarre, in Spain, and the counties of Labourd (“Lapurdi”, in Basque), Basse-Navarre (“Nafarroa Beherea”) and Soule (“Zuberoa”) in the French Department Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Currently, the term “Euskal Herria” (“Basque people” or “Country of the Basque language”) in commonly used.
 During this time the statute of autonomy was discussed: while provincial deputies of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Abertzale left spectrum and the left in general accepted a general statutory regime for the Basque Country and Navarre, this was rejected by the spectrum of the right, mostly represented by the Union of the Democratic Centre and Popular Alliance, which advocated for separate statute for Navarre in relation to its current regional-law regime. ETA did not hesitate to perpetrate various attacks as a response to this. One of these attacks took the life of Lieutenant-Colonel Ímaz, linked to Navarre’s Armed Police. The attack took place on 28 December 1977, and the next day the controversial text which got Ferrer fired was published (Egin, 29/12/1977, p. 5).
 The adjective “ipurbeltz” can be translated as “black ass”, and evokes an old Basque proverb (“atxotitza”) that says “xoxuak beleari ipurbeltz” (the blackbird calling the crow “black ass”), which is very close to the English expression “the pot calling the kettle black”. Certainly, this is a name that evokes the critical nature of these cartoonists, who made more use of mockery and satire than of clean humour that had been published in the Spanish press during the Franco regime. A good example of this is “Don Celes” from El Correo, and the first stage of La Codorniz under the direction of Mihura.
 Literature on regional law is extensive, and delicate in the political arena. While classic nationalism, embodied by the Basque Nationalist Party, considered historical and provincial rights a symbol of an old independence destroyed by liberalism, traditionalism and Carlism have taken them as rights of the Spanish provinces and villas, granted and ratified by the King, which collect the uses and customs of the territories and integrate them into the nation. Until this day, both theses have been irreconcilable in the Basque Country, with one being promoted by Basque Nationalist Party, and the other by the various branches of the Spanish right, with intermediate shades. Both are, with differences, more or less autonomist.
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How to cite this article in bibliographies / References
A Castañeda Zumeta and P Pineda-Martínez (2016): “The promotion of democracy in political cartoons. The themes of cartoons in the Basque newspaper Egin (1977)”. Revista Latina de Comunicación Social, 71, pp. 232 to 248.
Article received on 18 January 2016. Accepted on 27 February.