Farewell Quino, Creator of Mafalda

Mafalda is one of the most loved comic strips of all time. Drawn by the Argentine cartoonist Quino, its central character is a six-year-old girl who, with a mix of irony and naivete, interrogated the image of modernity being sold to the Latin American middle classes in the 1960s, and derided the authority of both the family and the state.

Statue of Mafalda in front of Quino's former home in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. (Nico Kaiser / Flickr)

His full name was Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón. But everyone called him Quino, and to those closest to him, he was “Quinito.” The nickname was given to him when he was little, in his hometown of Mendoza, Argentina, in order to distinguish him from his uncle Joaquín. Quino liked to draw from an early age — his mother recalls that he was allowed to draw on the kitchen table, provided he cleaned up afterward.

Quino was born in Argentina in 1932, his family made up of Spanish republicans. At the age of twenty, he moved to the metropolis Buenos Aires to take part in the capital’s bustling cultural life. At that time, the South American city was the center of a thriving comics scene, with its own magazines, schools, and traditions, and Quino quickly rose to the top thanks to hard work and talent.

With Quino’s recent death, the Internet has been inundated with homages from institutions, magazines, colleagues, and the millions far and wide that grew up, learned to question, and discovered something of themselves and the world through the Argentine cartoonist’s creations.

Quino was always a hard artist to pin down. He was a big admirer of the New Yorker’s Saul Steinberg, and his work was both vast and deeply personal. He received countless prizes over the years including the Prince of Asturias Award in 2014. But his crowning achievement was the creation of a globally beloved comic strip: Mafalda.

The Making of a Modern Icon

Mafalda was born in the 1960s. Quino made his first sketch of Mafalda for an advertising agency that was trying to subliminally sell a new line of locally manufactured home appliances to the new Argentine middle classes. The ad agency asked for a combination of Peanuts and Blondie.

Quino responded by creating a married couple and two children. This anecdote speaks volumes about the fluid intermingling of economic, social, and cultural processes taking place at the heart of the new Latin American middle classes.

The ad campaign was ultimately sidelined, and when the cartoonist returned to his original sketches in 1964, he fatefully decided to remove the son (who bore a strong resemblance to Charlie Brown).

Quino had a hunch: take the boy out and make the protagonist an intellectually curious and rebellious little girl from the middle classes. She would live in a small Buenos Aires apartment and her looks would be androgynous. She would ask questions about politics that kept her father up at night and raise feminist issues that made her mother cry. She would speak of “collective psychosis” with a knowing wink to her readers.

Two years later Mafalda was read daily by around two million people, and when the book editions of the same strip were published it sold out the day it went on sale.

Mafalda’s popularity quickly transcended borders. In 1969, an Italian edition — with a prologue by Umberto Eco — opened the doors to a European market, and at the same time, Mafalda began to conquer Latin America: in 1972, Quino’s comic strip was published in over sixty regional media outlets.

By that point, Mafalda had been published in book format in Portugal, Germany, Finland, and France — and there was even a famous boutique in Paris named after the titular character. The comic strip’s characters were turned into toys and stickers, and, often without permission, Mafalda’s image appeared on T-shirts, advertisements, posters, and wedding invitations.

A Political Hieroglyph

In 1973, Quino decided to stop producing the beloved comic. He explained that he was tired of creating new Mafalda strips — though he did continue to illustrate until his retirement in 2009. No doubt, he had in part grown weary of the region’s intense political climate, in which readers increasingly interpreted Mafalda’s political positions as an expression of the author’s own editorializing.

Mafalda the comic strip was a heady mixture of irony and sweet naivete. Filled with subtle references, thinly veiled political debates, and ellipses, Quino’s family-based comedy teased at the division between the public and private sphere — instituted by bourgeois modernity — in order to reveal the political in the familial, and vice versa.

The cartoonist was thus able to explore the underside of a peculiar image of modernity being sold to Latin America’s middle classes, a terrain where deep sociocultural and economic transformations were underway: growth in the services industry, a boom in secondary and university education, inflation, and also scarcity.

Those same transformations affected the region’s working class, although, paradoxically, the new images of prosperity packaged and sold in advertising campaigns only served to highlight the disparity between image and reality. Mafalda made the most of those frustrations and tensions: a father struggling to make it to the end of the month, lacking in authority over his daughter — and the object of her mockery — and a mother whose seclusion in the domestic sphere Mafalda constantly derided.

Mafalda was in constant dialogue with the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s: student revolts, feminist demands, the Third World, censorship, and repression were all topics familiar to Latin American readers — although not only Latin American.

Through the character of Mafalda, a new intellectualized Argentine and Latin American middle class saw a reflection of its own image, and sometimes even modeled itself after her image. Mafalda’s motley group of friends was a stand-in for the heterogeneous middle classes and even society at large.

The comic strip came into its own as its more explicitly antiauthoritarian message came to the fore. In 1966, when General Juan Carlos Onganía launched a coup in Argentina, Mafalda appeared the next day in newspapers reciting a lesson she had learned in school: a lesson about democracy. The first book edition of the comic strip was issued shortly afterward and sold out in less than twenty-four hours.

As years went on and dictatorships spread across the region, so too did Mafalda’s quips about censorship, police brutality, and anti-riot tanks, creating a sense of communion and common understanding among readers not just in Latin America but in Spain, Italy, and France.

Quino was not only portraying his age and his little corner of the world, even though every minute detail reflected some aspect of Argentina’s capital city Buenos Aires. He was also offering intuitions about the human condition and the ills of society: injustice, war, and poverty.

Quino always said that Mafalda remained fresh because the same problems were still with us. In present-day society, especially in the midst of a capitalist-fueled global pandemic, Quino was no doubt right.

Farewell, Quino

But that answer alone does not explain the enduring love of Mafalda and her creator. Quino’s eternal appeal is in his humor, a conceptual and ironic brand of wit that asks for the reader’s active complicity. That special bond, asking for the reader’s self-reflection, is part of a larger social experience that goes beyond the pages of the comic strip — Mafalda is the name for a whole social experience.

Generation after generation, Quino’s comic strip found a new audience, and with it, his work found its way into new mediums. Apart from new editions (in different books, magazines, and languages), it appeared in different formats (film, television, and fine art), and even helped the spread of new communication media and educational institutions.

Mafalda and her gang of friends found fresh interpretations through the ages: in the 1990s, national media called on journalists, readers, and specialists to engage in a flight of imagination to picture what would have become of the characters in the neoliberal age, and how they would have reacted to the “end of history.”

Quino’s characters came to life. And in doing so, they formed a community of belonging — a progressive, left-wing, and rebellious sensibility that readers the world over could identify with. Quino’s Mafalda thus became a contemporary myth, a way of giving meaning to modern social existence.

In different parts of the world, people can still find meaning for their struggles in the pages of Quino’s comic strips and illustrations. Today, that global community is paying homage to the great Quino.