To say the last nine months of my life were filled with a lot of travel would be an understatement of epic proportions. Since April of 2009 I have gone on personal trips to New York, Orlando and London, England and professional trips to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Sandusky OH and New Jersey here in the U.S. as well as to Colombia, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq and Australia abroad. Whew. After officially signing on to be a speaker at the Stanley Awards in Sydney I was thinking that I wouldn’t be taking any more major trips for a looong time.
However some things are just too good to pass up.
I was contacted several months ago by Jeannie Schulz, the widow of the great “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz, and asked if I’d participate in a cultural exchange trip with a group of cartoonists and representatives from the Charles M. Schulz Museum to Havana, Cuba. The trip would last 6 days, during which time we’d meet with a number of newspaper cartoonists, animators, fine artists, students and art teachers in Havana. The idea was to learn about cartooning, animation and art in Cuba while we shared with them what we do back in the United States. There would of course also be time to see Havana and experience some of the culture of Cuba.
How do you say “no” to THAT??
So, on the 15th on this month I found myself flying to Houston where I rendezvoused with Jeannie and the rest of the group, and proceeded on to Cuba. Our trip was not done illegally, but was authorized through an art society for cultural knowledge and fully sanctioned by the U.S. Government. Our travel affidavits allowed us legitimate, legal passage into and back from Cuba as part of this cultural exchange program.
L to R: Justin Thompson, Brian Narelle, me,
Lex Fajardo, Hilary Price and Jeannie Schulz
Our gang included Jeannie and myself, as well as two artists from the Schulz studios: Lex Fajardo and Justin Thompson and cartoonists Brian Narelle and Hilary Price. Besides working on licensing with the Schulz folks, Lex does an adventure comic called “Kid Beowulf“, published by Bowler Hat Comics and Justin does a webcomic called “MythTickle” as well as being one of the co-hosts of the popular podcast Comics Coast to Coast. Brian is an actor, screenwriter, puppeteer and cartoonist who does gag cartoons, books, logos, strips, etc. He teaches cartooning classes regularly at the Schulz museum. Hilary is of course the brilliant creator of the syndicated comic strip “Rhymes with Orange” and a fellow vice president in the National Cartoonists Society. Our group organizer was Paul Bardwil, who has arranged over 40 of these types of trips to Cuba for various educational and religious groups who qualify for the cultural exchange programs. It was a fun group who were very much interested in learning about a typical Cuban cartoonist’s life and work.
Our Cuban Cartooning Counterparts
We wasted no time and despite getting in at after midnight local time and the next day being Saturday we headed out that morning to visit the first of two cartooning publications.
Our first meeting was at the offices of Palante!, a weekly humor newspaper/magazine that features a wide variety of editorial cartoons, gags and strips. Palante! was started in 1961 and has continued publication for nearly 50 years.
Great mural in the Palante! office
The Cuban cartoonists were very fun and hospitable
We met in a small room with about 25 cartoonists, staff and editors. The language barrier made communicating slow (I have to work harder on my Spanish) but we were able to learn some about the history of Palante! as well as their current contributors and features. We met a number of cartoonists who have been working for the magazine for decades and some young ones who have been contributing for only a few years. Some of the work was political/social in nature but most of it was just humor about day to day life via jokes, gags and strips. The cartooning is very good and some of it is quite fantastic.
Some of the cartoonists and staff addressing our group
Everybody at Palante!
While in Colombia last summer at a cartooning conference it was very obvious to me that Latin American humor in general takes a much lighter approach to sex than we somewhat prudish Americans (meaning the USA) do. A lot of the humor I saw from cartoonists in Mexico, Colombia and other South American countries was quite racy by our standards. I expected to see a similar type of attitude toward sex from Cuban cartooning but found that while it was still a lot less uptight about the subject, sex was a lesser leaned-upon subject matter in the work I saw than it was on the South American continent. Perhaps I was just seeing the less riské cartoons.
Following our visit to Palante! and lunch we headed to the offices of the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde. The back page of each issue of Juventud Rebelde is dedicated to cartoons in a “supplemental” feature called Dedet!. Dedet! is celebrating it’s 4oth anniversary, having debuted in 1965 as it’s own publication. Interestingly the name comes from the fact that it essentially replaced another humor publication called La Chicharra. A Chicharra is a type of bug, and the first image of Dedet! is that of a bug sprayer killing a Chicharra. That spray was labeled as containing the pesticide “DDT”, which when pronounced in Spanish is “de-de-t?”. Dedet! was known for its social criticism, and at its peak distributed over 300,000 copies a week as an independent magazine. During Cuba’s 1990’s massive economic crisis Dedet! was forced to become a supplement of Juventud Rebelde and remains so today.
Justin talks with Dedete! cartoonists
We again met with staff and contributing cartoonists in a roundtable discussion about the cartooning of our respective countries. Some of the questions asked of the Cuban cartoonists were the state of cartooning and if it was shrinking from publications as it is in the U.S., whether the government-run papers often censored the work of the cartoonists and if cartooning was something a decent living can be made from.
The group at Dedete!
What we learned was that previous to 1990 there was a lot more venues for cartoonists and their work to be published. Following the collapse of the communist block in the early 90’s many publications disappeared and many cartoonists did not have a place to work. Today only a small handful of cartoonists are well known enough to make a solid living with their work, and most need to find other jobs and sources of income to make ends meet. As far as censorship goes, the Cuban cartoonists did not seem to think they were terribly oppressed, but they did admit that some cartoons and ideas get censored now and then… I suspect it is a matter of them knowing already what will get squashed and they don’t push it.
One of the lead animators talks to the group at the beginning of our studio tour
On Monday we visited the Estudios de Animación which is part of the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). This is one of the few animation studios in Cuba, and it produces mostly traditional 2D projects although it was currently putting the finishing touches on a terrific stop motion film for their 20th anniversary and working on a Pixar-like digital adventure film called “Meuique”. We met the head of the animation house and several of their top animators and directors, given a complete tour of their facility and treated to some samples of their work in the projection room. We saw an extended clip of the stop motion 20th anniversary film that was particularly well done, as well as some great cartoon animated shorts, some public service education films and some advance images of the digital film in production.
Demonstrating some animation production work
In the traditional animation drawing room
The real gems were some vintage shorts by the brilliant Cuban cartoonist and animator Juan Padrón. Padrón began his career in the 1960’s doing cartoons for publications like the fore mentioned La Chicharra. In fact he also did work for Dedet! and I had seen some great comic strip work in some of their bound collections we paged through the previous day. In the early 70’s he created Elpidio Valdas, which I was told is a very important cartoon character in Cuba. The shorts we saw by Padrón were only 60 to 120 seconds but they were brilliantly funny. We also watched a few scenes from his animated film Vampiros en La Habana! (Vampires in Havana), which is both funny and an insightful satire of the social/political issues of Cuba in the 1930’s.
One of the things we discussed with the animators was the effect of the U.S. embargo of Cuba on film making there, which is profound. It is a complex issue, but some of the major problems are a significantly higher cost for equipment and U.S. policies against any studios that do business with Cuban studios. Equipment like computers and cameras can cost three times what most studios would pay because not only can they not buy anything manufactured in the U.S., but they can’t buy any foreign equipment that contains any alloys, chips or other parts made in the U.S. That eliminates even most computers made by non-U.S. companies because they usually contain some U.S. part or metal. The animators told us Cuban film makers find it almost impossible to distribute their films in countries other than the U.S. because our government’s embargo laws apparently levy penalties against any companies doing any business with Cuba… to the point of not allowing the representatives of that company to set foot on U.S. soil. I’d like to point out that I have not independently verified any of these claims… this is just what I was told by the heads of the animation studio. They are certainly using some archaic equipment… their computers must have been 1o years old at least and anything siting on the shelf at my local Best Buy would easily outperform their equipment. They also said some progress has been made on the embargo laws and maybe someday things will loosen up for them.
Art College in Cuba
On Tuesday our group went to the Instituto Superior de Diseio at La Universidad Del Diseño Cubano, the major art/design college in Cuba. Founded in 1984 it offers majors in Industrial Design (fashion, furniture, etc) and Graphic Design (drawing, graphics, typography, etc.). With over 700 students, the entire program takes about 5 years to complete. Of course, all schooling in Cuba is free including college, so getting into the school means taking exams, aptitude tests and qualifying for enrollment. Interestingly enough the subjects and concentration of study in the student’s later years are tailored to the specifications/needs of companies they will be working for following their graduation. College graduates need to serve a 3 year “internship” following their schooling at a government directed job as part of the deal for a free education. According to the faculty we met with, these jobs are always related to their educated skills. At the end of their three year term, they and their employer can agree to have them continue to work for them, or they can chose to try and find a different venue for their skills.
Meeting with ISDI faculty
Looking at some student work
More student work
We toured some of the school and saw the work of several of the classes on various projects. Most of it seemed centered on very austere design heavy on type, mechanical drawings and not much creative drawing or painting.
We were supposed to tour a school centered on more of the creative, fine arts called the ISA (Superior Art School) but some conflict on their end caused our visit to be canceled.
Seeing the city of Havana and some of the surrounding area was a highlight for us all. Considering it’s a place we American’s are not supposed to be able to visit, that makes it a mysterious place. I don’t know too many other people who have ever been there.
Another Havana street scene
Havana is a city rich in history and culture. While I saw a lot of poverty and many places badly in disrepair, Havana has a lot of charm and seems like a place frozen in time. The 1940’s and 50’s cars and the lack of any really new or updated structures contribute to this, but it’s the obvious attention to tradition in their service in the hotels, bars and restaurants that make it seem like you are in some kind of 1940’s time machine.
Catedral de San Cristobal
We stayed at a hotel right down the street from the Plaza de la Catedral which is commanded by the Catedral de San Cristobal, a magnificent 18th century baroque cathedral in the heart of Old Havana. We had plenty of time to visit many places in the city. Here are some of the highlights:
Gran Teatro de La Habana– This opera house next to the Capitolo is a beautiful theater overlooking the Parque Central. Our group caught the “Latin American Ballet Troupe” there, which was an interesting combination of ballet and flamenco dancing.
The Gran Teatro in the Background
El Floridita and La Bodeguita Del Medio– These two bars are famous for being favorite haunts for Ernest Hemmingway, who famously wrote: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” I had several of each in their respective places.
Hemmingway statue at El Floridita
La Bodeguita Del Medio
Necropolis Colon– This gigantic cemetery is one of the largest in the world at 135 acres. Interestingly most people interred here only get to stay for 2 years, after which they are removed and (usually) cremated and laid to rest elsewhere. The cemetery is a marvel of sculpture and monuments as all residents, temporary or otherwise, are above ground it crypts, tombs and mausoleums.
In the Necropolis Colon
a copy of a Michelangelo… there were many such
One of the most fascinating spots is La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One). This is the tomb of Amelia Goyri de la Hoz, who died in childbirth in 1901 along with her daughter at age 24. She and her child were buried together with the child supposedly positioned near her legs. According to the legend, a few years later when her tomb was opened the bodies were not decomposed at all, and Amelia was now holding the baby in her arms. This was deemed a miracle and her tomb is now a place that people visit to ask for her blessing and for granting requests. They do this by paying homage to her, praying, knocking on the tomb cover and backing away without turning their backs to Amelia. We witnessed this ritual several times while we were there.
The home of José Rodréguez Fuster– Fuster is a well known sculptor and artist working in ceramics, painting, drawing, engraving and mosaics. His home and neighborhood is amazing, completely decorated with his incredible mosaics and tile work looks like something out of a Latin Dr. Seuss land:
Images from the Fuster Home
Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas– This is Cuba’s largest cigar factory. Seeing the process from the tobacco selection to the hand rolling of every kind of cigar to the labeling of the boxes was fascinating. I don’t know how these people survive working in this place, between the overwhelming smell and what must be outrageously oppressive heat in the summer… but apparently being a cigar roller is one of the most sought after jobs in Cuba. Must be the “all you can smoke of the rejects” benny that makes it so attractive.
One interesting thing I learned on the tour was that many of the cigar brands like “Romeo y Julieta” and “Montecristo” are so named because these were books that were often read by the “reader” to the workers from a high table in the rolling room during certain times of the day.
Dinner on the rooftop of the Hotel Inglaterra– Great view of the Parque Central and the Gran Teatro de La Habana from the roof of this well known hotel.
Baseball at the Estadio Latinoamericano– Lex, Hilary and I took in a baseball game at this stadium. Baseball is big in Latin America and Cuba is no exception. Besides the good play seeing the differences in the crowd and other aspects of the game experience was fascinating. No alcohol was sold, and walking concessions included some unknown fried rolled things serves unwrapped with tongs out of a greasy, unlined cardboard box (!) and strong coffee served right out of a metal coffeepot. The fans really got into the game, jumping to their feet and screaming at the umps when they didn’t like the call.
Rum and Cigars– in that order. They say that these Cuban products are unlike other kinds of similar name in other places in the world. I have to say they are on to something there. The rum was so smooth and silky you could drink it straight out of a glass without ice and enjoy it. As strong as the alcohol was there was never a trace of a headache the next day. I’ve never enjoyed cigars the very few times I’ve tried them here in the States, and I figured I’d try one just for the novelty. I ended up liking them and smoked several over the week. It’s probably a good thing I can’t get them here in the U.S.!
Hilary and me enjoying some mojitos!
We saw a lot of other places including museums, more Hemmingway sites, other historic structures and locales but the above were the ones I enjoyed the most. It was great fun and very educational to get to find out about cartooning in Cuba and what it’s all about.
Now it’s back to work.
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