One of those indispensable books is no doubt A History of Graphic Humor in Cuba, launched in 2007 as part of the History of Graphic Humor collection directed by the General Foundation of the Alcala de Henares University.

A similar willingness to the one that made this title see the light of day is found behind Over a Hundred Years of Political Humor written by a group of authors made up of Evora Tamayo, Juan Blas Rodriguez and Oscar Hurtado, put out on the island nation by the Cuba Book Institute in 1971 as one of the many efforts to showcase a rich tradition that goes a long way back from the 19th century to date.

Something worth mentioning here is the focus on caricature –graphic humor in general- in Cuba’s higher education centers, especially in the Department of Art History of the Havana University, with highlights for Caricature of the Republic by Dr. Adelaida de Juan (first edition in 1982 by Letras Cubanas publishing house) in which she zeroes in on major characters that from the printed press illustrated the main features of the times: Ricardo de la Torriente’s Liborio, Eduardo Abela’s El Bobo and Rene de la Nuez’s El Loquito.

In 2002, La Memoria Publishing House from the Pablo de la Torriente Cultural Center presented the Majadahonda collection, Caricature: Times and Men by Juan David, an interesting reflection on one of the most meaningful cultivators of personal caricature in Cuba and the history of that artistic expression with boldface names like Rafael Blanco, Jaime Valls, Conrado W. Massaguer, Jesus Castellanos, Jose Hernandez Cardenas and Jose Hurtado de Mendoza.

Going back into these antecedents sheds abundant light on the many people who keep an eye on the history of humor in Cuba and, at the same time, provides, from a laidback reflective mode, the specificities of this volume, as well as its contributions to both the studies conducted on this particular issue and to the research on the visual arts and culture on the whole.

An alliance between two artists gave rise to A History of Humor Graphic in Cuba by Aristides Esteban Hernandez Guerrero (Ares) and Jorge Alberto Piñero (Jape). Ares is a psychiatrist who has excelled in the field of humorous cartooning, illustrations, paintings and other expressions. The same tenacity he has published his drawings with since 1986 in all major Cuban publications and others around the world, has helped him save some time for doing research. He owns an ingenuity and a mastery that have made him one of the most internationally acclaimed and award-winning Cuban cartoonists, with as many as 75 prizes under his belt. The publishing of his fifteen books and illustrations of his own in over fifty volumes written by other artists have managed to compile vast information on the ins and outs of humor and its creators, a part of which now comes to us in his new 239-page book.

For his part, Jape has also made contributions of his own, based on his research studies on humor and cartoonists that derived into a poll entitled The Top 20 of the 20th Century, that lists the main Cuban cartoonists from 1900 to 1999. Trained in the performing arts, journalism, humorous literature and the audiovisual field, Jape got a degree in Direction at the School of Audiovisual Communication Means of the Higher Institute of Art in Havana.

Broken down in five basic chapters, the authors disclose the underpinnings of the history the book deals with. The first chapter, delving into the origins, puts Cuba on certain temporary coordinates. Homing in on the 19th century, the second chapter provides ample information on the first caricatures that showed up in the country only to carry on with elements about the singular development in this chronicle of Basque painter Victor Patricio de Landaluce following the 1852 publishing of Cubans Painted by Themselves, illustrated by who’s been penciled in as Cuba’s top cartoonist at that time. That picture was rounded out by publications that laid bare a way of making graphic humor that was quite similar to those lithographic gems that served to advertise and wrap the many cigar brands that popped up at the pinnacle of the island nation’s tobacco industry.

From that moment onward, chapter three entitled 1902-1959: Unmasked Cuban Caricature not only takes a peek into the genre’s heavyweights, but also at a wide array of authors and publications of that period in time, a process that comes back in the fourth chapter of the book. A vast totality distinguished as Revolution Humor kicks off with the echoes of Zigzag and the birth of El Pitirre weekly, led by Rafael Fornes. From the first issue on January 17, 1960, it features the cartoons of Chago, Nuez, Fresquito Fresquet (Fremez) and Muñoz Bachs, thus giving graphic images a renovating relevance. Different breeds of artists and publications from that time are also included, those who started out in the 1990s and the newest generation, together with groups that have helped Melaito and La Picua come into being outside the nation’s capital, let alone national and international graphic humor exhibits and the influence of the latest technological breakthroughs.

The authors’ integrating endeavor vests this book with a luring section called Notes for the Record that broaches three basic topics: the Diaspora and its relationship with caricature; the artistic praxis’s vague boundaries among caricature –in the broadest sense of the word- comics, illustrations, posters, paintings and cartoons –a two-way road that stretches out from painting to humor, validated time and again for over 150 years by the very artists- and finally the expanded presence of humor in Cuba’s visual arts whose drive of critical sense has been spreading for over a decade within its own negotiations and readjustments in the country’s social life and in the arts, as it is depicted in Ways of Making Up a Smile, a special project that became a part of the 8th Havana Art Biennial back in 2003.

With A History of Graphic Humor in Cuba, Ares and Jape have not only completed a colossal effort to update the chronicle they wanted to address, but also –with the help of 250 illustrations contained in the book- painted a picture that’s closer to our humorous traditions, to its history and to its contemporariness. Clearing up and deepening on the analysis of the issue here, as well as the bid to come up with broader and more accurate bibliographic references than those that ended up in the pages of this volume, may only be possible when the much-anticipated and promised Cuban edition of the book is finally realized.

This is a book to be grateful for, a cure for amnesia, a testimony of who we are and how we do things. Armed with sufficient material to make way for further studies on the matter, A History of Graphic Humor in Cuba pays off in terms of social psychology and the national identity whereby some people discover a singular sense and passion for humor.

A History of Graphic Humor in Cuba: Aristides Esteban Hernandez Guerrero (Ares) and Jorge Alberto Piñero (Jape), Milenio Publishing House, Spain, 2007.