Ninth Art's foreign language correspondent goes native with a look at the work of Spanish creator Max, including the anarchic 80s trash culture comedy PETER PANK, mixing JM Barrie with Johnny Rotten.
23 April 2004

It doesn't matter how hard Hollywood tries. The best Peter Pan adaptation ever created wasn't Spielberg's, or Hogan's, or even Disney's. It was made in the 80s, in Spain. In comic form. And it featured sex, drugs and enough rock and roll to get Elvis out of his secret retirement and send him on tour with zombie Sid Vicious and the ghost of Eddie Cochran. Its name was PETER PANK. And oh boy, was it a kick...

You only have to mention the words PETER PANK to make any old school Spanish comics fan smile. In the first years of the 80s, with dozens of comic magazines on every newsstand, PETER PANK was the flagship strip of EL VÍBORA, a crude, sexed-up, Crumb-worshipping magazine specialized on "comix", or, as we call them today, filthy black and white indies.

EL VÍBORA advertised itself as a magazine for the sick-minded, and featured the most demented comic strips on the market, vigorously marking out for itself a separate territory from the typical sci-fi, Moebius-esque magazines, which at the time were headed for a collapse that was obvious to everyone but them

EL VÍBORA survived the apocalypse because, instead of fighting for the same readership with a dozen other mags, it tried to recruit its audience not just from among the typical comics buyers, but from the indie scene, a rancid stew of punks, new romantics, trashy 80s beautiful people and wannabee media whores.

Its pages featured stories by R Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Vuillemin, Miguel Gallardo and Jamie Hewlett, plus the early works of one of the magazine's founders, Max. The magazine survives to this day, though its recent economical troubles unbelievably made it headline news as national television and newspapers rallied to prevent the magazine's death.

Born in Barcelona in 1956 as Francesc Capdevila, 'Max' started his work in comics when he joined one of the then-popular comics collectives of the 1970s. It was around this time that he had the balls to adapt DAS KAPITAL to sequential form, in the midst of Spain's transition from Franco's dictatorship to democracy. Max made himself a name in the growing Spanish underground, and gathered a growing following after publishing his first series for EL VÍBORA in 1981, the politically heavy 'Gustavo', which was later collected in two albums, CONTRA LA ACTIVIDAD DEL RADIO and COMECOCOMETRÓN. But it was not until he started working on PETER PANK that he really made a splash.

Distancing himself from his early and notorious Crumb influences, Max embraced the French clear line, and started showing heavy influences of Yves Chaland and Hergé. His drawing style got clearer, brighter, more luminous and cartoonesque, but without losing that indie feeling, an identifying mark of the magazine.

His writing though, kept its roots well within the subversive soil. PETER PANK is in equal parts an homage to JM Barrie's original play, and a ruthless parody of 80s trash culture. Max takes the original tale and twists it, bends it, and sends it to Amsterdam with a packet of condoms, two bottles of vodka and a tee sporting the legend, 'Sodomitic, baby!' on the back.

In this version Peter is, well, a punk, of the Mohawk sporting, sex-obsessed variety. He lives in Punkiland, the land when Anarchy reigns, with his punk friends and a topless Tinkerbelle, and his neighbours are the lake nymphos, the continuously stoned hippie Indians, and his sworn enemy, Captain Tupé and his band of merry rockabilly pirates.

And that's just setting the scene. There's sex, drugs of every possible kind, ultra violence, sex, countless nods to the urban tribes of 80s culture, sex, tasteless gags, sex, and even more tasteless gags, all served with a sprinkling of sex. Pank's punk odyssey is collected in the titular PETER PANK, followed by a second volume, EL LICANTROPANK (1987), featuring werewolves, zombies, skinheads, vampires and Goths, and a third and final volume, PANKDINISTA (1990), in which Punkiland is invaded by capitalism, and Apunkalypse Now ensues.

The three volumes formed a gut-busting comedy, and while some would argue that it's extremely chaotic, given the outrageous nature of the comic it would be foolish to expect anything less. The series was also superbly illustrated, sporting a heavy, but more angled Chaland line, with dashes of Shelton's cartoon storytelling, and though it is very much a product of its time, it's aged well, though it now has the added sheen of nostalgia.

Sadly, Max hasn't continued with the series. During the 90s, the author embarked on an endless shifting of styles, in search of new frontiers both as a writer and as an artist - to continuous critical acclaim. He rarely used the album format, preferring short stories published mostly in EL VÍBORA, later compiled by Ediciones El Víbora. These works included the supernatural horror tale MUERTE HÚMEDA (Wet Death), an homage to the femme fatale archetype 'Mujeres Fatales', written by his friend Mique Beltrán, and a retelling of a classic song by Spanish popsters Radio Futura, EL CANTO DEL GALLO - an album that also included the hilarious short, "A meeting between Walt Disney and HP Lovecraft".

But in the mid-90s, Max got tired with the comic scene. The audience kept clamouring for more PETER PANK, and his shot at European publishing, Mujeres Fatales left him with a bitter taste, as the French editor wanted him to focus on the more sexual aspects of the story, and Max wasn't interested. So, he focused on advertising, and on developing a fertile career as a children's books illustrator - a medium where his simple, clear lines and extraordinary expressionism have netted him several awards.

But he didn't forget the sequential medium. His clashes with editors turned him to self-publishing, and he started a new magazine in 1995, NOSOTROS SOMOS LOS MUERTOS, where he and his friend and co-editor Pere Joan only publish material that they believe pushes the boundaries of the medium. Despite multiple change of formats and a few deaths and resurrections, the magazine is still in print, and has received great acclaim thanks to an incredibly talented list of contributors, including Chris Ware, Dave Mazzuchelli, Lorenzo Mattotti, Alex Fito and Santiago Sequeiros, all presumably working more for love than for money.

Besides his stories for NSLM, Max has also released a new graphic novel with La Cúpula, publishers of EL VÍBORA, the weird, nightmarish and labyrinthine EL PROLONGADO SUEÑO DEL SEÑOR T (The Prolonged Dream of Mr D, released for the English market by Drawn and Quarterly) and a special called BARDÍN EL HIPERREALISTA, an artefact that could best be called the bizarre bastard child of Chris Ware and Salvador Dalí. In such works and in his own stories for NSLM, Max has managed to completely overshadow his comix heritage, and sails a sea of surrealist storytelling and futuristic conceptual design. His work, despite its bizarre nature, is still as compelling as ever, but I can't help but miss the youthful, anarchic joy of his early works.

Of all his published work, only THE PROLONGED DREAM has been released in the US in collected form. Most of his Spanish work can be purchased online from retailers like Mars Import, and if you don't understand Spanish, there's always the staggering ESPIASUEÑOS, a beautiful hardback collecting most of his works as a designer and illustrator. The best course of action, though, would be to find the editor of your favourite comics publisher and threaten to burn his pubes if he doesn't reprint the books in English. That's what Peter Pank would do.

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