History of
Pioneering American Comic Strip
about Mexican Milieu

Rehearsed in
A HIGHLY REGARDED BUT LESSER-KNOWN MASTERPIECE of cartooning at last achieves some of the visibility it deserves in the latest work by Robert C. Harvey, a noted critic-historian of the medium. In Accidental Ambassador Gordo: The Comic Strip Art of Gus Arriola, Harvey provides both a biography of the cartoonist and a generous sampling of Gordo from the 44-year run of the comic strip that many regard as a triumph of design in cartooning.
According to Jud Hurd, who, for thirty years, has edited and published a quarterly journal about the cartooning profession, Cartoonist PROfiles, Arriola is enthusiastically envied by everyone in the inky- fingered fraternity. “He is one of the few cartoonists whose work other cartoonists drool over,” Hurd once said.
Mort Walker agreed:  “Gordo was an exceptional strip visually,” said the creator of Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, and several other comic strips. “I was really charmed by his drawing,” he went on. “And his Sunday page was a work of art. He seemed to indulge himself in creating new visual techniques to charm the eye. It was just a lot of fun to look at. I found myself not even reading it as much as enjoying the pictures. He is a superb artist.”
Said Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame: “My admiration for the drawing that Gus puts into Gordo knows no bounds. Gus can draw anything. Better than that, Gus can cartoon anything, and there is a world of difference.”
  For virtually all of the strip’s 1941-1985 run, Arriola (born in 1917 in Arizona) was the most visible American of Mexican descent working as a syndicated comic strip cartoonist, and Gordo was the more widely circulated (270 papers at its peak) and the longer-running of only two comic strips with a Mexican milieu.  (The other was Little Pedro by William de la Torre, which ran c. 1948-1974.  It was offered by a small syndicate and never had very great circulation.)  
Published by the University Press of Mississippi, Accidental Ambassador rehearses the history of the strip--and the remarkable evolution of its creator’s artistic talent and social conscience.
In the beginning, Gordo retailed the humorous adventures and amorous preoccupations of a portly Mexican bean farmer (“gordo” means “fat”), his perspicacious nephew, the menagerie of their farm animals, and the other citizens of their village.   More by accident than by deliberate intention, Gordo evolved an ambassadorial function, representing life in Mexico to its American audience.
At first, Arriola’s depiction of his characters perpetuated the stereotypical imagery of Mexicans found in Hollywood and American popular culture.  Eventually, however, as Arriola realized his comic strip was one of the few mass circulation vehicles in the United States that portrayed Mexicans, he began in the 1950s to take pains to reflect accurately the culture south of the border.  Converting his protagonist to a tour guide in the 1960s, Arriola was able to regale American readers with many aspects of Mexican folklore, history, and art in an entertaining (but informative) fashion, winning awards and accolades for his efforts.  The National Cartoonists Society named Gordo the best humor comic strip in 1957 and again in 1965.

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Because the animal (and, later, insect) characters in the strip had always been one of its chief attractions, Arriola was creatively positioned to stump for ecological concerns, and he was one of the earliest figures in popular culture to do so.  
But Gordo was more than an ethnic goodwill emissary. The comic strip was profoundly about people and humanity, as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen recognized:
“We all need families, our own and at least one other,” he once wrote.  “For more years than I care to think about, my other family has been the singular creation of Gus Arriola—Senor Gordo and his extended menagerie of diverting humans and spectacular animals. Haven't we all wanted to live as Gordo does? One can only envy him his charmed life: the perfect village, the adorable senoritas, the easily survivable hangovers and heartbreaks, and the marvelous array of animals that give the comic strip—a term that seems inadequate—its several dimensions. . .

“Gus's are real people,” Caen continued, “the kind one can easily and happily live with for a quarter of a century. I know, because I have done it. As for Gordo himself, he is a literary contrivance of the first magnitude—buffoon as hero, great lover manque, a pen-and-ink Everyman whose triumphs and tragedies are our own. Long may he and his flock survive. Breakfast without them would be unthinkable.”

Arriola matched his literary achievement with graphic wizardry.  He was a supremely inventive stylist, and his artwork always displayed design qualities unusual for a comic strip.  Harvey traces Arriola’s artistic evolution with many examples, including an eight-page color section that samples Arriola’s Sunday strips in which the cartoonist exploited the medium to produce stunning fiestas of color and design.

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Hank Ketcham, creator of Dennis the Menace and a stylistic virtuoso himself, said this of his friend: “Gus is a terrific draftsman—and designer. His design was just so crisp and nice, and the color on Sunday was great. Today they've squeezed the Sunday size down to the nub, and it would be a shame to do that to his stuff.”
Magazine and Mad cartoonist Paul Coker Jr.—another outstanding stylist—noted: “It's remarkable that without much art training, Arriola managed to make the strip far superior from the design and drawing standpoint to almost anything else in the papers.”
Eldon Dedini, whose spectacular watercolor cartoons have decorated Playboy magazine for decades, is a longtime friend of Arriola’s and admires his work: “He's more of an artist than 99 percent of the cartoonists. And the Sunday color was tremendous. He would make the color designations for the engravers; I don't think all cartoonists are that involved in selecting the color for their strips. For them, skies are blue, grass is green. But Gus would make red skies. The whole thing was designed, probably with a Mexican feeling.”
Reflecting on the extracomedic content of the strip, Dedini went on: “Ecology and race relations were Gus's concerns long before they appeared in other strips.” He paused. “And he made cartooning look so easy,” he continued. “All by himself. He did it all by himself. No assistants, no gag men (except Frances, his wife). What you saw in Gordo was all Gus. He brought a sensitivity and insight to his cartoons that existed in no other strip. Unique. People knew it and felt it. And they honored him for it.”
Harvey, a minor league cartoonist himself, has been a fan of Gordo since his youth in the 1950s.  “Doing this book gave me the opportunity to read again many of my favorite stories from the strip,” he said.  “As a youth studying the strip and imitating Gus’s drawing style, I loved these stories.  As often happens when you revisit scenes from your past, none of them seem quite the same now.  All of them are better than I remembered them.  They’re full of nuances both narrative and pictorial so finely wrought that they slipped by my youthful perceptions wholly unnoticed.”
Arriola told humorous stories in the strip until sometime in the late 1950s, when he began doing free-standing gags every day for long stretches.  But he would pick up the thread of continuity every once in a while, returning to storytelling for several weeks at a time.  
As a result, Gordo has not only a personality but a personal history, and the book rehearses much of it by rerunning several of the stories and excerpting from key continuities.  Gordo’s frequent encounters with the voracious Widow Gonzalez, for instance (the only female of the species he ran from rather than towards) are outlined and sampled.
Accidental Ambassador Gordo runs 256 pages, $30 in paperback; well over half the book is devoted to reprinting of strips. Available from Harvey with a specially designed bookplate signed by both Harvey and Arriola. To order, click here.

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