mexico diaries 5: Journey to the Island of Dolls

5/17/99

It’s a funny thing: it’s been over six months since I last wrote anything about living in Mexico, and, the more things happen that are worth writing about, the harder it gets to figure out what to write. Well, gotta start someplace.

In short, since last I wrote, we’ve traveled to Chicago (twice, in my case) New York,twice, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, the huge comics festival in Angouleme, France, and also Taxco, in Mexico (picture above). We’ve had visits from Pete, Matt’s brother (with whom we went to Taxco), John, my old friend from college, and our fave Swedes, Fredrik and Susanna, and we’re expecting Sharon and Mark from Chicago this Saturday. I’ve become functional, though not fluent, in Spanish, I’ve finished another issue of Artbabe, v.2 #4, which is the last of that volume, and I’ve embarked on a bit of a hiatus from Artbabe (until the end of next year). I’ve been hired and subsequently had my project cancelled by NBC, been hired to do a comic book for the public radio show This American Life, stepped up my efforts to move into illustration and done practically nothing on my web page (though I’m working on it now!). We’ve also made several new friends here, and decided to stay until next March, which will make it a solid two years, at which point, we’ll pull up stakes and move to Tokyo. So, too much to get into, but here are some highlights:

Last week was Matt’s birthday, and I had contrived to make his party a semi-surprise. Rogelio, Heather, and I had hatched this plan before my last trip to Chicago, which was the first two weeks of April. We three had gone down to the canals of Xochimilco (some of you will remember that I went there with my mom last fall and wrote about it in my last Mexico Diary. OK, not many of you, but a few.), which is about an hour and a quarter to the south of the center of town, for an afternoon. While we were “parked” by the side of the canal for me to do a sketch, our, um, gondolier? What would you call him? Porfirio told me about a 4-hour version of the regular 2-hour tour, which went through the “ecological zone”. Matt had managed never to get to Xochimilco since our arrival in Mexico, so it struck me that this would be the perfect thing for a party. As I explained in that earlier diary, the boats at Xochimilco have large table down the middle, and it is traditional for Mexican families to go and have parties with big feasts (which fact caused several of our best friends to give the party a miss because of traumatic family memories). Matt showed up at Rogelio’s house (where our friends were to meet and travel down together) that morning expecting—still—to be brought back to our house later. He knew we were having a party, and there was something secret about it, but couldn’t fathom what it could be. Matt, I have to tell you, is great for surprises because he doesn’t even try to figure it out. I’m not good at keeping secrets, but he’ll actually tell me to shut up rather than let me ruin the moment of surprise!
Anyway, despite two guests with broken-down cars and one with a car accident on the way to Rogelio’s for the rendez-vous, and despite not having had RSVPs from the majority of guests, we managed to get twenty people on the boat only about two hours late. Several hours of drunken revelry followed, as well as a visit to the mysterious Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls) in the midst of the Ecological Zone. This tiny islet is the lair of a strange old Indian man who appears to live entirely alone and practically out in the open, under a kind of roof with no walls. There is a sort of shed toward the back of his compound, but it is crammed with junk and appears fairly unused. The strange thing about the place is that it is covered with dolls—babydolls mostly, broken and filthy, hanging from every tree, on the ground, in the shed, in a little makeshift bed/altar. Some of them were incredibly creepy, with half their heads missing, and hanging from their necks in scraggly trees. The guy seemed very sweet, but isn’t that what people always say about serial killers? The weirdest part was that he claimed that he had moved there 23 years ago, and the dolls were already there!! Oooooh. Other than that, the trip was extremely tranquil, oh, and other than the moment when our boat was being craned over the small dam that divides the Ecological Zone from the normal canals, and the electricity went out with the boat hanging in midair. But that didn’t last too long.

I had made South Carolina barbeque (with mustard-based sauce, in case you’re wondering) for the party and it went over real big, although most people seemed to want to eat it on tostadas with guacamole, and not on white buns, as God intended. But when in Rome, and all that. I’m planning to put the recipe up on my website later, but I can tell you it was a very impressive experience hoisting a 14-lb. hunk of pig leg onto my grill. I felt very, how shall I say? Neanderthal. In a good way. Bless John for having so much patience with my cooking follies over the years. We just sat around that meat all day, and then he
shredded the whole thing, by hand, by himself. The man’s a saint.

And then I got it into my head to make fresh pasta for the first time that same week. This was also successful, and we had a lovely dinner of artichoke-stuffed ravioli with a light tomato-cream sauce. We eat better than, like, anybody.

Work-wise, things have been interesting, to say the least. The NBC job was an epic saga, and it all ended in tears, as anyone with half a brain could have predicted. The job was drawing a series of five illustrations of characters and scenes from four shows on their Saturday morning lineup, which would then be used to make t-shirts, lunchboxes, backpacks, and whatever other junk they could think of. I was asked to bid on the job originally in, I think, August, but I bid high (though not what it was worth, as it turned out!), and didn’t get the job. Another cartoonist was hired, but for various reasons it didn’t work out, and he bailed. They contacted me again in maybe October, and asked me to do a test (to see if I could avoid the problems the other cartoonist had). I passed with flying colors, and then had to find a lawyer to negotiate a contract, which, as it turned out, was essentially non-negotiable. They had an amount they could pay, and that was it. I don’t hesitate to say, these people were the absolute stingiest employers I ever had. Apparently, it was a new division of NBC, created solely to make money by selling products, whatever they could think of. However, in a year of existence, they had not managed to complete a single project, and their budget had been ridiculously limited. Yes, I was paid a larger amount of money for each piece than I ever had been, but man, I worked for every dime! They were incredibly controlling and minute, and we went through huge numbers of changes on each piece. Somewhere around the middle of the project, some einstein decided they didn’t want illos at all, but photos (how original!). So I was out of a job and the illos will likely never see print. I’m getting paid for what I did, but the job promised to get easier as time went on, and I had hoped to get more work in the future, at better rates. Oh well, that’ll teach me to deal with the devil (ahem!) entertainment industry.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that I’m working on a full-length comic book (32 pages) for This American Life [link to thislife.org], a weekly program syndicated on public radio stations across the US. This is a bigger project than I’ve ever done on commission, but it’s going well, and I feel I can confidently predict that it’ll turn out one of the better things I’ve done. It’s a non-fiction book (somewhere between reportage and instructional) about how This American Life gets made, as well as about how a non-professional who is interested in that sort of thing might actually go about making his or her own radio pieces, and a few interviews with folks at a pirate radio station, college radio, etc. The book will be offered as a premium to public radio subscribers in the fall fund drive, in mid-October. If you don’t get This American Life in your town, well, you should be lobbying your local station, because it is truly an amazing show, and was my fave long before I had anything to do with it. You can listen to shows from their website: http://www.thislife.org. Here’s the most incredible part of this whole arrangement: I moved to Mexico last March, and when I did, I left my phone number on as voicemail for six months. Ira Glass, the host and chief of This American Life, had run across a journalistic comic I had done in the NewCity, a local free weekly newspaper in Chicago, in 1995 or 96 (the one about the Fireside Bowl, in case you saw it), had been impressed, and had filed it away. He never saw another piece I did, and didn’t know I do fictional comics as well, but last year, during a meeting with his staff about what to do for future fund-drives, pulled out my comic and suggested that they do a comic book. All agreed, so he looked me up and called my Chicago number about four months after I moved, got my Mexico number, and called me here. Needless to say, when I heard Ira’s voice on the phone, so familiar, and yet so strange, I almost couldn’t believe it. To this day, when he leaves a message on my machine, it’s sort of like my radio is talking to me. As part of my work on this comic, I’ll be attempting to produce some radio pieces myself, for my new, online radio show, This Expatriate Life. Can’t guarantee they’ll be any good, but watch my website for details.

One final note of interest: last time I wrote, I mentioned the wrestling posters, like the one on the cover of Artbabe #3 (which I turned into a poster for a dance. In fact, there are almost never anything but boxing and wrestling posters in this style),

that are relief-printed “like the old-west ‘wanted’ posters”. Well, we finally found the printer, and went to visit there with a huge crowd of gringos a few weeks ago. The place is tiny, but has been there for at least 50 years, probably more, and still has working remnants of printing technology that was au courant at that time and ever since then. They were incredibly nice, and it’s incredibly cheap, so I’m planning my first project there in the next few weeks: they have shelving units full of printing blocks that they use for their box/wrestling posters, mostly drawings of boxers and wrestlers of varying quality, and they will allow me full access to them. I will go and arrange the images in a sort of collage, wordless, and print up a set of huge posters. Other projects we hope to do include making posters to advertise our illustration work, making our own linoleum-cut blocks to print with, and old fashioned 4-color separations, possibly using the seemingly-endless supply of bullfight imagery they have on hand from the time when they used to print a weekly bullfight sheet. This place ought to be declared a—what do they call it?—a national historical monument? a treasure of humanity? Whatever it is, I can’t believe more people don’t make art there. It’s incredible.

And that’s the report from the wrong side of the border for this time. Next time, I’ll try to write more about Mexico…