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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!

Interview with Jesús Cossio

By Gabriel Saxton-Ruiz

In the last few years, many writers, filmmakers and artists have undertaken the task of reconstructing the period of political violence in Peru of the 1980s and 90s. The various representations explore different perspectives on the conflict, oftentimes challenging the official version of the events while discussing human rights violations committed by both terrorist groups and the Peruvian armed forces and intelligence services.  Jesús Cossio has been very involved in the ongoing debate regarding the country’s recent violent past through his critically acclaimed graphic novels Rupay (co-authored with Luis Rossell and Alfredo Villar, 2008) and Barbarie (2010), an excerpt of which appeared in Words Without Borders..  Characterized by stark yet expressive (mostly) black and white vignettes, both of these works fictionalize important sections from the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  To add to the documentary feel of these graphic works, Cossio incorporates speeches and interviews from the principal actors of the years of terror as well as newspaper clippings from the era.  As readers we are called to witness the senseless and barbarous acts of violence that ravaged Peru at the end of the twentieth century. 

Gabriel Saxton-Ruiz: How long have you been writing and illustrating graphic novels and comics? 

Jesús Cossio: I’ve been doing comics since the end of 1994.  It’s been almost 20 years…wow!

GSR: How did you become interested in graphic works?  Were you an avid reader of comic books?

JC: No, comic books fell into my hands sporadically.  But I did become friends with older guys who had been creating comics and fanzines (Lucho Rossell and Miguel Det).  I found it to be a fascinating medium and began to try my hand at it.

GSR: What were some of the themes in your first comic books and ‘zines?

JC: Well, the ‘zines included a mixture of anarchist critique, nihilism and post-adolescent depression.  At first, I worked on them with friends so they were not entirely comic book-related.

GSR: How would you characterize your most recent works?  Do you think the label of “documentary and journalistic comic books” is accurate?

JC: For part of it, yes.  But not all of what I do falls under that category.  On the other hand, I maintain that my work is more documentarian than present-day journalistic in nature.

GSR: How did the idea of the collaborative project Rupay come about?

JC: When the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out in 2003, the reaction from certain sectors of Peruvian public opinion and the right-wing press was sickening.  And thus, while Villar, Rossell and I were talking one day, the idea came up to create a sort of response to much of that reactionary demagoguery.

GSR: Why did the Final Report draw so much criticism from the right?

JC:  The right, the military and the right-wing/reactionary press complained that the report attacked the Armed Forces by blaming them for systematic killings when according to them only “isolated excesses” had occurred.

GSR: What did you want to accomplish with Barbarie?  How has the reception been in Peru of both Rupay and Barbarie?

JC: To a certain extent, I wanted to continue the task of memory as explored in Rupay, but taking a slightly different approach which focused more on a sequential narration.  Both of these books are not “best-sellers” since the comic book culture in Peru is rather precarious.  But they continue to sell and after four years, Rupay has sold out its first printing run.

GSR: One of the most interesting aspects of Barbarie is how you incorporate stories from print media.  Could you explain the research that was involved in writing/illustrating the book?

JC: I prefer to call it “documentation” because the research had already been conducted by the members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and human rights organizations.  Basically, I chose some cases, read what the commission had researched and then compared that version with what had been investigated at the time by the Congress (if any investigation had been carried out), NGOs and also the press.

GSR: What exactly occurred in Villa El Salvador last year regarding the censorship of some of your works?

JC: They asked me for a drawing I published on Facebook for an exposition marking the twentieth anniversary of the capture of Abimael Guzmán.  My comic strip satirized Guzmán’s changing positions throughout the years from an enthusiastic “revolutionary” to a man who pleaded for amnesty for himself and others who had been responsible for various crimes of political violence.  The showing was in front of the town hall of Villa El Salvador. The opening day of the exposition, the Fujimorist congresswoman Marta Moyano complained about the images that alluded to Abimael because she considered them to be “pro-Shining Path.”  And later on, the Ministry of Justice who had organized the event, removed the drawings against the wishes of the curator, Karen Bernedo.

GSR: So the censorship was not actually the work of MOVADEF but of the Fujimorists?

JC:  That’s right…an absurd matter.

GSR: In the last few years, you have been an invited speaker at some of the most important comic book festivals in Latin America.  Is there much contact between comic book creators in the region?  I remember hearing about a collaborative pan-Latin American graphic novel project detailing the years of Operation Condor (an intelligence-sharing network established by several South American dictatorships in the 1970s with the tacit support of the U.S. government). Are you still involved in this project? If so, how is that going?

JC: Yes, there is much more contact nowadays.  We are able to get together much more frequently thanks to the festivals, social media and collaborations on different ‘zines.  The Operation Condor project is in its initial stages and I am one of the three editors/coordinators.  This year we have started to get more organized about it.

GSR:  That’s great news! You should hit up the Carter Center to help fund it.

JC: Ha ha…thanks for the tip.

GSR: What other projects are you working on at the moment?

JC: I’ve just finished a few things and have started several pending long-term projects.  I’m adding two chapters to Barbarie: one on MRTA and the other on Comando Rodrigo Franco.  I am also preparing a graphic biography on José María Arguedas.

Published Apr 9, 2013   Copyright 2013 Gabriel Saxton-Ruiz

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