GORDO is another comic strip whose use of lettering and design is remarkable, in addition to having appealing characters and writing. It began in 1941 as a humorous soap opera strip about an overweight Mexican farmer with an eye for the ladies, his smart nephew Pepito, and their animals, friends and neighbors in rural Mexico. Over a 45-year run it evolved into an exploration of Mexican culture and history as well as charming cartooning that covered a wide array of topics and characters in fresh ways, as with Gordo’s hungry cat Poosy Gato, above. Often the lettering was an important part of the storytelling, and it was fine lettering.
Gustavo Arriola was born July 17, 1917 in Florence Arizona. In an interview conducted by comics historian R.C. Harvey in The Comics Journal #229 (Fantagraphics, Dec 2000), Arriola describes his own origins:
My father came to the U.S. in the 1890s. I used to say facetiously that I was born in the northern part of Mexico now called Arizona, but it was Florence, Arizona in 1917. And I lived there until I was eight years old. We left Florence in 1925, the whole family, and moved to Los Angeles, where I grew up and got my schooling, graduating in 1935 from high school. We were seven boys and two girls. I was the baby of the family. My sister, Herminia, she was the eldest, and when my mother died of that flu epidemic in 1917 when I was only six months old, my poor sister, who was twenty years old at the time, was left with all this family. So she was the surrogate mother to me.
Los Angeles was magic. The air was different from Arizona. You could smell the orange blossoms. The city was surrounded by orange groves. L.A. was a rapidly growing place because of the movie industry. [I went to] a very good high school, Manual Arts High School, which specialized in shop work. They had four or five art courses — life drawing, design, stage art, and commercial art. I took them all. Manual Arts High School was the only high school in L.A. that had semi-nude models in art classes. That’s where I learned to draw women.
I loved the comics. I used to read them from the minute I could read. I did several comic strips — just for my own amusement — little knowing that I would develop into that later on. I graduated from high school and went to an animation school in Hollywood. In 1936 I applied for a job at Screen Gems as an in-betweener, filling in the action indicated by the animator. I learned how to draw by watching animators work. I did that for a year. [Then] I heard they were forming a unit at MGM. They hired me based upon my experience at Screen Gems. For six months I was an in-betweener, and then I was moved up to assistant animator because I was doing a good job, and I did that for about two years. I really never did feel right about animation. It was too precise an art. I wanted to do stories. I was a story sketch man for about a year and half, and then I sold the strip in 1941.
You can see in this early strip how Arriola’s time in animation influenced the style. The drawing is solid, but cartoony. That would evolve over time. The lettering reads fine, though the heavy dialect makes it a little hard to read. That would also change later, but this initial phase of GORDO didn’t last long. As Arriola said in the interview:
By early 1941, I thought I had the idea pretty well in hand, so I went off to New York and made a tour of the syndicates. United Features was the one that wanted to study it. In June of 1941, I got a telegram from Mr. George Carlin, who was the head of the syndicate, saying they were interested in producing it. He flew out and we signed a contract. I had to leave the studio because I couldn’t do both. So I quit my job, scared to death because I was working alone. Somehow I learned to do it; I started putting out six dailies, just the dailies. It started November 24. And then — bang! What happens? Pearl Harbor came in December. I was classified 1-A [by the draft board], so for the next ten months, while waiting to be drafted, I did the strip. It ran until October 1942, when I went into the Army. Luckily, orders came through to report to Culver City — First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps.
Arriola spent the war making training films at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City. He had met his wife Frances, and they were married in 1943 and were able to live off the base. Since he was home evenings and weekends, Arriola was able to restart GORDO as a Sunday strip only, with the first one appearing May 2, 1943. By 1946, out of the Army, he was able to resume the daily strip as well. In the 1940s, it was something of a Mexican LI’L ABNER, with stereotypical characters meeting the expectations of readers from what they saw of Mexicans in films. The art and lettering improved greatly. In the strip above, the regular letters are done with a wedge-tipped pen, with cartoony elements like the U-shaped Y. The emphasized words had pointed corners added with a small pen point to make the stand out better. And Gus was beginning to experiment with Mexican lettering styles, as seen in AMIGOS.
Some fantasy elements remained, as in this daily strip’s Cupid, and the symbolic image in the first panel. While there were soap opera elements, animals began to play a larger role, allowing for more humor that would appeal to kids as well as adults. In the interview, Arriola said:
Everything in those early days was purely an experiment. I would bring in whatever animals I might need for a gag. I guess that came from the animation business. And it was natural, too, that a farm would have animals around. They talked among themselves, but they never communicated directly to humans. They were a device to make comments on human foibles.
The animals also allowed Arriola to break free from conventional storytelling and begin to do more creative things with large lettering, as here. This strip is about Gus himself, struggling to get ideas for the strip. The animals talk to each other, and directly to readers, breaking the fourth wall.
More fantasy in this strip, a leprechaun. The animal balloon shapes suggest they are whispering I think, though of course humans can’t hear their talk anyway. In the second balloon, GOLP has modern breath marks around it, showing that Arriola was keeping up with new ideas in lettering. The regular C is very curly, and the G has a wide central serif. And on the left edge of the first panel are marks made to draw the lettering guidelines. Meanwhile, Gus, his wife Frances, and their young son Carlin needed more space, so they moved to La Jolla, near San Diego for a while, also spending time in Arizona in the winter. By 1956 they had resettled in Carmel in northern California, where they would remain for decades. Arriola found kindred spirits there, including magazine cartoonist Eldon Dedini and DENNIS THE MENACE creator Hank Ketcham.
Look at the fabulous creative lettering in the final panel of this strip.
Arriola was employing both art and lettering as graphic design elements at a time when few comic strips did anything more than tell simple stories.
In this Sunday page, Pepito’s sincere adoration of his Uncle Gordo is tempered by the sarcastic thoughts of Señor Dog, creating a funny dichotomy. Arriola was always experimenting. Notice how the balloon shape in the second panel is formed only by shading lines, the balloon border in the third panel suggests an open book, and in the third to last panel, two balloons from the same character are separated only by color. Design on the Sunday pages was striking and original. Even when telling an emotional story, as here, Arriola’s strip is full of humor and charm.
Another great use of large lettering on this Sunday, and more effective humor from the animals. Note the credit line at the top of each strip is now often a pun rather than a real credit, something I enjoyed as a child when reading them.
Perhaps my favorite character is the beatnik spider Bug Rogers, whose creative webs often use letters. Arriola takes impressionistic art and lettering to new frontiers in these strips, and they’re also funny.
While our Sunday newspaper carried GORDO, I never saw the dailies, which are just as clever in a more condensed way.
In the early years, on the farm, Gordo himself was a slob, but later Arriola cleaned him up. Gordo left the farm and became a tour guide for Americans, requiring him to dress better. Arriola said in the interview:
In 1960 when I went to Mexico myself [for the first time, I] saw the country with a new eye. And then I realized that Gordo would be more fun as a tourist guide than as a farmer. That’s where I brought in the folk art and the historical and cultural celebrations. I did away with the dialect and the other ethnic stuff. I didn’t feel I needed it anymore. If I used a Spanish word, I would put the translation below. Art teachers and language teachers used to write and comment on it. We went [to Mexico] nearly every year after that. Some of that Mexican history, it became material for me.
I wish I could find some of the strips about Mexican history and culture, but I’m not seeing any in my usual sources online. I remember enjoying them.
What I recall best about the strip is the creative use of letters, especially in the Bug Rogers strips, a late one is above.
Sadly, Arriola’s son Carlin died in 1980 of complications from an auto accident. A few years later, Arriola decided to end the strip. The last one ran March 2 1985. In the interview, Gus said:
After 44 years, I was kind of burned out. I’d done it all myself — except for a year or so after the War. It just got a little too much for me. After our son died, the fun went out of it.
Gus Arriola died Feb 2, 2008 at the age of 90. He left behind an amazing legacy, decades of fine work on GORDO that deserves to be seen by more people, and I hope in future years more of it gets collected into book form so we can all enjoy it.