Smash Pages Q&A: Liniers on ‘Good Night, Planet’

The creator of ‘Macanudo’ discusses his latest project from TOON Books, humor and how his daughters influence him

Since 2002, Liniers has been entertaining Argentina with the daily comic strip Macanudo and for English language readers, the fourth collection of translated strips will be published in the spring. He’s also been drawing album covers and New Yorker magazine covers, and even had a recent comic in the pages of The New York Times. Since 2013 he’s made three children’s books, all of which have been published by Toon Books.

His most recent book is Good Night, Planet, which has also been released in a Spanish language edition, Buenas Noches, Planeta. It is funny and sweet with a sense of strangeness and a feeling of adventure. It also feels like autumn in New England. Liniers and his family have been living in Vermont for the past year where Liniers was a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies and we spoke recently by phone about the book, the strip, humor, how his daughters influence him, and not being Woody Allen.

How did you end up in Vermont?

We were looking for somewhere abroad to have a family adventure and broaden the horizons of our kids. We were looking at different countries. My wife lived for a while in Canada. We were looking at Ireland. We wanted an English speaking place. Of course we were looking at the states. Then this place popped up into our screen and it was perfect. It had everything we wanted – plus a cartooning school. [laughs] To my Argentinian mind, the concept of a Master of Fine Arts program for cartooning was so amazing that we had to find out who these guys were. When we got in contact with them they were nice enough to offer this fellowship, so here we are.

How long are you sticking around for?

The fellowship was for one year and that year has come and gone. We didn’t want it to be just a long holiday, we wanted more of an experience. We just fell in love with the place. I don’t know long we can stay. It all depends on Donald. [laughs]

Good Night, Planet is out and this is your third book for kids.

It’s my third book for kids and my first Vermont-ian book, I guess. In my diaries I had this page of one of my daughters and her new stuffed animal. I gave it to her when we arrived here in Vermont. She was three years old back then, so she had like 20 words in her vocabulary. We asked her what’s the name of your new friend and she said the last word I expected to come from her which was, Planeta. I thought that was the best name I had ever heard for a stuffed animal. The story grew from there. The house where we’re living is more or less the house that I drew. We also got a puppy – because we wanted to live with an American. [laughs] So he’s in there, too. Some mice run around our house because we live in the country now so that ended up in there, too. It was just a fun, easy book to make. Every time my daughters inspire something in me it always ends up being my favorites so that one and the New York Times piece are ranking very high – for myself at least.

You have three daughters and the first two were in your book The Big Wet Balloon.

I had to do this. [laughs] I was running into a big problem if I didn’t.

The book definitely has a New England feel to it.

Definitely. It’s hard for me; I try not to put my daughters in my work. It probably doesn’t look like that, but I really try not to. Sometimes it’s just impossible. You live with these little geniuses of surrealism and comedy you have to use them. [laughs] I remember reading that A.A. Milne’s son was Christopher Robin and he had all these stuffed animals and I thought, okay, he did, it works, it’s fine. Then I read that Christopher Robin hated his father for doing that. [laughs]

They’re in these two books and I’m sure living them influences Macanudo even though they don’t appear in it.

Oh yeah. I think my most personal stuff is what ends up in Macanudo in the guise of silly tiny thoughts.

A daily strip, just because you constantly have deadlines and you’re thinking about it all the time, I think just ends up being your most personal thing.

Definitely. I’ve been doing it for 15 years so it’s like second nature by now. When I started doing it, I could never understand how someone would do Calvin and Hobbes or some of these other strips that I loved for 10 years – or Peanuts for 50 years. That was amazing. Having a wide enough imagination that you could just work with those same characters for 50 years. I don’t have that imagination so I came up with a gazillion characters. [laughs] The way Macanudo works, it synthesizes every strip that I’ve love and every movie that I’ve loved every book that I’ve loved – everything is in there.

Stylistically the books are very similar to your comics, but what’s the difference in how you approach them?

I never thought of the daily strip as a kid’s strip. I just try to amuse myself. Whatever kid I have in me, that’s the kid I’m writing for. I never thought of it as a kids thing. I love children’s books and I consider them as I consider grownup books – which is to say there are some great books and there’s also a lot of crap out there. To my mind whatever crap is out there is when you try to talk down to kids or you try to teach obvious stuff that maybe parents should be teaching. I don’t really care about teaching kids in my books. That’s not my job. What I want is for a kid to read my book and have some kind of emotion that will make him go, that was incredible, I need to get another one of these things. That’s what I’m hoping for that they get something out of it and will grab another book.

Which is similar to what you try to do in the strip.

I am literally not a very profound human being. [laughs] I have not that much to teach anyone. I’m not the kind of guy who will show you where happiness lies or what you should do to be a better person. I have no idea. I’m barely a good person myself. What I will try to do is amuse you in some way. How to be a better person? I have no idea what I should tell anyone.

In the past few years, you’ve been in The New Yorker; now you’ve been in The New York Times.

Yeah, that’s weird. [laughs] I love New York. I’m going to grab one of those T-shirts the next time I’m in the city.

You’ve been living in Buenos Aires. For people who don’t know, what is the comics scene like there?

It’s huge. It’s a strange situation. Throughout the 20th century there has been this huge outpouring of comics and cartoons and cartoonists in Argentina – but for the last forty-fifty years it’s been very hard to be a cartoonist in Argentina. There’s not much of an industry. There aren’t many publishers. The only ones that can make a living out of it are the ten to twenty guys who publish in newspapers because they have a regular paycheck. Most of the stuff other guys make is published abroad and not in Argentina. A lot of comics authors are very famous in Europe, but not at all in Argentina which sucks. It’s a hard place to be a cartoonist I guess but for some reason they keep popping up.There’s a big history there of cartooning.

There’s an amazing history of cartooning in Argentina and there are a lot of great Argentinian cartoonists – besides yourself – like José Muñoz, Eduardo Risso, Oscar Zárate, Jorge Zentner.

They’re amazing – and nobody knows about them in Argentina. One of my weaker points is my work with black. Everything is very sunny in my cartoons, and I would love to add more black ink to it. If I had grown up reading José Muñoz and Alack Sinner, if I could have gone to a bookstore and bought that stuff, I would have been better at it. He’s a master of that. A few years ago, my wife and I started publishing graphic novels in Argentina to fight against that situation.

So most people in Argentina know comics just through newspaper strips?

That’s how I’m very lucky. The newspaper is the one place where people who don’t read comics read comics. My grandparents and my uncles and aunts who would never grab a comic book read them. I was lucky that the type of comics that I always wanted to do, which was the comic strip, was the one that I could make a living with in Argentina. Then I was extraordinarily lucky to grab one of those spots because you’re basically waiting for some of your heroes to die. [laughs] I know there are people waiting for me to die. [laughs] That’s more or less how it works. I was lucky that nobody had to die. I replaced an American strip, a great American strip – Zits. It just wasn’t doing very well in Argentina. It has a lot of observational humor and wasn’t really connecting with the Argentinian experience. It was very American for our taste.

 

Between The New Yorker covers and the three books at Toon Books, I have to ask, what is Françoise Mouly like as an editor?

She’s amazing. She’s very clear with her opinions, and generally if you pay attention to them you turn out a better version of whatever you handed in. I generally don’t work with editors, I am my own editor. A daily strip is very fast and rushed. I work from day to day so I don’t give them time to question what I’m handing in. [laughs] But with Françoise, with New Yorker covers and the books, she says, why don’t you check this out, maybe there’s something here. She’s generally right. Most of the New Yorker covers, you know that her name should be under the signature of whoever made it because at some point she went, maybe instead of doing this you should try that. I remember talking with Charles Berberian, who’s a French cartoonist who I love who also did some New Yorker covers. He told me he went through the same experience – I handed in some ideas and then Françoise said something and then it was way better but I got to sign it. [laughs] She knows exactly how things work so you have to pay attention. She worked with Steinberg and Chris Ware and everyone. She found all these guys like Charles Burns when she was doing Raw Magazine who are superheroes now and she saw them at the beginning and went, “Let’s publish this guy.”

I don’t want to take too much time, but I am curious how you’ve been finding Vermont.

Don’t worry about the time, this is what I do instead of psychoanalysis. People pay for this.

I’m loving Vermont. A very nice surprise was the people here. I was expecting to really like the people from the Cartooning school because they are my type of people – strange and interesting. [laughs] But people here in Vermont have been so nice and inviting and open. It’s been really easy to make friends. I grew up smack in the middle of Buenos Aires in this huge metropolis and now we live in the middle of the woods where we have a car and cross deer and foxes. It was a big change. In Buenos Aires I gave an interview where I said we’re moving into the woods and I’m such a Woody Allen type character that I’m freaking out. They titled this interview “I Am the Woody Allen of Buenos Aires.” I got so much hate from Twitter that day. [laughs] So please don’t do that! I am Woody Allen-y in that sense. I am very metropolitan. It’s been an adventure for my kids, but it’s very much an adventure for me as well. Shoveling snow and going for walks with my dog. It’s amazing. You know the way Good Night, Planet feels? Everything is new. It’s a little adventure. And maybe the moon is a cookie. [laughs] That’s the way I feel, stuck to the page.

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