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A self-baring strip

Her comics' candor wins Argentina's Maitena a far-flung following.

April 11, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

La Pedrera, Uruguay — IN her fast-selling anthology "Curvas Peligrosas" (Dangerous Curves), the Argentine comic-strip artist Maitena lists a number of lies commonly told by women.

To their mothers: "I'm fine!"

To a girlfriend: "I swear to you, that was the only time."

To a man: "Yeah, it was great for me too...."

But the most quietly devastating of the strip's six cartoon panels depicts the Big Lie that many women (men too) tell themselves: "It's what I dreamed of all my life."

Smart, acerbic, convincingly blond (though it's not her natural color), tanned head to toe and, make no mistake about it, loaded, Maitena, at 43, would appear to be one of those rare souls who have found a way to make good on their fondest fantasies. No one appears more surprised by this strange turn of events than Maitena (pronounced my-TAY-na) herself. This, after all, is a woman who at age 24 had split from her first husband and was struggling to raise two kids in a ramshackle Buenos Aires apartment.

But that was a lifetime ago. Since the early 1990s, Maitena's spiky cartoon strips depicting the quotidian triumphs and tribulations of modern women have won hundreds of thousands of fans throughout Latin America, Europe and beyond.

Her characters, mostly middle-class people in their 30s and 40s, are drawn in a precise but energetic style that suggests a sexier, less polite version of the popular strip "For Better or for Worse" by Canadian artist Lynn Johnston. While a few strips are constructed as narratives, most are simply extended riffs on a theme: "Six things you can't ask a man," or "How to turn your son into a sexist male" or "Tell me your child's age and I'll tell you where not to go on vacation."

Infused with mordant humor and ruthless honesty, her panels have a post-punk, post-feminist sensibility. U.S. and European readers may imagine they detect echoes of Germaine Greer, Lydia Lunch, Cindy Sherman and "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw.

But the cartoons, like their author, have their own distinctive point of view. Neither excruciating sexual truths nor casual nudity is shunned in the unsqueamish art of Maitena, who once earned a living illustrating erotic magazines. In Maitena's view of the many faces of Eve, the mystical pleasures of breast-feeding and the existential terrors of creeping cellulite tend to trump more abstract issues.

"I don't do feminism; I don't make war of the sexes," she says. "I speak badly of women, I speak very badly of women, but that's because that's what I know. I can't speak ill of men, I say little things about men, but I don't speak badly fundamentally of men because I'm not a man, I'm a woman."

And although her comic prototypes, presumably, are fellow Argentines, Maitena believes that women, at least Westernized urban women, aren't so different the world over. "We aren't all equal, but many of the same things happen to us on all levels, and we have a very similar scale of values in all the world," she says. "In the Western and urban world, a 35-year-old woman is happy for the same reasons and unhappy for the same reasons.

"I speak a lot of what we women feel within ourselves, what a woman feels when she leaves her child in day care and goes to work, what a woman feels when she puts on her favorite jeans and they don't fit, or a woman returns home from work tired and sees her husband reading the newspaper."

Judging by her streaking overseas sales, Maitena's convictions are correct. Several spinoff book collections of her work, including "Women on the Edge" and "Mujeres Alteradas" ("Altered Women"), have sold about a million copies combined around the globe and been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, German and English. In Argentina, her popularity has reached single-name stature, like the soccer star Maradona. (Full name: Maitena Burundarena.)

But perhaps the highest accolade came from another Argentine cartoonist with a well-known nom de plume, Quino, creator of Mafalda, a Peanuts-inspired little girl still hugely popular in the Spanish-speaking world. Maitena, he wrote in an introduction to one of her books, "doesn't aspire to be a mirror reflecting reality." Instead, she grabs reality, mirror and all, "and throws it at our heads."

Success on this order brings rewards, and Maitena, whose name in Basque translates as "the most beloved," is enjoying them.

Sipping coffee at her dining room table, she gazes out a floor-to-ceiling window in the rambling modern home that she shares with her husband-manager, Daniel Kon, who formerly managed Soda Stereo and other Argentine rock bands, and the couple's 6-year-old daughter. On the other side of the glass stretches a long, nearly empty white-sand beach swept by Atlantic waves bronzed by the late-afternoon light -- a scene to induce envious shivers from Malibu all the way to Carmel.

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