Zaragoza by José Luis Cano

Before we published Zaragoza, I knew Cano especially for his famous booklets dedicated to illustrious Aragonese figures. I used to buy them in bookshops and, after meeting the author in person, he would send us some through the post accompanied by some friendly words, which was double the joy. I was able to read El mago Chomón, and then Don Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and later on Miguel Servet y el doctor de Villeneufve, and Odón de Buen, el republicano de los mares, and so on. Also, Una infancia de cine and El esquizoide carácter aragonés, an even smaller booklets printed in two colours. By the time the postman brought me the book dedicated to Ferdinand II of Aragon, volume no. 16 of Xordica’s collection, I already knew I wanted to work with José Luis, and said to Begoña: ‘There is no other option but to commission this man a book’.

For a long time I had been considering a collection of books about cities that would not only be for tourists. Cities are where most people carry out their lives nowadays and where great stories take place. Today’s adventure is not to survive a journey across the desert —which some people already do as if it were a beach— but to find opportunities for a dignified life in modern cities. Mount Everest, for example, has such a significant number of climbers and television crews from all over the world, that it has the same waste disposal problems as any large city. Taking a picture at the summit, and not getting another twenty people sticking flags in the shot, adds to the merit of the climb.

While I was daydreaming about deserts and Himalayas (thinking is free), I already knew this collection was going to be called ‘My Beautiful City’, and many other things about it. For example, that the authors of the books would be illustrators who lived or were born in the respective cities; that the chosen cities would each begin with a different letter, with no repetitions, and that the collection would be closed: comprised of as many books as there are letters in our alphabet. I knew the books would be in a square format, and that arranging them together would result in a pattern reminiscent of the traditional Spanish grid we exported to America (thinking nonsense is also free); and that in each book there would be design elements related to postal mail, since each title would be a kind of (love or hate) letter the author would send to his or her readers. I knew from the beginning, or at least from early on, that the first titles would be dedicated to Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Zaragoza, and that the latter would be made by José Luis Cano.

I not only thought of him because of his books on important Aragonese figures, but also because after several meetings we were able to confirm that, as well as being a fantastic guide, José Luis was an excellent expert on his city and knew its most famous and lesser-known stories. The project we proposed to him was a tour of the city through some of its famous and anonymous figures, of whom a brief biography would be presented next to their effigies.

Cano is one of the greats of Caricature, a higher art, hugely important in the past, which today many confuse with a factory of big noses. Not at all. There are so many things I like in Zaragoza that it is hard to highlight anything in particular, but I cannot resist noting two details. As any reader will notice —and I do not dare comment whether it is a flaw or a virtue—, Cano is incapable of drawing women in an unflattering way. Secondly, I consider it a genius idea on Francisco Goya’s level that the portrait which appears as a second character in Jalón Ángel’s biography (a familiar face for having been reproduced to exhaustion for forty years) resembles, rather than Francisco Franco, the humourist Andreu Buenafuente.

I am convinced Zaragoza is much more than an excellent collection of drawings. The link between text and image works perfectly, which allows the book to be approached from many angles, favouring different readings. Before he began drawing, Cano must have already known how he was going to resolve the images and what difficulties he was going to find; which is most likely why he focused first on the texts, creating a list of names and establishing their possible order. When we commissioned him the book, we suggested that he took all the time he needed to research the characters, because the information gathered over, shall we say, a year’s time, would help to define the project. Well, we did not have to wait that long. A few months later we received an e-mail containing a list of seventy-five names with all the characters already in order and with the texts practically finished. I remember reading that list in one go, and I could not stop laughing for a while. The entire book was already in that ‘draft’.

The printed work appeared shortly before the Frankfurt Book Fair took place. As in previous years, we rented a stand to showcase Media Vaca’s new releases. In a very visible place, we displayed José Luis Cano’s book. Although the fair is intended for selling rights, not copies, the two exhibited books quickly disappeared: one was purchased by a woman who knew Zaragoza and who, flicking through it, read the entire thing. The other one was acquired, with a discount, by a comic book publisher from San Francisco as a gift for his wife from Zaragoza. Multiple and inscrutable are the paths of the cierzo.

Vicente Ferrer

Text read in Zaragoza on 28 March 2007 as part of the conference on design ‘apuestaposible.esDA’, held at the School of Design in Aragon. Image: postcard with the Zaragoza cover, published for the presentation of the book.