The alarm goes off. I open my eyes, but the curtains stay drawn. No light comes in. Yesterday’s rays of sunshine appear in my mind, the same ones that will slice through my window at any moment. Today, I’m getting a haircut.
As a boy I was taken once a month, without fail, to “Sandro,” a hairdresser’s on Avenida San Martín in Cochabamba. To my young mind, this avenue centralized and coordinated all the city’s hairdressers. Barbers and stylists lived together, face to face, elbow to elbow, one locale piled on top of another, proving that the competition today’s entrepreneurs see as necessary can actually be a fundamental complicity, an ecosystem. Why disperse if you can come together as a hairdressers’ quarter, where everyone lives together as equals, clients are distributed on the basis of tradition, and profits go straight to the maintenance of families and the collective. A kind of hairdressers’ socialism. I felt like a part of this ecosystem since my father was welcome there as a frequent visitor. Even though getting a haircut irritated me, there was a reason I loved going to the hairdresser: every cut meant an encounter with the world of comic books. Not ones with superheroes and superpowers, the ones my contemporaries always nicked, but ones that made you want to laugh at everyday moments and life’s contradictions, especially those in Mafalda or Condorito. At the same time, I started to talk with childhood friends about comics, and one of them introduced me to the existence of local fanzines. To be honest, over time they’ve turned to dust in my memory, but although I can no longer clearly recreate a single panel, I remember how anxiously I waited for that monthly haircut to once again enter their universe.
Years later, after I’d read other comics, visited other hairdressers and other cities, and experienced change both in my life and my hairstyles, I went out looking again for “Sandro,” this time in its new branch a little bit outside the city and distanced from the Avenida San Martín. The world had moved on. But to my surprise, comics were still splayed over the counter, available for clients. It would seem there was a hairdresser-going public still eager to get their hands on them. You can’t compare the experience to anything: as you read, your hair is cut over the pages, with the TV blaring nonstop and the buzz cut clippers going zooooooooom! Every now and then you have to shake out the pages, to get rid of your hair and keep reading. It’s almost a ritual with its own texture, its specific sounds, its particular smells, its designated space. To go back and get my hair cut there was a simultaneous trip to the past and to the future. In my imagination, the hairdresser of the future will be a traveling character; hair artists will move around with kits they can pull from their bags and set up double quick, wherever you happen to be. It’d require some investigation to know if what I’m describing is a past or a possible future. Sometimes our gaze forward in time starts with a look back, a bit like an unfolding mirror; starting from memories, we’re able to create what happens further along. Through the double movement of projection, literature can move between times and places, between humans and nonhumans, between societies and ruling powers. A good example of this can be found in the work of Miguel Esquirol, who titled his story collection Memories of the Future. His work is an intense exploration of digital life, technology, memories, and the human being in all its passions. I wonder if Miguel makes trips to the future too, in the process of remembering.
Literature can be approached as an intense configuration between the memory that builds characters and the arrival of a possible future created in the imagination of the person reading about them. Different cultural and political references become elements capable of producing a dreamed-up setting, an indeterminate time, an imaginary space, fictitious characters, but above all they’re capable of introducing the reading public itself into the plot, as a form of subjective representation. This need to tell a story or see ourselves in a futuristic plot isn’t something neurotic, but part of what makes us into a community. It’s not by chance that science fiction, cyberpunk, and fantasy are considered to be something fresh in Bolivian literature. Something that puts into crisis the idea that film, the digital screen and the internet will lead to a darkening or decline of science fiction, especially in countries where technology is a major consumer good. Add to that these last years with their apocalyptic setting: lockdowns, wars, climate crisis, space journeys, microchips, smart robots, multiverses, and “necro-empowerment” within gore capitalism, as Sayak Valencia puts it. These all seem to be elements taken from a book, hurtled from the future toward our lost past, a dystopian vision that’s derailed and is now prepared to slam against itself. In this mind-warping scenario, it’s inevitable to think that if I were to come across comic books at a hairdresser’s in 2060, they’d imagine how we in the past imagined a future now so present.
This work of rigorous projection and imagination took shape as a project that plays with the words utopia, dystopia, and El Alto: the first installments of Altopía (2021) by Alejandro Barrientos and Joaquín Cuevas. The three issues, which are available online, invite us to participate in a futuristic universe, a distinctive and extremely powerful one that incorporates many techniques. Set in 2053, in the city of El Alto, Altopía starts with four panels that show the body of a young cyborg, or half human-half machine, gravely injured in a stretcher. The same panels show a few doctors talking about how damaged the young man’s body is, making use of local expressions like “funca” from the word function, and placing additional stress on Bolivian terms. Behind this, in parallel to the story of the wounded young man, are lyrics to the melancholy cumbia “Mala mujer,” echoing the title of the first installment, “La traición,” or “Betrayal”. This conjunction of settings, characters, music, and language on the first page manages to position the comic as a work of great sophistication, displaying a complex engagement with art, literature, and national culture. Barrientos and Cuevas bring us a cyberpunk setting and with it the possibility of imagining a Bolivian culture that has survived time, globalization, human tragedy, economic forces, linguistic transformations, and cultural disputes, in an Andean universe of the future. The decision to tell this story through the comic allows for the coexistence of different artistic expressions like musical lyrics, illustrations, drawings, and writings.
Another element that stands out in the project is its importance for the production of the comic book and literature industry in Bolivia. Take Cuevas, who’s an activist, author, and comic book seller. This multifunctionality implies that the art of the Bolivian comic survives only thanks to the crossing of particular axes, capable of articulating production and distribution even in the absence of concrete institutional support. This isn’t to say that previous comics or national productions did not exist. It’s possible to trace the comic in the second half of the twentieth century through its appearances in magazines like El Cascabel. The subject matter was mostly political; unfortunately, circulation was largely interrupted by the country’s military coups. This forced pause left Bolivia among the countries “without a comics industry,” and there’s a reason why the so-called Latin American Comic Studies of the English-speaking academy overlook the impact of Bolivian works. In contrast, there was a boom in Bolivian comics at the start of this century, especially between 2005 and 2009, with the organization of the international comics festival “Viñetas con Altura.” This festival linked the comic to established spaces like the National Museum of Art, and positioned Bolivia on the map of comics production at an international level. Its efforts gave a place to the comic in Bolivian literature and the reader’s imagination. The potential for national comic book production was also revealed at the start of the century with popular magazines like Bang! (2000), edited by Susana Villegas with help from Álvaro Ruilova and Edwin Álvarez, and Crash! (2002), edited by Frank Arbelo. These two projects, the best known in the sector at the time, are the ones that define the start of the contemporary Bolivian comic. In the years that followed, the quantity of production skyrocketed with fanzines and new magazines like Trazo Tóxico (2005) and El Clan (2006), among others, further demonstrating the industry’s possibilities.
After 2009, however, the Bolivian comics industry started to break apart, and one by one a number of venues closed shop. A clear example is the festival “Viñetas con Altura,” which ceased to exist in the country. In this context, the second decade of the century saw the need to create the industry anew, and some independent projects took baby steps in that direction. A good example is a comic by Álvaro Ruilova and Susana Villegas, adapted from the novel Periférica Blvd by Adolfo Cárdenas Franco. This comic was the first in the country to directly connect with literature, to the degree that the latest edition published by the Bicentennial Library of the Vice Presidency of the Plurinational State of Bolivia (2019) was a masterful work of over four hundred pages, in which this comic and the novel that inspired it are part of the same book.
The Bolivian comics industry enjoyed a boom at the start of the century, followed by a short stagnation, then a rupture with the beginning of a new dynamic. In this sense, Barrientos’ and Cuevas’s project was born in a national context that created an opportunity to build new artistic foundations, and Altopía took up this impulse to put down the first beams. The fact that the publisher, El Cuervo, is now about to launch a print version of Altopía suggests an intimate connection between the comic strip and literature. The news merits celebration not just from comics lovers, but also those concerned with the future of literature in Bolivia. Barrientos and Cuevas have created a work that functions as a point of encounter between science fiction, illustration, music, urban cultures, and the national imaginary. Ultimately, it opens a portal to the imagination and to artistic creation in Bolivia. Perhaps, in the universe of Altopía, I can even imagine myself returning to “Sandro” and finding myself surprised at being attended by a hairdresser with trimmers and clippers instead of fingers, dancing cumbia as he cuts my hair.