She is a stumpy six-year old girl with a mop of black hair, innocent-looking saucer eyes and a broad smile. Like little girls everywhere, she asks awkward questions. Of her mother, busy doing the washing: “What would you be if you had a life?” Of her father: “How come in the family of man everyone wants to be the father?” The little girl is Mafalda, the creation of the Argentinian cartoonist Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón, universally known by his pen name of Quino, who has died aged 88.
Mafalda began life as a strip cartoon character in the early 1960s as part of an advertising campaign for domestic appliances. The campaign came to nothing but Mafalda was soon taken up by magazines and newspapers across the country. By the time Quino drew his last Mafalda strip in 1973, she had become a household name across Latin America.
Her mordant questions and opinions also made her a favourite in a number of European countries, including Spain, Italy and Greece. A selection of Mafalda cartoons also found their way into English when they were translated by Andrew Graham-Yooll and published in 2005.
Born in Mendoza, Quino was the son of Cesáreo Lavado and Antonia Tejón, Spanish immigrants from Andalucía who both died when he was young. He is said to have settled on becoming a cartoonist from the age of three after he had essayed his first scribbles, and he was encouraged in his ambition by his uncle Joaquín, a painter who looked after him when his parents died.
He studied for three years at the School of Fine Arts in Mendoza, then moved to Buenos Aires and began producing humorous standalone drawings that were taken up by a number of magazines, although it was not until he hit upon the idea of Mafalda that he became well-known.
The influence of American newspaper comic strips in Argentina was strong in the 60s, and Quino recalled that he had been asked “to produce something that was a mixture of Peanuts and Blondie”. But Mafalda and the other characters he created were quintessentially middle-class Argentinians, and their preoccupations reflected the day-to-day concerns and opinions of such people. Quino always insisted that the proper place for Mafalda was on the editorial and comment pages of a newspaper, as he saw her comments and opinions as being directed towards adults rather than children.
In the early days of Mafalda he was told by one editor that there should be no jokes about religion, politics or the military in his work, “but I found another way of talking about them”. As the political climate in Argentina darkened from the late 60s onwards, Mafalda’s comments came to be seen as criticism of the military governments, corrupt politicians and the economic and social chaos afflicting his homeland. Quino stopped producing the cartoons in 1973, partly, he said, because he was growing bored with them, but also because he knew that if he continued “I was likely to find myself getting one or four bullets in the head”.
Despite such perils, books made from his Mafalda strips were released by a small Buenos Aires publisher, Ediciones de la Flor, run by the couple Daniel Divinsky and Kuki Miler. When both of them were imprisoned after the military coup of 1976, Joaquin decided it was time to go into exile. He and his wife, Alicia Colombo, went to Milan in Italy, where they spent the next seven years, only returning to Argentina after the fall of the military dictatorship.
Quino later said that if Mafalda had been a real person “she would have been one of the thousands of the disappeared” ––a reference to the many people tortured and killed clandestinely during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Quino said he himself felt he was accused of being a murderer for killing off Mafalda and her friends, but he stuck to his decision not to write any more of the comic strips, only occasionally drawing fresh versions of her for good causes such as Unicef.
After returning to Argentina he continued with other humorous drawings, often showing a bewildered little man trying to make sense of a hostile world. In 2014 he was awarded the Prince of Asturias prize for his lifetime’s work; he must also have been the only cartoonist to have an asteroid named after him (Asteroid 27178, in 1999).
He had officially retired in 2006; following the death in 2017 of his wife (to whom he had been married for 57 years), and with increasing problems from glaucoma, Quino led an even quieter life, returning to Mendoza from Buenos Aires.
Mafalda, though, maintained an existence of her own. Ediciones de la Flor continued to bring out compilations of all the strips (Quino always refused to give the rights to his work to any bigger international publishing house), and a new edition, Complete Mafalda, was published in Argentina immediately after his death. It sold out in two days.
The day after he died, Argentina declared a day of national mourning in his honour.
• Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón (Quino), cartoonist, born 17 July 1932; died 30 September 2020