Three years after the remains of Francisco Franco were finally removed from the granite chambers of the Valley of the Fallen, another relic of the dictatorial regime is stirring from a long slumber deep inside the monument’s damp and bone-stacked caverns.
Fortunately, the relic in question is not a long-dead falangista but rather a fictional Francoist secret agent whose adventures in contemporary Spain have moved from the pages of three graphic novels to the small screen.
The eponymous protagonist of the new TV series ¡García!, a genetically engineered spy created in the 1950s to serve and protect the interests of the Franco regime, wakes after spending 60 years in cryogenic hibernation to find himself in a profoundly different Spain. The certainties and strictures of the past are long gone, replaced by a new democratic society of emancipated women, mobile phones, drag queens – and a frankly bewildering variety of coffee options.
His foil – and guide through this brave new world – is a young journalist called Antonia, whose modern ways challenge his prejudices and his monochrome world view. While the pair’s adventures in a fictionalised but distinctly recognisable version of contemporary Spain involve political corruption and skulduggery, car chases and black-and-white flashbacks to García’s former life, the saga also makes for a subversive exploration of the lingering legacy of the Franco era.
“We’ve tried to embrace the premise of the comic, which is: what would happen if a super-agent who worked for a secret agency during the military dictatorship in Spain were to wake up in a Spain that’s a democracy – albeit one with lots of other problems – how would he react?” says Eugenio Mira, who directed the series for HBO Max.
The 45-year-old director, who grew up on a diet of Indiana Jones and James Bond films, prefers to compare the story’s premise to Captain America rather than Austin Powers arriving in the 1990s. Mira also says that while he enjoyed the technical challenges of the narrative and its many action scenes, the hardest thing was achieving a coherent tone.
“Satire has points of parody but if you take something that’s fundamentally ridiculous too seriously, you end up in a place where you don’t want to be,” he says. “For me the key is that I don’t see García as someone from a different era who suddenly ends up in our own. For me, he’s the idealised version of the way things were for those rightwing people who today are nostalgic for that era.”
The first ¡García! comic, published in 2015, was born out of the years of economic and political turmoil that led to the emergence of the indignados movement, which raged against unemployment, corruption and an out-of-touch elite.
“All that was an interesting context for García,” says Santiago García, who created the novels alongside the illustrator Luis Bustos. “But the way politics has evolved over the past seven years, things have only got even more interesting.” Although Spain is governed by a Socialist-led coalition, the resurgent far right forms the third biggest party in congress and the Madrid region is led by a sloganeering rightwing populist president.
“For me, reality has turned into pulp,” says the writer. “Pulp works through stereotypes, exaggerations and caricatures – and that’s what we’re seeing today in the press. In that respect, García hasn’t lost his relevance – if anything, he’s become more relevant.”
The basic idea, he says, was to take the kind of “Manichaean” character that populated the Spanish comics of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and pitch him into the modern world.
“You have a character who’s associated with a very concrete period in Spanish history – which is Francoism,” says García. “And that’s not innocent. So when you do that, you’re not just talking about comic books; you’re implicitly taken to a place where you’re talking about history and politics and historical memory.
“He also brings with him a lot of things that weren’t talked about in the comic books of that era. It’s about the collision between what we were told and what we want to know now about the realities of that time.”
As Bustos points out, ¡García! works on various levels, blending pulp and adventure with social and historical observations. “[But] there’s also a very meta theme here,” says the artist. “You’re using one comic book to talk about other comic books and how you mix different schools when it comes to adventures and thrillers, from US comics to modern graphic novels and Japanese manga.”
For Mira, the book and the TV programme are an antidote to cowardly nostalgia and the current “hyper-simplified and caricatured” climate.
“I think the message is that it doesn’t matter what the nostalgic lot say about fascism,” says the director. “Democracy, with all its mistakes, all its pitfalls and all its disappointments, is the only way … The nice thing is that that’s all embodied in García: he could be the most unthinking hero, but across the entire series, he comes to realise certain things.”
García and Bustos are also keenly aware of how ineluctably timely their books have become as the real world yields daily events that would have strained the seams of satire even a decade ago.
“Any of the absurd and horrible things that were in the first two García books have been surpassed by reality,” says the writer. “I look at them today and think: ‘We fell a bit short.’ We should have gone further and exaggerated more.”
¡García! begins on HBO Max on 28 October