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<< Back to Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush

Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush

San Antonio Express-News

If the small village of Rosario has a conscience, it is Mr. Mendoza, the self-proclaimed El Rey de Graffiti de Todo Mexico (the King of Graffiti of All Mexico) who posts his musings — "No intelligent life for 100 kilometers" on the city limits sign, for example — for all to ponder.

Originally written as a short story by Luis Alberto Urrea for his 2002 collection "Six Kinds of Sky," from Cinco Puntos Press, the fable has now been turned into a graphic novel by the El Paso publisher, vibrantly illustrated in a bold, woodcut style by Brooklyn cartoonist and muralist Christopher Cardinale.

"The tale was inspired by two things," Urrea, whose books include the nonfiction Pulitzer Prize finalist "Devil's Highway" and the elegiac novel "The Hummingbird's Daughter," wrote in a recent e-mail. "One, there was a real-life Mendoza character in Rosario, Sinaloa, named Pancho Mena. Pancho was the Practical Joke King of Mexico. You can imagine. Two, the prophets of the Old Testament, like Elijah and Elisha. If a character like Pancho Mena got the gift of prophecy and was a borrachito in a small Mexican village, maybe — just maybe — Mendoza could happen.

"But it is totally a morality play, as many picaresque stories are deep down under the skin."

Great community debate is sparked when Mr. Mendoza writes, on the wall of the cemetery, which faces the town brothel: "Turn your pride on its back and count its wiggly feet." And, "Mendoza never slept here."

"Who does Mr. Mendoza think he is?" asks police chief Reyes.

When Mr. Mendoza declares his "work finished" and that "Mr. Mendoza goes to heaven on Tuesday" — painted on a passing pig — the whole village goes into an uproar. "Was he going to kill himself? Was he dying? Was he to be abducted by flying saucers and carried aloft by angels?"

The answer is a testimony to the power of art, as Mr. Mendoza creates, step by step, his own stairway to heaven.

"After reading Luis' story through numerous times I drew out the entire book from my imagination without using visual reference or models," Cardinale wrote in an e-mail. "I wanted the first images to be based on nothing but Luis' descriptions and how they coalesced in my imagination. Later I decided I had to go to Rosario, Mexico, in the state of Sinaloa to see the town the story was set. I couldn't imagine creating a whole book based on a place that I had never actually visited."

Says Urrea: "Christopher's artwork is wonderful. Stunning. I had never imagined ëMendoza' illustrated, so it was a happy surprise for me and, now, that's the way it looks. Forever."

The graphic Mr. Mendoza, says Cardinale, is a composite of men he encountered during his trip to Mexico.

"When I visualized Mr. Mendoza I thought of older men that I had seen in the plazas of Mexico," he wrote, "men who carried themselves with dignity and were well dressed even if their coats were a bit worn at the edges. To me, Mr. Mendoza was a bit of a film noir character and a trickster. I wanted him to have a classic style. I imagined him springing through the shadows, in spite of his age, and laughing to himself as he thought of new graffiti to scrawl on the walls of Rosario."
- Steve Bennett, July 11, 2010 

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