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Tell us about your background growing up around Buenos Aires and how it influenced your start in drawing. I grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Buenos Aires—Buenos Aires has a huge ring of cities named Conurbano Bonaerense (Greater Buenos Aires) surrounding it. My house was on streets which were unpaved at the time.

My father was a policeman, and my mother was a white-collar worker. As my parents would not be home for most of the day, my grandmother took care of my brother and me from morning until night. She was a Portuguese peasant, very religious. My interest in religions came from her.

My interest in images was the same as other kids my age. We had only four channels to watch TV shows like anime, Looney Tunes, Disney’s Silly Symphonies and local TV series on. I was seven years old when the TV started to broadcast in color! This was in the 1980s. I would also read popular comic magazines and series published by Argentinian cartoon publisher Editorial Columba. I remember drawing comics inspired by the comic magazines D’Artagnan and El Tony, the comic series Nippur de Lagash, and the comic book Fantasía, la pequeña revista de las grandes historietas (Fantasy, little big comic magazine).

You started studying with the cartoonist Alberto Breccia when you were fifteen. What did you learn from Breccia about making comics? He didn’t teach you to develop drawing skills, but because comic artwork is such a hard and complex discipline, your drawing skills improved. His classes went beyond making comics—it was more about a philosophy of life. He showed me a way of standing in the world. One of the phrases he liked to say was, “I can’t pull the kind of person I am apart from my work as a comic artist. My life and my art are one.” He always emphasized that we have to try our best in our work: “You have to put your guts on the board.” So, to draw was a “journey of self-knowledge.”

You must also know that his generation and the next—cartoonist Carlos Nine’s generation—had to go through some terrible, politically violent years in Argentina’s history. They had close friends who disappeared or were exiled. They were survivors.
The image is never submissive to the text.

You later studied graphic design at the University of Buenos Aires. After learning comics under Breccia, what was it like to switch focus and start studying graphic design? Breccia embodied the energy and violent youth of the expressionism movement. Through him, I discovered one of my first graphic heroes: Die Brücke, the group of German expressionist artists formed in the early 1900s—color, line, black-and-white and texture with an amazing energy. But when I was 25 years old, I saw that I couldn’t make a living with illustration, so I decided to start studying graphic design. My dreams of working as an illustrator and comics artist waned. My girlfriend at the time was a graphic designer, so I was familiar with the discipline. I liked it, though I didn’t have much idea what it was about.

During my studies, I developed an analytic sense and the tools for graphic design. I fell in love with the 1920s avant-garde artistic movement—Der Stijl, constructivism, Bauhaus, futurism—at the same time, I was also reading amazing theoretical texts. Since then, making images—drawings, paintings, woodcuts, murals, illustrations—has been an issue of cultural and mental construction to me, something that belongs to the world of ideas. From the avant-gardes, I absorbed the idea of the “graphic plan,” a way to understand illustration; it’s not about drawing skills, but how rich the rules of your drawing’s elements are—an analytic way to understand what you have in front of your eyes.

The drawn image is abstraction that means something. I understand illustration as an activity inside a social frame: an illustrator is a human being who is shaped by the society she or he belongs to. In a way, I found graphic language similar to spoken language.

How does your background in comics and graphic design influence your illustration work? My illustration style is a mix between my preparation as a comics artist and what I learned from my graphic design career—a mix between Die Brücke and Bauhaus. Something in the Latin American Baroque tradition: mix everything.

You compare your style to a “Lego system.” Tell us about a past project and how you created it using such a system. I start an illustration doing a pencil rough—this will be the template on which I’ll build the image in Adobe Illustrator. During the sketching, I try to keep in mind a kind of shape that will work later in Illustrator. In the computer, I don’t trace the template; I start with simple, basic geometric shapes—squares, triangles, circles—using the pencil sketch as a reference. Often, the illustration changes in this step. I’m always open to following what comes up as I work in the computer.

Your work features many well-known images, like Adam and Eve, the seven deadly sins and the figures in your Muertitos series. Do you think of your work as reimagining cultural imagery? Yes. As an illustrator, I can give ancient themes new images. Going back to what Breccia said: “You’ve your own life, your own experiences and your own way of understanding the world. This is your value as [an] illustrator.”

Another big influence is Oscar “Oski” Conti’s work. He was an Argentinian humorist who worked with ancient texts. He found humor in the sciences, history, ancient myths and legal judgments, among others. Under his eyes, all of humankind’s knowledge became nonsense. I think I’m following in his path.

Your illustrations for Gabo Ferro’s book 200 años de monstruos y maravillas argentinas (200 Years of Argentinian Monsters and Marvels) are incredible. How did you research so you could create illustrations with a deep understanding of Argentina’s “monster history”? This book is my most important personal project from the last few years. It began in 2010 with the intention to work with Argentina’s 200-year-old history as a country. Since the beginning, Gabo and I didn’t want to make a book that talks about our history’s typical moments, like postcards of Argentina’s history—and no national heroes, either.

Gabo is a quite well-known musician who has a history degree. When I met him, he had published books on Argentina’s history. What got me about him is that his background as a poet and musician gives him a very personal approach to his historical work. His book Barbarie y civilización: sangre, monstruos y vampiros en Buenos Aires durante el segundo gobierno de Rosas (1835-1852) (Barbarism and Civilization: Blood, Monsters and Vampires in Buenos Aires During the Second Government of Rosas) blew my mind.

The best was letting Gabo speak through his own writing. To borrow from 200 Años’s foreword: 200 Años is built mostly from a selection of literary documents referring to those subjects dangerous to the Argentinian elite who ruled the hegemonic historical discourse. These texts share a resource in their language: metaphors “in terms of monstrosity and abnormality” that point out differences and otherness. It’s good to know one of the meanings of the word monster: a being whose existence goes against nature’s rules. To me, “nature’s rules” can be thought of as the establishment’s rules.

I took this project as a thesis on what being an illustrator is about. Sometimes I discuss with the texts, sometimes I reveal what is behind the texts and sometimes I show what the text wants to hide. The image is never submissive to the text.

I wanted to talk with the academic paintings that depict the great moments of Argentina’s history—facing them with popular images from magazines, political pamphlets and newspapers. It took me around three years. I read a lot of books, including more than the ones Gabo gave me to work with. This project changed the way I see my country.

It’s important to note that graphic design talks in this book, too. It was made by graphic designer and illustrator Laura Varsky, having in mind El Grito Arjentino, a 19th century political newspaper that was famous for its caricatures.

What inspires you lately? Being alive. Life is amazing. Every day brings something new: a new text, a new artist’s work, new people, a new song. Still, the world amazes me as it did when I was a child. The day I lose this feeling, I’ll be a dead man walking.
Born in Buenos Aires, Christian Montenegro studied comics in cartoonist Alberto Breccia’s atelier before attending the University of Buenos Aires for graphic design. Since 2002, Montenegro has been working with digital media, mixing concepts from graphic design and comics into his illustrations. He has worked for clients around the world—from Argentina to China to Spain to the United Kingdom—including Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss & Co., Pentagram and Wired magazine. Montenegro’s illustrations have been featured in the books 100 Illustrators (Taschen) and Fifty Years of Illustration (Laurence King), and he was awarded the Swatch Special Prize at Berlin’s Illustrative 2009 festival.

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