Umberto: Twenty years and counting

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If an image is worth a thousand words, when the image is accompanied by clever words in two languages, its value grows exponentially.

That's the case of Bill Baron's "Umberto" cartoon strip, which has been delighting and making people think for two decades.

"It was my pleasure to work with Bill Baron during the eight years I was the managing editor of The Taos News," said former Taos News editor Joan Livingston. "There was the political side of Bill with his often hard-hitting cartoons on the editorial page. But then there was Bill's humorous take on life through Umberto and the comic strip's characters. The Taos News and its readers are fortunate to have Bill Baron creating for them."

The evolution of Umberto

The first "Umberto" strip was published on March 18, 1998, but the character has gone through several "incarnations," before and afterwards. Baron explains how the strip evolved since its conception in 1983 when he was living and working in New York City.

"The initial sketch was of a winged late-middle-aged woman, a fairy godmother who would unintentionally screw up everyone's life," he said. "She would salt her dialogue with Yiddish. I thought that would be too much of a cliché, so I changed her to a rotund old man with wings, a fairy godfather. I later developed him into a medieval-looking character who existed in 'never time,' walked with a stick and had a pig for a companion. This then developed into a southwestern character, probably because a move to Taos was on the horizon."

Umberto has also gone from black and white to color and from tales specific to Northern New Mexico to a more general content.

"He can be sophisticated or a boor, with all the human frailties we all possess," Baron said.

The name came about after Baron met "a wise old man from Mexico" by that name. As for Porcina, who Baron admits is his favorite character, her name developed after the English adjective "porcine."

"I don't feature her enough," Baron said. "I plan to bring in more Porcina in future strips. I will be trying to have her involved with some of the political issues and social problems of the day, but still injecting humor to make the point."

All the other characters --Filiberto, Father Lamentar, José Relámpago and Bubba-- are based on real people Baron has run across.

"Umbertito is the child alter ego to Umberto," Baron said. "Soledad, Umberto's female interest, developed her look from a sexist remark I heard at a restaurant. The dude at the next table was loudly proclaiming his superiority with females. At one point he described his last conquest: 'She had the sexiest, most perfect body I have ever seen, but she had a face like 20 miles of bad road!' Soledad is not that bad a looker, however, that is where she started."

All the characters in whole or in part reflect a part of himself, Baron said.

"I can be as neurotic as Filiberto, as scheming as Joe Flash, and at times as wise as Umberto," he said.

Baron explains that the strip was originally in Spanish only but went bilingual because non-Spanish speaking readers requested the translation to English.

"The idea was to improve my Spanish," Baron said. "It did not. I picked up the little Spanish I know working alongside Mexican immigrants when I was a riveter for the Rock Island Railroad, a summer job during college."

An artist's creative process

When you have to come up with a new cartoon every week, your creative process must be quite fast. You can't just sit and wait for inspiration. So which comes first, drawing or story?

"I am not a religious man, but the first words in the Bible are, 'In the beginning, there was the Word,'' he said. "I concur with that. Any visual, be it movies, plays or cartoons, starts with the writing. Bad movies, for instance, are usually the result of bad scriptwriting. However, sometimes when stuck, doodling, diagramming and sketching will inspire a concept... then you have to get to work and write it, refine it, then draw it."

Although he is an accomplished artist, a member of the Taos Society of Watercolorists, and a sculptor, Baron says that he has never had any compulsion to "express himself" in his painting, printmaking or sculpture.

"I just meander trying my hand at different things," he said. "I don't enjoy a lot of things others find fun in. But I do have fun working, and enjoyment and fulfillment often comes incidentally from that process. My editorial cartoons and sometimes the Umberto strip are an outlet for my 'expression' in a response regarding some wrong or folly being perpetuated by a government, corporation, church or myself, to name a few."

This month Umberto isn't only celebrating his 20th birthday but also that he has appeared in about 1,040 strips as well. And his creator doesn't have plans to slow down.

¡Feliz cumpleaños, Umberto!

Dovalpage teaches English as a Second Language at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs. Her students find the Umberto cartoon helpful. "Sometimes you can't understand the words but you look at the picture and get an idea of the situation," said NMJC ESL student Gabriel Meza. "Then we have the Spanish version to help."

The Spanish version of this story is here.

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