Books

A Post-Apocalyptic Graphic Novel by a “Disappeared” Argentinian Writer

It’s as if Oesterheld was telegraphing in The Eternaut the horrors that would befall him at the hands of his own repellent government.

The Eternaut cover
‘The Eternaut’ cover

Buenos Aires-born comics writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld was nearing his 59th birthday when heavily militarized Argentine death squads kidnapped him in the spring of 1977. The fascist dictatorship had produced a “dirty war,” which meant that a military regime had begun silencing leftist sentiment by force. Government officials found the political themes in Oesterheld’s very popular comics — among them, the graphic biography of revolutionary “Che” Guevara that Oesterheld had penned with Argentine father-and-son artists Alberto and Enrique Breccia — cause for punishment. They yanked it out of circulation and destroyed the book’s printing plates.

Oesterheld’s support of an aggressive left-wing guerrilla group called Montoneros in the 1970s — backed by the writer’s four grown daughters — angered members of the violent military campaign that had occupied Argentina’s government. When troops captured all four of the Oesterheld women, the fact that two of them were pregnant mattered little. Other than 19-year-old Beatriz, whose body was later found, none of them were ever seen again.

“My life was wonderful, and we were all very close,” Héctor’s widow, Elsa Sanchez de Oesterheld, told The Washington Post in 2012. “And then they took it all away, all of it.”

A journalist and writer of well-liked children’s stories and short books in the years before he disappeared, Oesterheld eventually prospered as a writer of comics. He worked with Alberto Breccia and Italian creator Hugo Pratt, who would go on to earn critical and popular acclaim for the internationally bestselling black-and-white Corto Maltese graphic novel series.

“Oesterheld played an important role in the development of the Argentine comic between the 1950s and the 1970s,” University of Iowa professor Ana Merino wrote in the International Journal of Comic Art in 2001. “He unknowingly opened up a bridge between fantastic and comic literature, showing that comics could be as intense as literature, and in turn, can offer alternative aesthetic possibilities.”

Comics flourished in Argentina during a “Golden Age” that began in the mid-1940s, and Oesterheld began publishing his own magazines, featuring his strips in them. With artist Francisco Solano López – another Buenos Aires native, who fled to Madrid to escape the death squads — the prolific Oesterheld scripted a black-and-white science-fiction/adventure comic called El Eternauta. Translated by writer and poet Erica Mena, a nearly 400-page oblong English adaptation collects Oesterheld and López’s serial comic, positioning it as a single chilling, taut, post-apocalyptic graphic novel.

From The Eternonaut
From ‘The Eternaut’ (click to enlarge)

In The Eternaut, a comics scriptwriter is visited by a mysterious man named Juan Salvo, who appears in the writer’s home office as an apparition before assuming human form. Time travel has exhausted the guest, but he shares his story, serving as the tale’s narrator.

Salvo recounts an attic card game played by a group of science enthusiasts and hobbyists that is broken up by a tabletop radio’s alarming news: American atomic bomb testing has yielded radioactive dust that he and his friends believe to be blanketing the street — and killing neighbors — below the attic window. The sloping ceilings play no small role in the cramped, constricted atmosphere that Oesterheld scripts. López’s perpetual cross-hatching darkens the attic sequence’s barren corners, while the characters’ bulky cheekbones and forehead creases are carved out with short dashes and thick black strokes.

Salvo’s pack of card players watch through narrow windows as death unfolds below. Hysteria sets in quickly. “We’re going to die like rats! Food, air, everything will run out!” says electronics aficionado Lucas Herbert, one of the panicked men at the card table.

The Eternaut isn’t without the hyperbole we typically associate with pulpy genre yarns and hallowed television anthology series. And although Salvo’s narration — rife with Cold War–era technophobia, mind-control horrors, and fear of an omnipresent enemy’s reach — is often rich and lyrical, this isn’t likely to hook those who didn’t rush out to snag the recent Barbarella volume from Humanoids or IDW’s Howard Nostrand collections. But as Oesterheld’s characters don’t stay put for long, most will at least marvel at López’s output when he’s tasked with drafting the exploration of the still streets of the neighborhood. Clad in homemade hazmat suits, the card-players leave Salvo’s wife and daughter behind in order to forage for supplies, only to discover that aliens have invaded their quiet corner of Buenos Aires, and that the deadly “snow” is just one component of the attack.

From The Eternonaut (click to enlarge)
From ‘The Eternaut’ (click to enlarge)

The action dazzles within The Eternaut‘s cleverly composed panels. López employs gradients and heavy blacks to set off gunpowder clouds, and each sphere is built with dense detail. Even when set pieces are relegated to the far background, a gargantuan stadium, a subway station, and the exteriors of neighbors’ manicured houses are all magnificent structures when rendered in López’s refined linework. Picket fences surround the quaint homes that line Salvo’s suburban block, and out of context, these appear to be serene landscapes, with the deadly “snowflakes” rendering nearby tall pines fluffy and cotton-topped. But the peaceful exterior is deceiving, and the truth for The Eternaut’s nerdy underdogs — who aren’t just a part of a sci-fi story but of “an exploration of the human condition,” per scholar Martin Hadis’s foreword — is anything but.

Twenty years after El Eternauta debuted in the weekly magazine Hora Cero, state-sponsored terrorists began canvassing Argentina, torturing and killing scores of suspected socialists and leftists. The United States Institute of Peace estimates the number of kidnapping victims to be between 10,000 and 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983. Taken alongside the news of his widow’s perpetual search for any semblance of closure, it’s as if Oesterheld was telegraphing in The Eternaut the horrors that would befall him at the hands of his own repellent government. And in his depiction of a persistent, insect-like army of extraterrestrials (the underlings of a far more significant enemy) — scampering about in droves, armed with high-tech weaponry and cannibalistic inclinations, disrupting all sense of human civilization in their overlord’s efforts to seize control of the planet — Oesterheld hit devastatingly close to home.

The Eternaut is published by Fantagraphics Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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