Considered one of South America’s greatest comic writers, Héctor Germán Oesterheld (Buenos Aires, 1919 – Mar del Plata, 1978?) wrote and redefined a number of highly diverse genres, ranging from tales of adventure and war to science fiction, detective, and western stories. He worked with some of the best cartoon artists of his time, including Alberto Breccia, Hugo Pratt, and Francisco Solano López. His profoundly humanist work features mature themes and, particularly in his captions, elegant prose.
Oesterheld’s professed goal was to elevate the comic medium so it could serve as a bridge between children’s stories and literature. His works, while entertaining, also have a didactic function, which explains why the protagonists are usually complex characters dealing with deep inner conflicts. Additionally, Oesterheld frequently presents collective heroes, and his antagonists are sometimes less evil than they first appear. Still, this added complexity never interferes with the reading or enjoyment of the stories.
Oesterheld witnessed firsthand the golden age and decline of comics in Argentina. Hundreds of comic books were published in the 1940s and 1950s, and sales were phenomenal; some titles had editions of up to 300,000 copies. Oesterheld, a geologist whose hobbies were philosophy and adventure novels, was first published in the mid-1940s. His first works were children’s books and scientific articles for two publishers, Codex and Abril.
It was with the latter that Oesterheld debuted as a comic strip writer in 1950 with Alan y Crazy, drawn by Italian artist Eugenio Zoppi. The Abril publishing house was pivotal in Oesterheld’s career, as it published a large number of his series, especially in the magazine Misterix. It was also at Abril where he met some of the artists with whom he worked closely, including Francisco Solano López (1928-2011) and Hugo Pratt (1927-1995), and where he first tried his hand at publishing.
Oesterheld wrote two important series with Abril: He produced with Italian artist Hugo Campani Bull Rockett (1952), whose main character is a test pilot and scientist. Campani was later replaced by Solano López. Then in 1953 with artist Hugo Pratt, he created the successful (a ten-year run) western strip Sargento Kirk about the war and its consequences. Its protagonist deserts the army, regretting his participation in an Indian massacre, and becomes a member of the Chattooga tribe. Kirk is a prototypical Oesterheld character, a humanist who stands firm against violence.
Later, in 1956, Oesterheld founded the Frontera publishing company with the help of his brother Jorge. Frontera first published a series of novels based on the Bull Rockett and Sargento Kirk characters, and in 1957 would go on to publish the comic magazines Frontera and Hora Cero. The Oesterheld brothers wrote most of the comic strips published in both magazines, sometimes under pseudonyms such as C. de la Vega or Jorge Mora. Oesterheld created some of his best-known works during this period of success, such as Ernie Pike in 1957 with Hugo Pratt, a series featuring a war reporter in which the soldiers are portrayed first as humans rather than as fighters belonging to a particular side. It is interesting that Pratt drew on Oesterheld’s facial features when creating the character Ernie Pike. Pratt also did the artwork for Ticonderonga, a comic strip situated in the U.S. during the colonial period.
The series Rolo, el marciano adoptivo also dates from 1957. This strip, drawn by Solano López, has certain similarities with Oesterheld’s best-known work El Eternauta, also drawn by Solano López. Both are science fiction series that start with an invasion of the Earth by extraterrestrials that a group of humans decides to resist. It is no coincidence that the series appeared at a time of great political agitation in Argentina. As in other Oesterheld comics, despite the fact that the adventure strip is named after the protagonist, it actually features a collective hero. For Oesterheld, the individual is unable to achieve anything on his own. In fact, his characters tend to be ordinary people who become heroes in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Juan Salvo, for example, the Eternaut, is merely the owner of a small transformer factory who could not defeat the invaders without the help of his companions in adventure: a university professor, a soldier, a lathe operator, etc. Rolo, a schoolteacher, is in the same situation; he depends on the help of the neighborhood club, of which he is leader, to fight against the extraterrestrials. His companions are also ordinary people who work in trades such as typesetting and refrigeration. In both series, the adventure bursts in on everyday life rather than on a faraway time or place; the action takes place in what could be any Buenos Aires street or neighborhood.
Also located in Buenos Aires, and published in 1958, is Sherlock Time, a comic featuring a time-travelling detective. This story, a cross between a detective novel and science fiction, marked the first time Oesterheld worked with Uruguayan artist Alberto Breccia (1919-1993), who was able to create a disquieting atmosphere through the generous use of shadows.
By the end of the 1950s, many of Frontera’s best artists had opted to work for the European market, which paid better for their artwork. Unfortunately, this was one of the factors that brought about the end of Oesterheld’s spectacular success at his own publishing company. Frontera, overwhelmed by debt, was forced to close in 1961. Oesterheld, now in financial straits, returned to the magazine Misterix, which the Abril firm had sold to the Yago publishing company. In 1962, once again with Breccia, he created Mort Cinder for Misterix, considered by critics to be their masterpiece. The protagonist is once again a time traveler, an immortal who dies only to be reborn as an adult in a distant era. Thus, he is a witness to history, or rather to the smaller stories within history. Breccia’s Mort Cinder drawings mark yet another milestone in his aesthetic experimentation.
The 1960s witnessed several circumstances that affected Oesterheld’s life and work. First, it was a difficult period for comic strips and the publishing world due to the economic situation in Argentina as well as to the arrival of television, and Oesterheld had to combine his work at Misterix with a great deal of writing for other small publishing houses both in Argentina and in Chile. In addition, the political upheaval in Argentina (with a military dictatorship from 1966 to 1973) led to Oesterheld’s growing political commitment, which is clearly reflected in his work.
For example, in 1968 he published a biography of Che Guevara, illustrated by Alberto Breccia and his son Enrique Breccia, which flashes back and forth between the last months of the guerrilla’s life and his earlier years when he was simply Ernesto Guevara. The work was subsequently seized and the originals destroyed. The biography of Eva Perón outlined by Oesterheld and completed by Peronist journalist Luis Alberto Murray in 1970 suffered a similar fate. Illustrated by Alberto Breccia and published without any indications as to the publisher, printer, or distributor, the work was seized and destroyed.
The end of the decade saw Oesterheld’s first return to the character of the El Eternauta; in 1969, a new version of the story first published in 1957 reappeared in the magazine Gente, this time illustrated by Alberto Breccia. This version, with much more political content and much bolder in terms of graphics, was never finished due to the protests of the magazine’s readership, who had a conservative bent.
The combination of Oesterheld’s increasing political commitment and his family’s financial woes had a profound effect on his cartoon production in the 1970s. He created some minor characters for the magazine Top, such as Artemio, el taxista de Buenos Aires and Russ Congo. Of greater relevance is his work with the Columba publishing company, the only firm publishing adventure comics at the time, and later with a new company called Record which, in addition to publishing, also sold many materials created for the Italian market. Particularly outstanding from his time with Columba is the series Kabul de Bengala. Record also reprinted some of his previous works such as Sherlock Time, along with some new ones, including Nekrodamus and the second installment of El Eternauta, which came out in 1976.
By this time, Oesterheld had become a member of the press committee of the Montoneros, an armed leftist organization, and was living in hiding. In fact, there is some doubt as to who actually wrote some installments of the second part of El Eternauta since the illustrator, Solano López, received the scripts but had no contact with Oesterheld, whose location remained secret. Other comic strips that he wrote during this last period, all highly political, were published either by media shut down by the Isabel Perón government or by underground organizations. Such was the case of the unfinished Guerra de los Antartes for the newspaper Noticias, the installments of 450 años de guerra contra el imperialismo (450 Years of War against Imperialism) for the weekly El descamisado, and Camote for the magazine Evita Montonera.
The military returned to power in Argentina in 1976, intensifying the climate of repression, persecution, and death. Oesterheld was kidnapped on April 27, 1977 in the city of La Plata by a group of soldiers and, after his arrest and torture, it is suspected that he was killed sometime in 1978. Oesterheld and his four daughters are among the more than 30,000 people who disappeared during the last Argentine military dictatorship.
With the return to democracy of this South American country, many of Oesterheld’s works were reprinted, including El Eternauta, which had been banned under the military government. Likewise, Oesterheld is regaining recognition through monographs and documentaries (H.G.O., 1999), as well as a fictional television series (Germán: últimas viñetas, 2013).
See also: El Eternauta; Mort Cinder
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