By chance, in December I came across the Argentinean comic scenarist and journalist Héctor Germán Oesterheld, who was unknown to me until then. And what a sensational work this activist, who “disappeared” under tragic circumstances during the military dictatorship, has left behind.
While exploring Buenos Aires, I passed the Argentine National Library, a masterpiece of Brutalism, and while photographing I stumbled over the Comic Strip Museum behind it, which commemorated Oesterheld’s work with an exhibition. As small as the museum was, as traditional the exhibition was, the more interesting the exhibits were and the more my interest in the person grew.
In any case, his exhibited works were so exciting that when I returned, I immediately obtained his most famous 350-page science fiction work “The Eternaut”, whose text and story was written by Oesterheld and masterfully executed by Francisco Solano López.
First published in the magazine Hora Cero Semanal between 1957 and 1959, it begins with the hero Juan Salvo, who meets with his friends in his cottage in a suburb of Buenos Aires for regular card playing nights. Snowfall sets in – extremely unusual for Buenos Aires – and the friends have to realize that it is no ordinary snow. Skin contact with the flakes leads to the immediate death of the victim. Thanks to the house, which is completely sealed off because of the prevailing cold, the friends survive and begin their struggle for survival, trying to find out the background of the snowfall. Their technical skills and equipment helps them to do so, and they understand that it is not radioactive fallout from the American atomic bomb tests common at that time.
They have to realize that this is a worldwide alien invasion and that they will be engaged in defensive battles, joined by other survivors in a short time. The parallels to the coronavirus pandemic currently rampant around the world cannot be overlooked and give the story an immediacy that is astounding.
The story is captivating right from the start and has an intensity that causes heart palpitations. The black and white narrative format of the comic drawer skilfully conveys the danger, the mood swaying between hopelessness and hope, and the horror of the means used.
The story does not end well, but leaves the ending open. In fact Oesterheld, López and others worked on several sequels. The importance of The Eternaut in the Argentinean and South American psyche should not be underestimated, just like with the other great Argentinean comic series Mafalda. With the increasing power of the military, Oesterheld’s work became more and more critical of the regime.
While López went into exile in France early on, the Oesterheld did not. He and his four daughters, two of them pregnant at the time, were arrested and “disappeared” from 1976 onwards. His wife and mother were among the first members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who regularly marched and demonstrated to obtain clues to the estimated 30,000 people who disappeared during the military dictatorship.
The Eternaut has been translated and published in English for the first time only in 2015. Despite the price of almost 50 US dollars, The Eternaut can be recommended without reservation.