Comics’ Own Martyr: Héctor Oesterheld’s Life and Death
Vanished from the Face of the Earth
In 1977 Héctor Germán Oesterheld — Argentinian writer, famed creator of The Eternaut, and member of the Montoneros guerrilla group — disappeared.
His family never saw him again. His readers never enjoyed another fantastic adventure. His political work was left unfinished.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say Oesterheld was disappeared. An outspoken critic and soldier in the war against the military junta ruling Argentina at the time, he paid the price for his political views and actions: he was kidnapped in 1977 and last seen in 1978, believed to be executed in secret by the junta.
For most of Oesterheld’s entire life he had fought for his leftist political beliefs. He warmed up his voice by articulating his leftist ideals and his criticism of the anti-Perón government in his adventure and science fiction comics, but he eventually shouted full force, making comics about actual political figures like Che Guevara. This rise in his political activism paralleled his own radicalization, most notably seen in his role as a member of the Montoneros, a leftist guerrilla group that opposed the military junta in Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s. A role, along with his work in comics, that led to his capture and execution. That led to the government silencing his voice permanently.
In The World Encyclopedia of Comics, comics historian Maurice Horn wrote that “the medium of comics has had its geniuses and its mountebanks, its noblemen and its toadies, occasionally its heroes. But very rarely has it had its martyrs, which makes Hector Oesterheld perhaps unique in the field.”
Oesterheld was a true revolutionary, a true martyr, something — as Horn noted — that makes him a unique figure in the history of the medium and the history of the world itself. Throughout the history of the medium, comics creators have occasionally used their stories for political purposes, but few creators have actually fought for their beliefs. Even fewer have died for them.
The junta was successful in preventing Oesterheld from speaking out any more during his lifetime, true. But in making him a martyr, they ended up boosting his voice even more. They gave his message another new life, making it something that would forever be documented in the history books of Argentina and comics. Even in death, Oesterheld couldn’t help being political.
Oesterheld’s Early Life and Early Comics Work
On July 23, 1919, Oesterheld was born in Buenos Aires to a German father and a Basque mother, a set of parents that made him an outsider in early twentieth century Argentina, mixed race couples being rarer then. He was born to parents who lived leftist ideals, especially ones of diversity and inclusion. This, along with his early focus on geology, contributed heavily to his later written work. It would shape the social message of his comics, while his geology background would lend a greater air of realism to his science fiction, something that would anchor the stories and his political messages in the real world.
Before Oesterheld started writing comics, he set his sights on traditional media: he was a proofreader at a publishing house. He eventually found a job writing for the newspaper La Prensa in the early 1940s, releasing his first story, “Truilia y Miltar”, in their Sunday literary supplement. He even started writing news stories too, but he soon moved away from La Prensa, partly because the newspaper was staunchly conservative, anti-Peron, and supported British interests in Argentina. Oesterheld grew up relatively liberal, but as he grew older his attitudes became even more leftist, putting him in conflict with a publication that supported right wing and foreign interests — a trusting view of foreign powers that Oesterheld first shared but eventually abandoned.
When Oesterheld left La Prensa, he wasn’t just running away from a publication that clashed with his worldview: he was running toward a new publisher, Abril, and a new medium, comics. In 1951, the editor in charge of Abril, Césare Civita, commissioned Oesterheld’s first comics work for the magazine Cinemisterio. His first comics (“Alan and Crazy”, “Lord Commando”, and “Ray Kitt”) were relatively straightforward adventure stories, lacking the political edge of his later work. Perhaps after working for a newspaper that held opposing views, Oesterheld was overly cautious; perhaps he wanted to learn the ropes of the new medium first. Whatever the reason, it didn’t hold him back long — Abril would soon start publishing stories of his that dabbled in politics and social issues.
In 1952, with comic legend Hugo Pratt, Oesterheld created “Sergeant Kirk”, a western epic that appeared in Abril’s Misterix magazine. While steering clear of directly touching Argentinian politics, Oesterheld used this series to showcase some general political beliefs, a view on the United States’ past, and social justice. The series starts with US soldier Sergeant Kirk deserting the army after assisting them in a massacre of Indians. From that point on, he spent his time defending Indians and their way of life, often clashing with the US government.
A far cry from Argentina, yes, but not so far from the mission he took on later in his life: protecting the downtrodden from the junta’s abuses of power. Oesterheld hadn’t seen that junta and its abuse of power yet, but he had spent the past couple decades seeing other abuses of political and military power. While these abuses wouldn’t approach the degree of death and destruction dealt by the junta in the 1960s and ’70s, the scandals of the 1930s and early ’40s in Argentina certainly led Oesterheld to distrust conservative authority and the military. Emboldened by Argentina’s movement away from the abuses of power in the first half of the century — but still feeling its shadow amidst the stirrings of a new military movement — Oesterheld started articulating some of his political beliefs, beliefs first formed by those turbulent times in Argentina of the 1930s and early 1940s.
Argentina’s Turbulent Times
The 1930s, part of Oesterheld’s formative years, was known in Argentina as the Infamous Decade. During this time, the country suffered through a series of political and economic scandals. One of the most important scandals from this time, and one that would be echoed many times throughout Oesterheld’s life, was a military coup. In 1930, José Félix Benito Uriburu led a military coup with support from British interests and stole the office of president from Hipólito Yrigoyen, the democratically elected politician. Yrigoyen would die shortly after this.
Uriburu would only hold this dictatorial office briefly, from 1930–1931. Uriburu had held enough military power to lead the coup and gain the presidency, but he didn’t have enough political savvy to build and maintain a coalition to keep himself in power.
Enter Agustín Pedro Justo, someone who had taken part in the military coup and had held political office since 1915. Justo ran for president in 1931; he won through fraud, another blow against Argentina and Oesterheld. This fraud wouldn’t be revealed until much later, letting Justo act as president from 1932–1938.
As if this political upheaval wasn’t jarring enough for the people of Argentina, at the same time massive economic scandals rocked the nation. Justo, to pay back British support, signed the Roca-Runciman treaty with the United Kingdom. This treaty assured a provision of fresh meat for Argentina in exchange for pivotal investments in Argentina’s transportation industry, like giving control of Buenos Aires’s public transportation to a British company. Argentinians soon raised concerns over this deal, partly due to the fact that the UK gave a quota of meat to Argentina that was less than the amount of meat it gave to its dominions, a seeming imbalance given the many concessions Argentina gave the UK. Even Vice President Roca, speaking of the treaty, said that because of the treaty, “Argentina resembles just a large British dominion”. Giving in to these concerns, Justo voided the treaty.
Although this situation displayed outsized foreign influence in Argentina’s politics and business, most of the Infamous Decade was actually characterized by an import substitution stance, a stance that encouraged growth of domestic goods that would normally be imported. The government didn’t want complete growth, though, just enough growth to reduce reliance on foreign goods. The Juntas Reguladores Nacionales was created for this purpose: to regulate production and pricing of domestic goods. One measure taken by this agency was destroying entire loads of corn to avoid overproduction (and keep prices up); this was done despite hunger issues among a large swath of Argentinians. Similar practices were used for other goods. For example, thirty million pesos a year were used to destroy wine products.
The Juntas Reguladores Nacionales and their practices were partially assisted by policies from the Central Bank (BCRA), which was advised by the Bank of England. Citizens disagreed with many of these policies and even fought back, which led to Justo deploying military forces to get his way — the use of military power to enforce shady or corrupt policies never seemed far from the surface in Oesterheld’s Argentina. This trend of foreign and commercial powers corrupting policy, and the military wielding might to enforce these policies, would only continue with Justo’s successors.
Justo was replaced as president by another fraudulently elected politician, Roberto Marcelino Ortiz, who was president from 1938–1943. Ortiz was supported by the British Chamber of Commerce. Such an outside influence from a foreign power was nothing new, but it was more transparently corrupt, which might explain Oesterheld’s initial sympathy for foreign powers in his own work, a sympathy that shifted to distrust. In 1943, Ortiz’s health worsened, and he resigned to be replaced by his vice president Ramón Castillo (Ortiz died a month later).
Castillo didn’t plan on being in this position for long — he soon started work to support the presidency of Robustiano Patrón Costas, vice president of the Senate and a sugar entrepreneur who had supported Castillo’s earlier run. Castillo was running against a candidate from the Democratic Union coalition, a coalition made up of the Democratic Progressive Party, the Radical Civic Union, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party.
This matchup — one between a conservative politician with ties to the corrupt government and industries of the 1930s and a politician with ties to the far left — set the stage for another revolutionary, military movement in Argentina. In 1943, another military coup took place by a nationalist faction of the army called the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos (GOU). They wanted a government that avoided the corruption of the past decade and the lure of the left seen by the Democratic Union coalition. They also advocated isolationism, being supporters of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. And they weren’t above using violence to gain power, planting the seed of resistance in their opponents. That seed first sprouted in 1946 (in a more peaceful way: their left wing opponents would meet violence with violence in later decades). 1946 and the election of Juan Domingo Perón — a legitimate election — ended this coup.
But it didn’t end the political turmoil in Argentina. And another coup would eventually follow, putting into power those responsible for the disappearance and death of Oesterheld and some of his family.
A Family Affair
Before Oesterheld disappeared in 1977, his family started to pay the cost for their shared political views. For it wasn’t only Oesterheld that joined the Montoneros and fought against political corruption and military abuses of power. His wife and daughters also believed in the cause, and they too shared in some of his actions and risks. When announcing production of Netflix’s series, “El Eternauta”, the company said that “Héctor was a man committed to looking at the world and he transmitted that perspective to his daughters, with whom he shared his militancy and dreams of change. To him, and to his family, the world was not indifferent”. These dreams of militancy, and membership in the Montoneros, soon caught up with Oesterheld’s family.
In 1977, before Oesterheld was kidnapped, his daughters were arrested by Argentine armed forces in La Plata. They were all young: Estela was 25, Diana was 21, Beatriz was 19, and Marina was 18. Their husbands were also arrested with them. Two of the daughters were pregnant, but that didn’t stop the government from arresting them too.
None of them were seen again, except for Beatriz, whose dead body was later found.
In the years after her daughters’ disappearances, Elsa Sánchez, Osterheld’s wife, criticized the militant attitudes and actions that Oesterheld passed onto their daughters. While she still believed in a leftist cause, she started to question the methods Oesterheld and his daughters used later in life. Sanchez made this statement about her shift in perspective:
In the first years of marriage I felt that we were achieving happiness and fulfillment, but I had the premonition that something terrible was going to happen to us. First it broke the group. Later, my four daughters, Montoneros militants. And later, the disappearances. I do not accept the armed struggle. We were so happy. It seemed impossible that the pacifist and democratic writer would have taken sides for something so violent, putting at risk their daughters.
There is no record of her having these opinions during the time her family was in the Montoneros, so it is possible that she supported their actions then and only came to reject them after she saw the cost.
While Sánchez blames Oesterheld for their daughters’ fates, the truth is likely more complicated, especially since her daughters were adults and capable of making decisions of their own. One of the contributors to the Netflix show, Alicia Beltrami, said that “the militancy of Héctor and his daughters was constituted from a dialectical link. It cannot be said that the father influenced his daughters or that they determined Héctor. Everything was conceived in the dialogues and shared experiences in the house that the family had in Béccar.” The truth probably lies somewhere in between Beltrami and Sánchez’s perspectives; Oesterheld no doubt influenced his daughters at an impressionable age, but to place all the blame on him robs his daughters of their own choices, of their ability for independent thought.
It’s worth noting, though, that Sánchez never gave up on the less militant version of the leftist ideals she shared with her husband. Since Oesterheld’s disappearance and death, she has participated in many causes, taking part in protests for the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which advocates for the return of the children of the disappeared to their birth families, and becoming their spokeswoman.
“We assume that they are alive, because, in general, they didn’t kill the babies,” Sanchez said, referring to missing grandchildren.
This cause was deeply personal for her, one she fought for until her death in 2015. It was so personal, because the children that the organization is trying to be reunited with their birth families could be children similar to her own grandchildren: those who weren’t born yet when their mom was arrested. In many cases, if a woman was pregnant when she was arrested, her child wasn’t returned to any family member, leaving them a ward of the state, one to indoctrinate. Leaving them free of their parents’ revolutionary ideals.
Before Oesterheld helped pass his ideals onto his daughters and lead to their disappearance, though, he had simply tried to imbue his art with political and social messages. As described earlier, he had started doing this hesitantly and more subtly. But after that time in the early 1950s, he would become more political in his art, taking another step with the first version of his most popular series, The Eternaut.
A Rising Star and the First Eternaut
While Oesterheld was finding his footing in the comics industry, he was forming his family, his political partners in crime. In 1951 Oesterheld married Elsa. Their daughters were born over the rest of the 1950s: Estela was born in 1952, Diana in 1953, Beatriz in 1955, and Marina in 1957.
Around Marina’s birth, he and his brother Jorge founded their own publication house, Editorial Frontera. His star had been rising, and he wanted to take advantage of his greater experience and fame by owning his own properties and retaining creative freedom to say what he wanted to say about the world and about Argentina. “My stories try to express something in a way that is ours, that is Argentine,” Oesterheld wrote. “Neither that of [Ray] Bradbury, nor of Arthur C. Clarke, nor of Italo Calvino, nor of any of the other great sci-fi masters. Just that: Ours.” Editorial Frontera would give Oesterheld his soapbox for this Argentine message.
Editorial Frontera published comic magazines in varying formats, like other comic magazines in the market. They published a weekly magazine, Hora Cero Semanal, and they published two monthly magazines, Hora Cero Mensual and Frontera Mensual.
Oesterheld wrote most of the scripts for Frontera stories, about eighty percent, and his brother wrote the rest; they signed them with pseudonyms to make it seem like there was a bigger braintrust behind Frontera. With Frontera, Oesterheld was free to be more political. One such early comic and character, war correspondent Ernie Pike, espoused Oesterheld’s anti-war views (illustrated by his old partner Pratt). But The Eternaut would be Oesterheld’s biggest political piece with Frontera.
In 1957, he started writing The Eternaut for Hora Cero Semanal, publishing it in 106 weekly episodes between 1957 and 1959; later versions would appear in other publications in the ’60s and ’70s. With artwork by Francisco Solano López, it told the story of Juan Salvo, who has to survive a trip back to the past in addition to dealing with disaster and an alien invasion. This first version is more optimistic, possibly because it was written closer to Perón’s rule, one of the few legitimate elections from his life. It also sought to ease Cold War animosity — due to his support of left and socialist causes — and it held up the everyman as the hero, showing the need to focus on democratic concerns and policies instead of military rule.
By combining a science fiction tale with messages about political rightness, both across the globe and within Argentina, Oesterheld imbued this story and the medium with greater depth and weight. “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.” If Oesterheld hadn’t also become a martyr, he surely would be remembered fondly as creator pivotal in the evolution of comics.
Although the first Eternaut is more optimistic than later versions, this version still has some bite, partly because it corresponds with the Revolucion Libertadora, a revolution that deposed Perón for more military rule. A military rule that would lead to more and more repressive regimes, to more and more disappearance and death.
Taking it all Away
Accounts vary about the day of his disappearance, but it is accepted that Oesterheld was taken in the latter half of 1977. He passed through many stops on his journey to his final prison and resting place: he was shuffled through the Clandestine Detention Centers of Campo de Mayo, moved onto a location in the Villa Insuperable police station, and then secretly transferred to another, unknown location.
He was last seen alive on Christmas Eve 1977 by a fellow inmate that survived this regime and experience. It’s believed that he was killed in 1978, the regime cutting him off from his supporters and family forever. “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.”
Revolución Libertadora and the End of Perón’s Presidency
The military that would take away Elsa de Sanchez Oesterheld’s family, after being relatively quiet during President Perón’s reign in the late 1940s and early 1950s, returned to power in another coup. The Revolución Libertadora (the Liberating Revolution) was a coup on September 15, 1955, that ended the second presidential term of Perón; the military that took power in this coup felt even more empowered than the military of the 1930s and early 1940s, revealing an escalation that would reach its zenith in the 1970s when Oesterheld was taken captive and killed.
In between the coup of the 1930s and this 1950s coup, though, Oesterheld and Argentina experienced a relatively liberal government under Perón, who was elected in 1946. In 1949, Perón sponsored a constitutional amendment that introduced a number of workers’ rights, a far cry from the government that had forced workers to throw out goods (and, consequently, profits) in the previous corrupt regimes.
Perón’s government wasn’t free of corruption and scandal though; this was Argentina in the twentieth century, after all. The constitutional amendment that introduced these workers’ rights also created a way for presidents to be reelected, which led to Perón’s reelection in 1951. Perón’s government still had economic problems and minor scandals, and used some of the tactics against Perón’s detractors that the military junta’s would use toward those fighting their rule. Perón didn’t take it as far though: instead of killing his opponents, he harassed them and sometimes forced them into exile, which the junta also did until they started disappearing and executing their opponents.
By 1955, Perón had lost the support of the Catholic church and the military. The military conspired with other political citizens, even members of leftists groups like the Radial Party and the Socialist Party, and began a coup. They started by bombing Plaza de Mayo on June 16, 1955 and then extremist Perónist groups attacked and burned churches. The use of violence in Argentine politics only continued to escalate, especially with the rise of left-wing activists responding to military violence with violent acts of their own.
This led to a temporary truce until General Deudardo Lonardi and other military members led a new and successful uprising on September 16 of that same year. They deposed Perón (he resigned technically) and Perón fled to exile in Paraguay before going to exile in Spain. Lonardi became president and gave a speech that their government was going to be for “neither victors, nor vanquished”. This sentiment irritated hard line anti-Perónists but Lonardis’s actions also irritated Perónists: in Argentina, references to Perón or his late wife Eva (Evita) were forbidden, letting the vanquished take part in the government if they didn’t refer to their guiding force.
Oesterheld Imprisoned, Waiting for Execution
Although Oesterheld would be executed sometime after being kidnapped, he didn’t die right away in prison. Accounts from fellow inmates who survived give a picture of a prisoner fading away, yet still trying to hold onto his humanity and some cheer. Argentine journalist Jacobo Timmerman, for example, described seeing Oesterheld in prison across the hall from himself looking incredibly disheveled and defeated.
Another prisoner, psychologist Eduardo Arias, saw Oesterheld at the secret detention center El Vesubio (Vesuvius, sarcastically named the Sheraton by prisoners). Arias recalled of his time in prison with Oesterheld:
[Oesterheld’s] condition was terrible…One of the most unforgettable memories I have of Héctor is from Christmas Eve ‘77.The guards gave us permission to take off our hoods and smoke a cigarette. And they allowed us to talk among the five of us for a few minutes. Then Hector said that because he is the oldest of all the prisoners, he wanted to greet everyone, one by one. I will never forget that last handshake. Hector was sixty years old when these events took place. His physical condition was very, very painful.
Even in the midst of despair, Oesterheld was doing his best to keep hold of his highest ideals; Oesterheld must have believed that the junta could take away his physical comforts, but they couldn’t take away the comfort he derived from his belief and the actions they inspired.
This resolve weakened at times, of course, partly because of the psychological torment he was subjected to. They sought to break him mentally before killing him. Their most effective technique? Telling him new, gruesome details about the fate of his captive daughters and his unborn grandchildren.
Still, Oesterheld tried to focus on the good, tried to make the most of his situation. Another survivor, speaking under anonymity, said that they saw him in Vesuvius — where this survivor was held for three months. This witness said that Oesterheld “was in poor health. It was difficult for him to breathe and he was always wearing a long overcoat. He drew us pictures, told us stories and tried not to have such a bad time in that hell.” Until his death, Oesterheld would keep living, keep fighting. This drive often centered around his biggest hope: saving the lives of his unborn grandchildren and reuniting them with family outside of prison.
Frontera’s decline and Che
Partly due to the economic instability from Perón’s presidency, the Frontera publishing house of the Oesterheld brothers started to decline in 1959. Another huge factor, though, was that its best cartoonists began to work abroad (sometimes leaving Argentina in the process), because foreign publishers were paying more. The debts started to pile up, and Oesterheld took on work for outside publishers in attempts at finding the finances to keep Frontera afloat. This was merely a delaying tactic, though, since he sold his titles to rival publisher Abril in 1961 and closed Frontera’s doors.
Oesterheld was back to working for other publishers, Frontera quickly receding in his rear view mirror.
Although Oesterheld was dismayed at this setback, he remained true to his optimistic outlook: he pushed forward and created some of his best known work in this, his second phase of working for other publishers. Most notable among these creations was Mort Cinder (drawn by Alberto Breccia for Abril’s magazine Misterix), a series fraught with supernatural elements and appreciation for the past: the main character was a antique dealer who encounter a “man” who comes back from the dead each time he’s killed.
Oesterheld continued in this manner — focusing on entertainment over social and political commentary, fearing the military ruling power — for most of the 1960s. Eventually, though, with another coup and the overthrow of a Perónist president in the middle of the 1960s, Oesterheld dove into the political deepened with his work. In 1968, with Alberto and Enrique Breccia, he created a biography of Che Guevara (Che). Oesterheld hoped to inspire more Argentinians and South Americans to follow Marx’s teaching and fight against the government by holding Che up as a model. His editor, Jorge Álvarez, wanted to simply chronicle the lives of important men in Latin America, starting with Che and moving onto others after.
Both Oesterheld and Álvarez never saw these dreams fulfilled. The government, completely against Che, withdrew the book from circulation, and then seized and destroyed the book’s printing plates. Few copies were printed and even fewer were bought. Alvarez’s dream was stifled too: with this opposition, he didn’t recoup his investment and never ran another issue in his series of important Latin American figures.
Oesterheld faced even more drastic consequences from Che. A later biography on Eva Perón suffered a similar fate in 1970. In 1973, he published 450 Years of War Against Imperialism; while it wasn’t as censored as the Che and Eva works, it still received scrutiny and restrictions from the government.
The biggest, most fatal, consequence of Che was revealed after Oesterheld’s death. Italian journalist Alberto Ongaro asked the Argentinian government about Oesterheld’s disappearance. A spokesperson wrote back that “We did away with [Oseterheld] because he wrote the most beautiful story of Che Guevara ever done”. As always, Oesterheld was a true comics master — if he hadn’t used his talents to create strong political comics, he might have survived the military junta. He would’ve been a far less interesting and important comics figure if he had silenced his own voice instead of forcing others to permanently silence him themselves.
Perónism’s Return, Another Coup, and Perón’s Return
In the midst of Oesterheld’s return to other publishers following Frontera’s collapse, Argentina continued to experience more political upheaval. After Perón’s exit from the presidency, his successors worked hard to shut down Perónists. In 1963, though, a Perónist was elected president.
1966 saw another familiar occurrence: a coup. The military and other groups took back the country from their Perónist enemies. As with previous coups, they launched their campaign with bombing and much violence — tactics that would push left wing activists to violence of their own, culminating in the Montoneros, the guerrilla group Oesterheld and his daughters joined. Argentinians weren’t the only victims of this political battle. This time, hoping to destabilize the military government, left wing activists murdered military actors.
The left-wing guerrilla groups also tried to draw worldwide attention to this struggle in a way that would also help fund their fight. American executives from Ford, GM, and Chrysler were kidnapped. They also kidnapped others to raise money for their coup and time in power, earning a record breaking $60 million ransom for one of the kidnappings. This approach would also be used during the military coup that occurred in the 1970s; one Exxon executive was ransomed for $14.2 in 1974.
This approach met with some success, for in 1973 Perón was elected president again, perhaps as a result of the left wing activism and violence drawing attention to the illegitimate government ruling from 1966–1973. This would be a minor reprieve for Oesterheld and Argentina, though: Perón’s third wife Isabel Perón would become president after his death in 1974. Another coup, the one that put the military junta that killed Oesterheld into power, would soon follow Isabel’s short-lived term.
Oesterheld, the Montoneros, and the second Eternaut
In response to the violence and political instability of the 1960s, Oesterheld became more politically involved: in his life and in his art. It is during this time that he joined the Montoneros, first as a member of the press committee and later as a member of their more militant branches. Such activity put his life in danger, so he was forced into hiding. Still, Oesterheld wanted to continue speaking out against the military junta in his comics, so he wrote while in hiding, having others deliver his scripts to publishers and artists in secret.
With this arrangement, Oesterheld returned to his most famous creation: the Eternaut, a sci-fi story that could more covertly voice his political message without risking the censorship of his more overt works like Che. In 1969, he launched this second version of the Eternaut with artwork mainly by colleague Alberto Breccia. The main character had changed, but so had other characters, including the invaders and the rest of the world. Oesterheld wasn’t taking any prisoners in this new version.
One of the bigger changes in this second version was that the alien creatures the heroes fight were not in charge of the invasion. Instead, they’re prisoner-soldiers who follow the orders of their overlords, known only as “Them”; these rulers were a thin allegory for the military masters in charge of the military junta. Just like Oesterheld’s real Argentina, the Argentina of the Eternaut faced enemies brainwashed by the ruling party. In the comic, the rulers have a device that turns the humans against themselves: “it transforms their minds to change your brain structure [and] make you think exactly like us” one prisoner-soldier says. The hero responds with words that echoed Oesterheld’s own thoughts: “The hope I’d had a moment ago was shattered. We were going to be … traitors. Judases to our species”. Oesterheld portrayed a dismal view of his country and the future with scenes like this.
And, if this is the dismal state of Argentina, Oesterheld and others must’ have asked: why isn’t the rest of the world helping? Oesterheld answered this question in this second version, casting the international community in a more critical light this time compared to the first version. If initially Oesterheld wrote of an “Us”, South American citizens and citizens of the world fighting against the alien invaders, “Them”, the second version has two “Thems” — the alien invaders and the world outside South America. In the comic, to underscore this dynamic, a radio announcement proclaims an “inconceivable betrayal by superpowers….South America handed over to the invader to save themselves.”
Now, the only “Us” was those in South America, appealed to in the radio announcement: “we will fight all the same. However alone we may be, and as terrible as the initial blow may have been, we will fight all the same”. Oesterheld emphasized this point again in the series when he had a characters tell main character Juan:
We are like the Incas or the Aztecs fighting against the Europeans…In truth the big countries have always kept us tied hand and foot . . . In the past the invaders were the countries that exploited us, the great consortiums…Their lethal snowfalls were misery, backwardness, our own small egotisms manipulated from the outside…It is our own fault that we are being invaded, Juan. It’s our fault that we are weak, lazy, that is why the invaders chose us…We should have defended ourselves before, Juan, when there was still time. We should have hated what weakened us, what delivered us to the enemy.
With the second series, Oesterheld was pointing the finger at everybody. He blamed the globe, but he also blamed themselves for not defending themselves against the ones invading Argentina and its political realm — a belief that reflected his own radicalization and new devotion to the violent Montoneros. Of course, he also couldn’t resist a parting shot at the enemy, the military ruling party that resembled the corrupt Europeans.
This increased political messaging didn’t go unnoticed by readers and the government alike. Readers of a more conservative bent protested the second Eternaut and caused its cancellation before it was finished. The government wouldn’t take such a peaceful approach. Anna Kemper, co-curator of an Eternaut exhibition in Stuttgart, previewed the consequences of Oesterheld’s more confrontational approach, also touching on the reason for joining the Montoneros instead of just pushing his politics in his art: “Someone who wrote such a story could not simply stay passive under those conditions. He was politicized and had to stand up for his values, even if it was clear that in doing so, he was risking his life.”
The Fate of Oesterheld’s Grandchildren
The soldiers continued to mercilessly tease Oesterheld about his daughters and unborn grandchildren. They would soon be depleted of some of their ammo, though, ironically because of soldiers that sympathized with Oesterheld.
These soldiers — also fans of his comics, another motivating factor — arranged the release of one of his grandsons who had been born in prison. This grandson, Fernando, was reunited with Elsa and the rest of the free Oesterheld family. Another grandson, Martín, was eventually released into Elsa’s custody, stemming from her work with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Moments like these (before, during, and after the junta) are worth pausing for a moment to reflect. Oesterheld’s life, and his family’s life, can be defined by darkness and political oppression. Still, the family had moments of happiness. Telam Alicia Beltrami, coauthor of The Oesterheld, stresses that moments like these are important to remember: “Despite the tragedy, there were events in this family full of life and tenderness”.
The Dirty War, Disappearances, and the Third Eternaut
The beginning of the 1970s had seen more of the usual in Argentina: heavy polarization, abuse of power, and violence. The violence rose to a level not seen previously, though, especially from left wing groups like the Montoneros. This is when their killing, kidnapping, and ransoming of American executives (and killing of Argentines) peaked. And conservative members of the military were not happy, especially when this activity continued in the midst of the Perón presidencies.
In 1976, the military launched another successful coup, facilitated by the Proceso de Reconstrucción Naciona, a law where the military gave itself the unimpeachable right to eliminate extrajudicially any and all opposition to its ideology. This began the Dirty War that would last until 1981 and disappear an estimated 14,000 people (a conservative estimate).
In 1975, the eve of this coup, Oesterheld prepared what would be the third and final version of the Eternaut. Like the second version, he wrote the scripts in hiding and they were delivered to the artist, the original series’s artist: Francisco Solano López. These scripts were even more political than the second version, pushing for a no-holds barred violent resistance against the oppressors, the military government.
Francisco Solano López later reflected on that strong political message, a political message he disagreed with:
All the work in my second part [, the third version,] was done clandestinely. And I protested, because he exceeded the militant and subversive content. I had no sympathy for the military or its system, but neither for the Montoneros’ message. It wasn’t to my liking. And the character was distorted. I didn’t feel it. It bothered me to do it, because the character, according to the script, moved, did and said things that did not fit.
Whether López’s critique about the aesthetic changes in the series and character is valid or not it is up to debate, but what is not debatable are his concerns about violating the government’s content requirements. In the middle of this series, Oesterhed was captured. The series continued using a backlog of scripts he had prepared, perhaps for just such an eventuality.
Some of Oesterheld’s final comments about the Eternaut and its hero reveal his intentions in the third version, intentions that possibly twisted the main character from his origins and definitely led to government reprisal. Oesterheld said that he detested the lonely hero, and that “Only collective struggle makes sense”. By making Juan more reliant on his compatriots, Oestehreld pushed his Montoneros mindset more, even if it made the character unrecognizable to López and others.
Oesterheld firmly repeated this idea, saying that “the true hero of El Eternauta is a collective hero, a human group.” Oesterheld elaborated, “It thus reflects, although without prior intention, my intimate feeling: the only valid hero is the group hero, never the individual hero, alone.” Given his political beliefs and affiliation with the Montoneros, it is questionable that Oesterheld did this without prior intention, that he did this only unconsciously. Ultimately, though, the intention doesn’t matter as much as the impact: the wider proliferation of communal ideals and the execution of Oesterheld.
1978 and beyond
Oesterheld would only be one of thousands disappeared and killed in the Dirty War. Oesterheld’s execution date is unknown but widely believed to be in early 1978. The government never confirmed nor denied his disappearance and execution. While this helps shroud his death in more secrecy, no one doubts the role the government had in his death.
His disappearance would resonate more than most casualties of this Dirty War, though, a fact that evokes appreciation for his martyrdom and the boost it gave his message, while also eliciting sadness for the ones who died without widespread mourning.
The Dirty War ended in 1981, due to a focus on a foreign war (the Falklands War with the UK). Responding to discontent from the loss of this war and other problems, the military government started lifting bans on political parties and liberties. The military government stayed in power until the end of 1983, giving way to an elected, legitimate government.
Over the next few decades, this government and successive ones would prosecute and imprison members of the junta. By the 2000s, all major military criminals would be held accountable for their crimes. The families of Oesterheld and other victims finally received justice and closure.
The 2000s also saw Oesteheld’s comic work recognized for the masterpiece it was, leading to a global resurgence of Oesterheld publications. In 2000 the newspaper Clarín placed The Eternaut as number 25 on its list of Classic Argentine Comics. Fantagraphics published the first and second versions of the Eternaut in the United States, introducing his work to a larger audience. Oesterheld and his work has spread in other ways — the Netflix documentary mentioned previously, articles around the world chronicling his struggles, and print biographies have seen a publishing boom, including a biography started by his widow.
Oesterheld may have been captured and executed, but his voice is stronger than ever.
No other legacy could be more fitting for Oesterheld, a political artist to his dying moments. His fellow inmates told of scraps of paper strewn across the Oesterheld’s cell: scripts for new stories. These were never found, but they form a fitting final image of Oesterheld in his cell, bent over scraps of paper, brow furrowed and pencil flying, a soldier in the fight for better art and a better world to the bitter end.
CJ Standal has taught and written about comics for years (chronicled and collected in Outside the Panels: Comics, the Classroom, and the Creative Life); he also has written comics of his own, including Rebirth of the Gangster, published by CJSP, and B.A.E. Wulf, published by Markosia. He is currently finishing his first fictional prose novel, Mapping Mythland.
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