The Interrupted Eternity: How the ’70s Argentinian Government Removed Rebel Cartoonist Héctor Germán OesterheldComics Features
Originally serialized between 1957 and 1959 in Hora Cero Semanal, El Eternauta, or The Eternaut, told the story of Juan Salvo, a man displaced in time by an encounter with an alien device. In weekly strips, Juan and his family struggled to uncover the mystery of an awesome snow that fell randomly, killing anyone who came in contact with it. This journey leads to a conflict between humans and aliens, and which ultimately results in Juan’s space-time detachment. A sense of hope underlies the series, and it can be read as the struggle of the everyman to shirk off the yoke of oppression and to circumvent the cycle of slavery that war begets. Salvo is, after all, Spanish for “Save.” He is a savior, and the series’ writer explicitly intended for the character to be a stand-in, an allegorical everyman. The series served, at its heart, as a polemic about the need to dissolve Cold War animosity and to shirk military concerns outweighing democratic ones. The resilience of the people wins the day, not overwhelming military force. But, in a cold twist of irony, The Eternaut’s writer, Héctor Germán Oesterheld, hasn’t been seen since 1977.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1919, Oesterheld was enraptured by science fiction from a young age, writing—in a text that Fantagraphics has included in its reprint of the series released today—that Jules Verne and Robinson Crusoe were particular favorites. He worked first as a journalist before becoming a comic strip writer, but after the end of El Eternauta in 1959 and a series of economic misfortunes, Oesterheld became even more political. In 1968 he went as far as to write a biographical comic of Ché Guevara, which was subsequently banned by the Argentinian government. Working on projects like Dr. Morgue with Alberto Breccia and Sergeant Kirk with Hugo Pratt, Oesterheld cultivated an incredibly rich oeuvre—one of the best kept secrets in comics—and as his career blossomed, his politics were dragged to the fore. His political shift is reputedly evident in the sequel to El Eternauta—El Eternauta Segunda Parte. Though it’s never been available in English, the volume was published in 1976 and is reportedly centered on a futuristic Argentina where a fascist military dictatorship controls the country. This scenario isn’t that fictional for anyone with even a passing familiarity with Argentine politics, and it is overtly political for even the least astute reader. The source of Oesterheld’s conflict with the Argentine government is obvious.
In Argentina, the 1930s are known as the “Infamous Decade,” and in those 10 years were defined by a series of political and economic scandals. In 1930, José Félix Benito Uriburu y Uriburu led a successful military coup and usurped the presidential office of Argentina from his democratically elected predecessor, Hipólito Yrigoyen. Uriburu’s successor was democratically elected, though it was later revealed that it was a fraudulent election. The “Infamous Decade” ended with another coup in 1943, and in 1946 when Juan Perón was democratically elected. Unfortunately, Perón was deposed via coup in 1955. His successor banned the left-wing political ideology named for Perón, Peronism, though a Peronist would be elected in 1963 only to be overthrown by—what else?—a coup. A military dictatorship via junta would persist until 1973, though the post-1973 governments persisted in what has become known as the “Dirty War,” a period marked by state-sponsored terrorism directed at left-wing revolutionaries. For most of Oesterheld’s life, right-wing militancy had a powerful role in the direction of his country, and that body helped shape the history of the country’s culture. A contemporary of Oesterheld’s, Jorge Luis Borges produced work that was similarly imbued with subversive political ideologies, though he sided with the junta more times than his fans would like.
Unfortunately, this brief history is remarkably similar to a number of other Latin American countries, and many places spent more of the 20th century governed by a general than by a president. These juntas were in direct conflict with the left-wing ideals that Oesterheld struggled—physically, violently struggled—to uphold, and it was these ideals that would eventually lead to his disappearance. The Argentine government never denied removing the writer, and when Alberto Ongaro, an Italian writer who would continue The Eternaut in 1983, asked the government about Oesterheld, he was apocryphally told, “We did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of Ché Guevara ever done.” Those with an interest in Oesterheld’s life have speculated that he joined the Monteneros, a left-wing rebel group engaged in guerrilla conflict with the juntas, but no one can say for certain. All that is known for certain is that Oesterheld was taken in 1976 and last seen alive sometime between late 1977 and early 1978. It’s also believed that a similar fate befell his four daughters.
These developments aren’t to position The Eternaut as the direct cause of Oesterheld’s disappearance. That would be a gross oversimplification of the man’s life and the unsettlingly circumstance of that life’s end. It would, however, be accurate to say that Oesterheld’s politics are apparent in The Eternaut, and that the work is all the more fascinating by the contextualization of it within Oesterherld’s life and career. Because of Oesterheld’s history, The Eternaut can only be read politically; it is completely stripped of its patina of adventure and sci-fi. While not as extreme as the writer’s later work, it is, in hindsight, an obvious repudiation of right-wing policy and a paean to the democratic traditions that Oesterheld literally died to defend.