Saturday, May 2, 2009

Héctor Germán Oesterheld's and Carlos Roume's Nahuel Barros' Last Story

Children's adventure comics in the 20th century were frequently colonial popaganda. The examples are quite numerous, but I'll just cite the American newspaper comic strips "Tarzan" (1929 - c. 2000) and "Tim Tyler's Luck" (1928 - 1996) or the Belgian album Tintin au Congo (Editions du Petit «Vingtième», 1931; British edition: Tintin in the Congo, Sundancer, 1991).
In the formulaic and manichean children's western comics genre the indians were "the savages" whom the white hero needed to defeat in order to save the good guys from some barbarous torture and death. (See:
I knew all of the above when I recently read the "Nahuel Barros" series (nine stories in Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal: # 7, October, 16, 1957 - # 101, August, 5, 1959; two stories in Hora Cero Extra!: # 6, February, 1959, # 7, March, 1959) by the greats Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w) and Carlos Roume (a).
Roume is one of those graphic artists that are enormously underrated. His loose brush depicted faces with great Naturalism. He was more of a portraitist than a landscape artist though. His landscape views of the Pampa were always evocative, but a bit sketchy for this scribe's taste...
On the other hand I stressed admiration for Héctor Oesterheld on this blog already, but I also know that he was a workaholic. He wrote almost all of the stories that his Editorial Frontera (frontier publishing house) put in print. Some of them undoubtedly suffer because of that: they're either rushed, or formulaic. The point is: when he was good, he was very good, and even in his less inspired moments we can find some phrase that's the mark of a genius.
"Nahuel Barros" is kind of an Argentinian western set in the Pampa region. It isn't exactly revolutionary when we compare it with its northern cousin. The Pampa indians are presented more as an abstraction against which the white guys have to fight than anything else, good or evil (to Carlos Roume's credit, some of the lower class "white guys," soldiers and settlers, of course, look more like the Indians they are fighting against than they look European - whatever that means). Nahuel is uneducated, but he has a great practical intelligence and a great knowledge of the Pampa (he is a "baqueano," a quiet expert on everything related to the region). Also: in a typically Oesterheldian way he's very modest: he just believes in doing his job, he doesn't embark in the hero mythology.
So, I was disappointed... until the untitled last story, that is...
I wrote about the absent hero before on The Crib. I referred at the time to another Argentinian comics character, Alack Sinner. Here's what I said: "Alack Sinner is part of that meagre gallery of what I called elsewhere "the absent hero." Against North American inspired mass art hero mythology, the true anti-hero that is Alack Sinner disappears gradually to show the world around him. This is an Argentinian tradition that goes back to the often lauded Oesterheldian "collective hero" (what we have here is the anonymous collective anti-hero)."
I can't say the same thing in Nahuel Barros' case, but it's true that he's just dead weight in his last story. Writing in a commercial medium for children Oesterheld knew that he had to follow some genre rules. Even if he couldn't forget his hero completely, in order to go beyond those rules he could, and did, tone down his actions...
On the other hand it seems to me that Oesterheld wanted to surpass manicheism jumping to the "wrong" side. In this story we (the readers and main characters) aren't hunters (Nahuel and friends are the pursuers), we are the hunted.
Is this story worthy of the best Oesterheld? Maybe not... In the end it's just a simple story about a boy growing up, that's all... Why is it here as part of my canon, then? In the same issue in which the story ends Sgt. Kirk (drawn by Jorge Moliterni) says, while being delirious (my translation): "...there are no palefaces, or indians... there are just men... just men..." Such a clear anti-racist statement put in the context of the late fifties' commercial comics culture is amazing. And it deserves to be remembered.
Who were the Pampa Indians? I found the following on a www site ( "The designation of "pampas"; to the aborigines who were populating the pampas was not [...] self-imposed, but came imposed by the Spanish. The word isn't even from their own language, but Quechuan, and means "plain". So, all the Indians who were living in this geographical territory known as pampas were called pampas, in spite of the fact that they belonged to different cultures." The same site mentions a substitution of Puelches-Guenaken for Mapuche and Araucanians: "(it is good to remember that this phenomenon of ethnic substitution here in our country was called Araucanizacion of the Pampas and Patagonia)."
Nahuel Barros' last story narrates the discovery of the Pampas by a boy from Buenos Aires and his friendship with Chonki, a Pampa Indian. In the end both characters go South to explore the mysteries of Patagonia. Meanwhile, where's Nahuel Barros? Instead of bringing the boy, Pedro Quiroga, back to "civilization" and his family, he accompanies both friends in their exploration trip... An unrealistic turn of events, no doubt, but a telling one, nonetheless: in a surprising escapist ending they turn their backs to the ugly reality (the huincas - new Incas, meaning: "invaders" - and their shock against the "Pampas)"; but a "savage" goes with them this time... Even more telling: it was Chonki's idea in the first place...

Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal [zero hour's weekly supplement]'s covers by Carlos Roume: # 73 (January, 21, 1959), # 87 (April, 29, 1959).


Sr.Cairo said...

Exelent post!!!

A son or grandson of Roume is the creator of the best historical lead figures from Argentina.

He has made characters like San Martin, Belgrano, Rosas, Güemes… and patricios soldiers, grenadiers (granaderos), federals (federales), unitarians (unitarios), Pampas Indians…

Of such wood, such chip, as usually says. (De tal palo, tal astilla)

I painted a "1880's Milico from frontier" and I invite to you you see that.

The soldier is creation of Roume. The painting is mine.

Best regards!

Isabelinho said...

Hola Marcelo:

Thanks for your kind words and thanks for your info and link! I'm sorry that it took me all this time to answer you. In Portugal we say: a fish's son knows how to swim :)