Sunday, August 31, 2014

Death As a Character

March 5, 1975, somewhere in Argentina: Carlos Trillo and Guillermo Saccomanno interviewed Héctor Germán Oesterheld (Oesterheld was living underground already for political reasons; the interviewer, Saccomanno, means the characters): 
"Why do you always kill them all?
Because of that character no one really takes advantage of, which is death." 
This Blog is dangerously becoming monographic, but a Blog is a log, after all, and I write about what interests me at any particular moment. The day my focus turns elsewhere my posts will change accordingly, of course... That said I feel more and more that, maybe, I should be writing in Spanish because Oesterheld's work will never be published in any English speaking country. I don't do it in the hope that many (yeah, right!) readers talking many languages (Spanish included) understand our modern (and post-modern) Latin.

The fact that no English speaking country will ever publish Oesterheld's work is yet another symptom that comics are not an art form like all the others. Even in today's Barbarian times it's a bit unthinkable (but is it, really?) that an English speaking country wouldn't publish Kafka or Proust. Worst than that though: excluding El Eternauta [the Eternaut], for political, more than aesthetic reasons, Oesterheld's work isn't even published (reprinted) in Argentina (Where's Randall, where's Sgt. Kirk, where's Bull Rockett, where's the complete Ernie Pike, Amapola Negra, Ticonderoga, Mort Cinder, 'Loco' Sexton in a restored fac-simile edition with good production values?)

Anyway... I started this post quoting Oesterheld himself talking about the death of his secondary characters and the death of his protagonists even (like Randall in the series "Randall, 'the Killer'"). In highly formulaic action stories the bad guys are always awful shooters while the hero kills twenty with a slug. Oesterheld couldn't go against that completely, of course, because he worked, after all, in a commercial context, but he could (and did) minimize the unconvincing parts of the formula. He used a few strategies to do that: the most important, because it has ethical consequences, was to avoid (again, not completely) Manicheism; another one explained his protagonist's victory with said protagonist's intelligence, rather than violent inclinations; the death of the good guys was another one (in a war no one is safe). His masterpiece, according to strategies one and three (it's not even a pop story, in my humble opinion) is "Amapola Negra - 'Black Poppy'." But "Amapola Negra" and "Ernie Pike" were published in Oesterheld's own Editorial Frontera (and so was "Randall"), which meant that he had more freedom to do whatever he pleased...

I'm not talking about Editorial Frontera here, though. The examples that I show below (besides the great death of Randall) are part of Oesterheld's career outside of his publishing house: in Abril and Columba (early to mid 1950s and early to mid 1970s).

  
Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), Stefan Strocen (c), "El Sargento Kirk: El pais de los mungos" [Mungo Country], Editorial Abril, Misterix # 353, July 7, 1955. "El pais de los mungos" found the trio in a creative state of grace. It was in 1955 that Hugo Pratt found his later style and Stefan Strocen reached a peak in his work for Misterix.

I'm not completely sure, but I think that Dinard's death above may very well be the first disappearance of a main character in Oesterheld's oeuvre. It's interesting how Corto (yes, exactly like in Corto Maltese) deflates the drama. A fight was going on and they didn't have the time to stop and mourn. Here's what Corto said after Maha gave him the news of Dinard's death: "Good for him. What can a man want more than to die as he lived?"


Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), José Luis Garcia López (a), I don't know who the colorist was, "Roland el Corsario: Algo más que un reino" [something more than a kingdom], Columba, Fantasía # 236, January 1974.

Columba was a traditional highly commercial publishing house. Oesterheld ended up working there because he needed to put bread on the table. However, he was such a towering figure (the writer of El Eternauta, no less) that his editors and publishers gave him some creative autonomy. That's why he could kill off some of the characters, as seen above. 

Below, the poetic death of Randall...


Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Arturo del Castillo (a), I don't know who the letterer was, "Randall, 'the Killer': Jinetes vengadortes" [vengeful riders], Editorial Frontera, Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal # 28, December 3, 1958. Here's what's in the captions in the three last panels: "It was then that the vital spring that tied him to life yielded. / Because of his efforts blood spurted from his reopened wound. The red lymph mixed with the recently stirred dirt... / ...and continued to run down, as if seeking to warm up the already freezing bosom of Martine."


Milton Caniff, "Terry and the Pirates," News Syndicate, the death and burial of Raven Sherman in three consecutive daily strips: October 15 - 17, 1941.

Readers reacted strongly against the death of both Randall and Raven Sherman. So much so that Oesterheld had to resurrect his character and MIlton Caniff never repeated such a stunt again. "Terry and the Pirates" was a mediocre juvenile adventure strip during the 1930s. It improved a bit during WWII, but, besides some good qualities (Caniff's female characters, Burma and Hu Shee especially, and some interesting story arcs - the excellence of the art, and I mean technically, and the colorful language aren't even worth mentioning) it never surpassed, if I remember correctly, stereotyping (Connie is overtly racist) and Manichean formulas. He explained very well why he killed Raven though (it's reason number 3):  
"Ever after that if somebody in the strip became ill or hurt or hit by a car or thrown off the back of a truck, the reader knew - well, Jesus, he killed off Raven Sherman, and now he's going to kill off this character. That's the real reason for doing it, to put credibility in there, instead of - oh, well, he'll get out of it somehow or come back to life or something. Soap opera stuff."


2 comments:

Artsy Muñoz said...

El letrista de todas las letras hechas a mano en la editorial Frontera se llamaba o se llama Andrés Martìn, su letraje es encantador, tiene gracia, aire y legibilidad. Era un tipo macanudo, dibujaba también. Tenìa una gran colecciòn de pinceles Winsor & Newton, vivìa con su mamà en una casita por el barrio de Chacarita, los dos estaban siempre riéndose, festejando lo que sea.

Isabelinho said...

Muchas gracias por la info, José! La de veces que voy a tener que escribir su nombre en mi base de datos!