Author: Héctor Germán Oesterheld
Illustrator: Francisco Solano López
Genre: Graphic Novel – Science Fiction
El Eternauta has become a classic of Argentinian graphic novels over the years, and there are more than one reason why we should pay attention to it. It was written right at the heart of the country’s comic books Golden Age, back in the fifties, and by the hand of a more than controversial author. But that’s not it. El Eternauta is also a remarkable piece of fiction, full of imagination and Sci-Fi inventions, while being realistic at the same time.
In the middle of a quite night of work, a writer is visited by an unknown and mysterious man, a voyager of eternity, or simply the Eternauta. After a quick introduction, he proceeds to tell the writer his story. It all began in 1957, when he was playing a card game with friends, and a deadly radioactive snow started falling all over Buenos Aires. They were among the few who had the luck to survive, and after seeing all their friends, neighbours and relatives being killed by the snow, they realised the world would never be the same. But this apocalypse was way much worse than they imagined. The snow was not an accident, nor any kind of natural disaster. It was created by aliens and intended to hurt people. And it was only one of the many weapons they would use to destroy the human race.
What first caught me into El Eternauta were its interesting characters. My favourites are Favalli, a Physics teacher who’s constantly looking for explanations and some way to keep forward, Franco, a young man whose vast knowledge comes solely from all the Science Fiction books he’s read, and Mosca, a historian who annoyingly asks everybody for details of the war between them and the aliens, because they’re “making history and that needs to be written down for future generations”. Another thing I instantly loved about this graphic novel was seeing how the characters found ways to survive mostly by using their brains and being creative. My interest in the story kept alive during the introduction of the invaders throughout the book, though I got a little bored towards the end and annoyed by the exaggerative repetition of some expressions (Like “This is the end, we are done!”. It made me feel bad for the characters at the beginning, but it kind of lost its effect by the twentieth time I read it). Finally, I really liked the way the whole story was wrapped in the end. You can see some unity in it, and the ending leaves things pretty open for different interpretations and questions about how the story continues.
One of the best things about El Eternauta is the creativeness of such amazing inventions as the radioactive snow and the different creatures that invade the earth (along with the reasons why they invade it in the first place), but above that, is the way the author provided his Science Fiction story with a realistic and believable context. I think he did so basically by means of characters and location. The protagonists are interesting, yet regular people that we could easily find in real life, and they manage to survive by being ingenious and using what they have at hand. Not to mention some of their ridiculous but absolutely natural reactions to the death that sorrounds them, like worrying before anything else about the football players that might have died (“Is it possible that they’re all done? That all of a sudden the football team doesn’t exist anymore?”). This makes them feel more human and closer to us, because we can picture ourselves in their same situation. What is more, instead of setting the story in some typical United States city as many other comic writers did, Oesterheld decided to set his in Buenos Aires, where he was born and raised and where El Eternauta would be mostly read. This way, action takes place in neighbourhoods, streets and squares with whom Argentinians (especially porteños) are familiar. You can see the characters use the River Plate Stadium as a a fort, start a battle against aliens in the Avenida General Paz or in a square next to the National Congress. That’s really cool, because for some reason Sci-Fi usually takes place in America or Europe, and it’s nice to read a story that occurs where we Argentinians actually live. Many other cultural references can be found too, like the characters playing truco, eating asado or using expressions such as “you’re so chambones“. The only thing that called my attention is that the author used tu instead of the vos we all use in Argentina (a different way of saying you typical of our country), but I guess it was just to widen the audience a little more to the rest of Latin America.
Some years after writing El Eternauta, Germán Héctor Oesterheld started participating more actively in politics and joined the Montoneros leftist guerrilla. His militance in this group was a strong influence to his work, and his writings had now very explicit political content, like in the 1969 remake and 1976 sequel of El Eternauta. His opposition to the dictatorial government of the time would eventually cost him the lives of his four daughters, who were kidnapped and killed between 1976 and 1977. Some months later Oesterheld was also kidnapped by the military junta and his body never appeared again. He was presumably killed in 1978. The artist who illustrated El Eternauta, Francisco Solano López, had problems with the country’s authorities as well. His son was kidnapped and later freed with the condition of abandoning Argentina. He lived in Spain for some years and returned to Buenos Aires in 1995, where he died of natural causes in 2011. I write this brief account of the author’s lives as I think it’s quite interesting and it helps understand why this graphic novel is so popular nowadays.
Honestly or merely as a marketing strategy, the figure of the Eternauta is used by political parties who see their ideas reflected in Oesterheld’s story and by those who claim for a country that shouldn’t forget its dark past. I haven’t read the remake of El Eternauta nor El Eternauta II, which are said to be the most charged with the author’s activist ideas, but I certainly could find some hidden messages between lines in the original comic book (the one I’m reviewing here), like Oesterheld’s opposition to American imperialism in lines such as “¿Why wait what comes from the outside? ¿Is it that we can’t save ourselves?” and his conviction of working in mass to fight the enemy: “The only valid heroe is the heroe in group, never the individual heroe, the heroe alone”. But of course, there may be other reasons for the comic’s revival that don’t have so much to do with Politics or History. Its popularity might also have to do with an attempt to remember that Golden Age in Argentinian graphic novels, so that those who lived it are now flooded with nostalgia and new generations can discover and appreciate the classic and greatest works of this kind of art.
I think that El Eternauta is absolutely worth checking out. I recommend it especially to those who come from Argentina (and people who have lived or are interested in it), since it is by now already part of our history and popular culture. But I also recommend it to those who don’t give a damn about the country, because after all, this is a good story and good stories have no frontiers. ☜
– Written by GuadiRC –