Héctor German Oesterheld

Héctor German Oesterheld is probably the most important comic writer from South America. With his large oeuvre, full of realism and poetry, Oesterheld became a martyr to Argentine comics. He worked with the best artists in the field, such as Alberto Breccia, Francisco Solano Lopez, Arturo del Castillo, Carlos Roume, Horacio Altuna, Hugo Pratt and Walter Fahrer. With a literary degree in his pocket, he began his writing career in the early 1940s. His first work appeared in the daily La Prensa and at the publishing house Codex. He then moved over the Abril publishers, where he began his extensive career as a comic writer.

In the early stages of his career, Oesterheld wrote such stories as Alan y Crazy (art Eugenio Zoppi), Ray Kitt (art Hugo Pratt) and Bull Rocket (art Paul Campani, Francisco Solano Lopez, Julio Schiaffino and others). In 1952 he created the famous western epic El Sargento Kirk (Sgt Kirk) with Hugo Pratt in Misterix magazine. This series already showed Oesterheld's unconventional way of writing. The series starts with Sergeant Kirk deserting after assisting in an Indian massacre whilst serving with the U.S. Army. Kirk then devotes himself to defending the Indians. Other creations of the 1950's were Tarpón (art Daniel Haupt), Uma-Uma (art Solano Lopez), Indio Suarez (art Carlos Freixas and later Carlos Cruz). Other artists he wrote for at this time, were Ivo Pavone, Enrique Cristobal, Luis Dominguez, Arturo Perez del Castillo, Carlos Roume and Walter Casadei.

In 1957, Oesterheld and his brother Jorge launched their own publishing company, Ediciones Frontera. This publishing house launched the two highly succesful comics Hora Cero (Zero Hour) and Frontera (Frontier), for which Oesterheld wrote numerous stories.

Hora Cero number 4 - cover by Solano Lopez

Hora Cero was a monthly comic famous for its war stories, showing the horror and futility of war. Oesterheld wrote for Hugo Pratt (including the stories of war correspondent Ernie Pike), and the more conventional western Randall: The Killer (drawn by Arturo Perez del Castillo). Pride of place for Hora Cero were the unusual science fiction stories he wrote, such as El Eternauta. In this series, Oesterheld describes his own meeting with a time traveler of eternity, who had already lived over 100 lives. Illustrated by Francisco Solano Lopez, this series started in 1957. By issue 14 another character had been added, Nahuel Barros, a 19th century gaucho, drawn by Carlos Roume, and also a complete story (there would be one in each issue with diverse themes), in this case a crime tale. In the second year of issue, two other famous characters would appear in the magazine: Sgt.Kirk re-appeared, drawn by Hugo Pratt, and Cayena, a lonely and strange character, who had escaped from the infamous Guyana prison, and was devoted to fighting criminals.

The cover of Frontera issue 1

Frontera was a magazine of outdoor adventure (jungle tales, western and historical yarns) and included Ticonderonga (drawn by Hugo Pratt), Joe Zonda (Solano Lopez), Tipp Kenya (Carlos Roume), the pirate strip Capitan Caribe (by Dino Battaglia) and Verdugo Ranch (by Ivo Pavone).

In the 1960's, Argentina fell prey to an economical crisis, and Oesterheld was forced to close Frontera's doors. However, he continued writing for several small publishers as well as the Chilean publisher Zig-Zag. In the following years, Oesterheld wrote such stories as Artemio, El Taxista de Buenos Aires (art Nestor Olivera and Pablo Zahlut), Russ Congo (art Carlos Clemen) and Guerra de los Antarnes (art León Napoo and later Gustavo Trigo). His most notable work of that time was the biography of Ché Guevara (Ché) which he created in 1968 for the Chilean market (art Enrique and Alberto Breccia). This work became fatal for Oesterheld.

When the military took power in Argentina on March 24, 1976, Hector Oesterheld began writing the second part of the epic El Eternauta: he was hiding from the government, for he was a member of the "Montoneros", an organization banned by the military, and his work was now openly political. His daughters were arrested (one shot down in front of her husband), and killed, and finally Oesterheld himself "disappeared" (was kidnapped) on April 27, 1977, and his five-year-old grandson eventually joined him in captivity.

He was last seen alive on Christmas Eve, 1977, so it is believed that he was killed at the end of that year. Francisco Solano Lopez was also struggling to get his own adolescent son, also a political prisoner, out of jail. He succeeded and then moved into exile in Spain. Ironically, the copyright of the El Eternauta comic is now owned by a Mr Scutti, who profited from Oesterheld´s death and Solano Lopez´s exile to register it in his name.

When the Italian journalist Alberto Ongaro inquired about his disappearance in 1979, he got the eery reply: "We did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of Ché Guevara ever done".

The life story of Héctor German Oesterheld was told in the film HGO made in 1998 in Argentina by Victor Bailo and Daniel Stefanello: in a 148 minute documentary in which, through interviews and documents, the film-makers reconstruct the extraordinary career of the scriptwriter. The film has received acclaim at many international film festivals.

My thanks to Agustín Zsögön who has provided extra details on the life of Oesterheld and Solano Lopez.

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