Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López, The Eternaut

The EternautThe Eternaut by Héctor Germán Oesterheld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though The Eternaut only appeared in an English translation in 2015, it is often considered one of the central texts in the canon of Latin American comics and graphic novels, a work of the stature of—in other national or linguistic traditions—Maus or Watchmen, Tintin or L’Incal, Barefoot Gen or Akira.

A newspaper serial originally running in Argentina from 1957-1959, The Eternaut is a science-fiction epic about an alien conquest of earth launched from Buenos Aires. It has both local and global political resonance in its immediate context: its narrative can be seen as a refraction of anxieties over the menace of dictatorship in Argentina and of Cold War fears on the global periphery. But its hero became a kind of graffiti icon in his native country, as Juan Caballero reflects in “The Eternaut: Superpowers and Underdogs,” an afterword to the Fantagraphics translation, due to the grim fate of his creator. Héctor Germán Oesterheld, along with four of his daughters, was “disappeared” in 1977 for his leftist activities during the military dictatorship then ruling the country. He became, in Caballero’s words, “a kind of martyr not just of far-Left art and culture, but of humanism more generally.”

Humanism is the chief theme, the subtext and supertext, of Oesterheld’s tale of alien invasion. It begins with a card game in a Buenos Aires suburb among friends in the house of Juan Salvo. An eerie, glowing snow begins to fall, and it kills everything it touches. Salvo and his friends, men of a scientific bent, grasp the grave situation and begin a quest for survival that extends over the subsequent 350 pages. Along with Salvo, the other protagonists are his old friend, the tireless rationalist and physics professor Favalli, and a friend he makes along the way, the spirited metal-worker Franco.

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While references to Robinson Crusoe and his own struggle for survival abound in the early parts of the novel, The Eternaut emphasizes collaboration and solidarity rather than the Protestant individualism of Defoe’s hero. Numerous critics point out the significance of Juan Salvo’s name: the generic, everyman “Juan” combined with “Salvo” and its overtones of battle, rescue, and salvation. In other words, ordinary people are the most salvific forces in the universe. To quote Caballero’s aforementioned essay:

Salvo is an icon of Argentine aspirations, a specifically Argentine kind of superhero: an everyman who fortuitously cracked the code, and when coincidences and circumstances piled up, was able to save the day by combining and coordinating the motley technological and human resources available to him.

Likewise, the band of men that Salvo leads evokes collaboration among all classes and types of humanity, a union of reason (Favalli) and energy (Franco) as of bourgeois and proletarian, which portends Oesterheld’s later commitment to Marxist politics. The book’s translator, Erica Mena, quotes in a preface Oesterheld’s own reflections:

The true hero of The Eternaut is the collective hero, humanity. Considering it now, though it was not my original intention, I feel strongly that the only real hero is “en masse”: never the individual hero, the hero alone.

In his study, “El Eternauta,” “Daytripper,” and Beyond: Graphic Narrative in Argentina and Brazil, David William Foster emphasizes the distance of this midcentury masculinist proto-Marxism from contemporary progressive ideas. Women appear in The Eternaut only in the form of Salvo’s good, beautiful wife and daughter, avatars of Goethe’s “eternal feminine,” drawing the men onward in their journey; the only other female character, playing the whore to Salvo’s madonna of a wife, is a seductive catspaw of the invaders. After noting “the work’s overall contextualization in Argentine cultural production of sixty years ago and unalloyed masculine dynamics of power in Argentina,” Foster concludes:

One is confident in venturing the opinion that Oesterheld’s public could find no grounds to reproach the manliness of these warriors and that the unspoken, probably mostly unconscious, desire of predominantly male readers to enter into this homosocial inner circle is one element that accounts for the enormous success of El Eternauta at the time of its original publication and its continuing favor with Argentine and Latin American reading audiences.

But the graphic novel’s overt allusions to the perils of existing on the semi-colonial periphery of superpower conflict—toward the end, the Northern powers show no more hesitation in bombing Buenos Aires than did the alien invaders—give it a continuing relevance; Caballero is worth quoting a final time for his conclusion that The Eternaut can be read as an assertion against our age of culturally flattening globalization:

It is as if the Cold War and its us/them categories are too small-minded to imagine a truly global and human response to shared challenges, but that response might just spring up on the sidelines of thought and power, in places like Buenos Aires. This, I think, is what makes the work so uplifting and affirming even in its seemingly total darkness for its Argentine readership, and for an international one as well: globalization runs both ways, and for all the Mickey Mouse and Katy Perry that America is exporting to the world, something of the world’s creativity, difference, and vision is flowing back through the same channel. Or so we hope.

The most poignant passages in The Eternaut, aside from its now perhaps over-familiar portrayals of urban apocalypse, come when characters praise a universal spirit of invention, creativity, and freedom, which the mysterious, enslaving alien invaders want to crush. The invaders, called only “them” in the book’s dialogue, are shown to enslave all alien races; Salvo and friends’ conversations with members of the poetic, many-fingered civilization whom “they” cruelly enlist as unwilling administrators draw out this theme of force vs. freedom, as when one of the dying aliens marvels at the commonplace beauty of a domestic teapot.

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In a climactic speech, another of these aliens informs Salvo, now displaced in time in his quest to save the earth, that all races share in this spirit of liberty and creativity:

Just as there is between men, beyond the sense of family or nationality, a kind of solidarity among all human beings, you’ll find that there is also a kind of solidarity among all the intelligent beings in the universe. Though we may be very different, we share a loyalty to all that contains spirit, that links extraterrestrials with humans, links the tripeds of Rlima, Vega’s fifth planet, with the globe-beings of Laskaria, the home of the “Gurbos”…

The artistic form of The Eternaut itself breathes this spirit of energetic creation. The pace is deliberate, even slow, as we join the characters’ thinking-through of what possibilities for survival lie to hand. And while Francisco Solano López’s artwork is underemphasized in commentary on the graphic novel, its wonderful dense realism, its apparent facility with pen, marker, and brush, creates an immersive stage for Oesterheld’s cosmo-political drama; if, as in the contemporaneous American comics of the time, the storytelling is a bit staid, with block-like panels next to one another and a lot of shot/reverse-shot transitions, the quality of illustration is superlative, a true visual correlate to the aforementioned Defoe’s meticulously detailed realist literary style.

The main narrative of The Eternaut has a framing device: the titular hero, Juan Salvo, wandering through time, tells the story to Oesterheld himself over the course of a winter’s night four years before the alien invasion. The novel concludes, then, with Oesterheld’s realization that the only way to prevent the calamities the Eternaut has communicated might be to communicate them in turn—to us. The book we hold, then, testifies to a humanistic wish to forestall not so much alien enslavement, but the more mundane tyranny over the spirit that science fiction allegorizes. This is Oesterheld’s ultimate gesture of fidelity to freedom: he puts the end of his story in our hands.

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