Comic Creator Spotlight: The Life and Work of Alberto Breccia – Part One by Ron Tiner

The Life and Work of Alberto Breccia by Ron Tiner

He’s perhaps best known to British comic fans for his work through the Bardon Press Features office in Barcelona for Fleetway Edtions in the 1960s, first on Super Detective Picture Library Number 172 “Passport to Peril” (an adaptation of the novel, Assignment Helene by Edward S Aarons), drawing episodes of “Spy 13” and “Kit Carson” for the Cowboy Picture Library, among other work. But Argentine artist Alberto Breccia, often described as “the master of black and white” is considered one of the most influential creators in comics history. Not only because he was one of the founders of a famous art school (the Instituto de Arte) in 1966, but also for his unique and daring style, which firmly places him at the vanguard of the comics medium. His works – which include a comics biography of Che Guevra (Che, written by Hector Oesterheld), Eternauta and more – are highly regarded.

We’re delighted to present this essay on his work by artist Ron Tiner, over three parts – of which this is the first… you can read Part Two here, Part Three here – and read one of his classic stories, in English, here

Before I outline his life and work, I need to give readers a bit of background to the context of Alberto Breccia’s incredible career. I think a full understanding and appreciation of his life and work of  is only possible if seen against the background of the political and cultural history of Argentina. So, without further ado, I’m beginning my this essay with a brief overview of the factors that provided both the formative motivation forBreccia’s work and the cultural ethos from which it sprang.

Map of ArgentinaArgentine Political and Social History

Argentine government is supposed to function in accordance with a constitution, written in 1853, which provides for a federal system similar to that of the United States, which served as its model, and throughout the latter half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the few nations in Latin America with well-established and functioning political parties. However, in 1930, a military coup effectively ended civilian rule, and from then on until the early 1980’s, the country was ruled by a series of military juntas, provisional governments and dictators, most of whom either suspended or disregarded any provision of the constitution that interfered with their goals.

In 1946, Juan Peron was elected president, and he cynically used the very broad powers that the constitution ostensibly gave him to emasculate both the judiciary and the legislature. His policies of encouraging rapid industrial expansion and state intervention in the economy, together with reforms aimed at unrealistically increasing social benefits for workers, resulted in long-lasting economic and social problems. He was ousted in 1955 by the military, and the next twenty years were marked by runaway inflation, strikes and high unemployment. There were also further frequent military coups d’etat, bringing about violent changes in government, run by one military faction after another.

Official photo of President Perón,1946
Official photo of President Perón,1946

The Peronist party, known as The Justicialist Liberation Front, eventually seized power once again in 1972. It was controlled by trade unions, although the union leadership had been installed by Peron and always maintained a close working relationship with the military.

Within two years, however, Peron himself was dead, leaving power in the inadequate hands of his third wife, Isabelita.

In 1976, a military junta carried out another coup d’etat, and began what came to be known as its “dirty war”, which involved the “disappearance” (i.e. the clandestine capture, torture and murder) of people suspected of subversion. The civil and political rights guaranteed by the constitution were ignored and the judiciary was reduced to complete impotence.

The Peronist party had, by this time split into two factions: the right wing having become increasingly active in military-sponsored counter-terrorism (which it continued under the junta), while the left wing formed itself into the Montonero guerrilla group.

During these years the military and police almost never brought criminal charges against people they labelled subversives and terrorists. Instead, such people, perhaps 30,000 in all, were kidnapped, confined in secret jails, tortured and often murdered; their bodies to be buried in secret graves or dumped into the ocean. No legal recourse against these crimes was available to friends and relatives of the victims.

In 1982, the armed forces invaded the Malvinas Islands (The Falklands), which led to the final ignominious defeat and humiliation of the generals.
Raoul Alfonsin, of the Union Civica Radical de Pueblo (U.C.R.) or the Peoples’ Radicals, an outspoken opponent of military rule and advocate of social reform, was elected president in 1983. He made efforts to revivify the judiciary and to bring at least some of the murderers and torturers to justice. Under judicial orders, many mass graves, containing thousands of corpses, were discovered and their contents exhumed. Almost all the remains were too decomposed to permit individual identification.

Alberto Breccia first turned to illustration as a profession at the beginning of Peron’s first presidency – the period featured in the film Evita. And it is only against the background of the 40 violent and troubled years that followed, that the full meaning and importance of his work can be appreciated.

Argentine Literature and Historietas

The distinctive figure in early Argentine culture was the gaucho. Originally, these were men who went from the cities, often pursued by the law, to the vast pampas to live a wandering life, making use of the immense herds of wild cattle and horses. With the native women, these men produced a hybrid race of wild horsemen and folk singers. The gaucho folk culture flourished between 1750 and 1850, ending when the pampas were fenced off. However the gaucho remained a source of inspiration for the literature, art and music of the country.

A performance of Gounod’s opera Faust inspired Estanislau del Campo (1834-1880) to write a gaucho version of the story in the form of a poem, Fausto, which became one of the best-loved works in Argentine literature. However, it was the gaucho poem “Martin Fierro” [fierro = iron in English], published in 1879 and written by Jose Hernandez (1834-1886) that came to be considered the Argentine epic, that really established the genre in Argentine literature.

The front page of Martin Fierro, Issue Number Four, with poet Oliverio Girondo's manifesto. (May 15, 1924)
The front page of Martin Fierro, Issue Number Four, with poet Oliverio Girondo‘s manifesto. (May 15, 1924)

The gaucho life remained an important theme to writers of the 20th century, too. Around 1925, there arose a group of young writers who published both romantic and abstract poetry in a periodical entitled Martin Fierro, and much important literature was published in the form of plays, poetry, essays and novels up to the military coup of 1930.

After this date Argentine literature became more escapist. Important writers such as Jorge Luis Borges (1899- 1986) and Eduardo Mallea (1903-1990) published fantastic literature, poetic stories, highly complicated detective tales and childhood memoirs.

The effect of the vicious military governments was to cause a fragmentation of Argentine society, with distinct social groups becoming increasingly alienated from one another, viewing each other as significantly and dangerously different, (or “other” as the term is used by Richard Dyer and others regarding stereotyping) and this showed itself in the literature of this period in the form of fantastic, horror and science fiction writing that featured strange, inhuman beings with evil or sometimes godlike powers. To be a writer during this period became increasingly dangerous, and much of the literature can be interpreted as containing metaphorical and allegorical references. Borges created a fantastic literature on a highly intellectual and metaphysical level, while Mallea’s existentialist novels have been described as an anguished attempt to understand human existence within its physical surroundings.

This climate of escapist fiction provided fertile ground for the development of the historieta – what in English is generally referred to as comic strip. The English term is not a particularly useful one in this context, as it is generally taken to refer to a brand of crass, juvenile trivia which gives a false impression of the product that has developed in Argentina and elsewhere. And the term “comic” seems to indicate humorous intent, which can also be misleading. Argentine writers began to see this medium as a means through which they could publish their ideas, whilst being able to claim, should any official criticism result, that they were simply producing trivial entertainments for children.

Thus the historieta became a medium for serious literature, and it remains so to this day.

A page from Alberto Breccia's distinctive 1977 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story "Tell Tale Heart"

A page from Alberto Breccia's distinctive 1977 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story "Tell Tale Heart"
Pages from Alberto Breccia’s distinctive 1977 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Tell Tale Heart”

Alberto Breccia Part 1 - Early Work Samples Alberto Breccia Part 1 - Early Work SamplesBeginnings

Alberto Breccia was born in Montevideo, Uruguay on 15 April 1919, and when he was three years old moved with his family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.

"Kid de Río Grande", published in 1941
“Kid de Río Grande”, published in 1941

His first published drawings, produced at the age of 17 while working in a refrigerated meat-packing warehouse, were short humorous strips for newspapers and magazines, that showed no obvious talent. They did, however, reveal sufficient embryonic skill to attract frequent commissions (notably from TitBits Magazine, for whom he produced cover illustrations and a long series of vignette features about famous people) and he began to draw comic strip adaptations of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and short tales in the science-fiction and horror vein for the magazines El Gorion and Rataplan.

An episode of "El Vengador" for El Gorion, published in 1939, drawn by Alberto Breccia
An episode of “El Vengador” for El Gorion, published in 1939, drawn by Alberto Breccia
An episode of "El Vengador" for El Gorion, published in 1945, drwan by Alberto Breccia
An episode of “El Vengador” for El Gorion, published in 1945, drwan by Alberto Breccia

“I began drawing as an escape and relief from the disagreeable job I had to do to make a living,” he was later to claim, in the film Breccia: Maestro de las Historietas (Euskal Pictures International, 1990). ” The remuneration I received for these pieces was ridiculously low. I think I earned just about enough to buy a handkerchief to dry my tears!”

An episode of "Jean de la Martinica", published in 1947
An episode of “Jean de la Martinica”, published in 1947

But it was eventually to pay off, and in 1945, he was invited to join the staff of Dante Quinterno Editorial. He became a regular contributor to the magazine Patoruzito, drawing first a feature called “Jean de la Martinica”, and thereafter providing the illustrations for a long-running story strip, “Vito Nevio”, recounting the adventures of a kind of Argentinian James Bond, and another, “El Club del Aventureros” about pioneers in the American West.

A page of "Vito Nervio" by Alberto Breccia

A page of "Vito Nervio" by Alberto Breccia
Pages of “Vito Nervio” by Alberto Breccia

During the next eleven years, Breccia’s draughtsmanship developed an attractive and distinctively fluid style, which brought him considerable popularity with Patoruzito’s readers. His work of this period shows clearly the influence of the leading artists of American newspaper strips: Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond and Burne Hogarth. But gradually, a unique individual style was emerging, with his characterisations showing the first signs of the forceful expressionism and distinctive graphic boldness that would eventually emerge.

Alberto Breccia (on the far right of the photo, with hands resting on the counter) at a meeting of cartoonists in the 1950s.
Alberto Breccia (on the far right of the photo, with hands resting on the counter) at a meeting of cartoonists in the 1950s.

He was sufficiently highly regarded to be made an honorary member of the Venice Group – an influential association of mainly ex-patriot Italian artists – along with two other Argentine illustrators, Francisco Solano Lopez and Arturo Perez del Castillo. The Italian members of this group included Hugo Pratt, later to achieve world-wide recognition for his internationally popular Corto Maltese stories. It was Pratt who was to become a major influence in bringing about the fundamental changes that would take place in Breccia’s approach to his work.

”We were walking in the Palermo district, talking about our work,” Breccia recalled in an interview for Bang Magazine No 10, published in 1973, “and Pratt said to me ‘You are producing shit, and it’s unworthy of you.’

“I was enraged by this criticism and almost decided to give up drawing. I did not speak to him for a long time, but slowly came to realise that he was right.” He goes on, “Anyway, I was building a house, and needed the money!”

In Part Two, Ron recounts Breccia’s initial encounter with Hector German Oesterheld, and his move from Argentina to England – cut short by tragic family circumstance…

Ron Tiner’s essay on Alberto Breccia has been published in three parts on downthetubes

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

• Read one of his classic stories, in English, translated by Ron, here

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This short film is a remarkable discovery, showing Alberto Breccia working and giving his thoughts on various things. Unfortunately, it’s in Spanish with French subtitles, but shows a little of the great potential that is possible in graphic storytelling. Let’s hope someone has the sense to pick up English language rights.

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In 1974, Alberto Breccia created an adaption of Poe’s tale, Tell Tale Heart. Canale di FRfeeney animated and edited it using Lou Reed’s version for his 2003 album “The Raven” as soundtrack. This work is an homage to both of them.

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Web Links

• You can read the second part of Ron Tiners series on Alberto Breccia here

• For more on the life and work of Alberto Breccia, who died in 1993, visit his official web site: www.alberto-breccia.net

Amazon’s Alberto Breccia Page

• There is also a profile of Alberto Breccia here on the Dan Dare Info web site and a guide to his British comics work here on the UK Comics Wikia here; this brilliant Spanish comics blog, Deskartes, also features a number of pages of Alberto’s British work, supplied by David Roach

• Comics creator Sarah Horrocks has written several articles about Alberto Breccia on her “73” – read them here

Books

The Eternaut (El Eternauta)

Published by Fantagraphics, this seminal Argentinian science fiction graphic novel was originally released as a serial from 1957-59. Juan Salvo, its inimitable protagonist, along with his friend Professor Favalli and the tenacious metalworker Franco, face what appears to be a nuclear accident, but which quickly turns out to be something much bigger than they imagined.

El Eternauta, Daytripper, and Beyond (World Comics and Graphic Nonfiction Series)
by David William Foster, University of Texas Press

Due for release in October 2016, El Eternauta, Daytripper, and Beyond examines the graphic narrative tradition in the two South American countries that have produced the medium’s most significant and copious output. Argentine graphic narrative emerged in the 1980s, awakened by Hector German Oesterheld’s groundbreaking 1950s serial El Eternauta.

After Oesterheld was “disappeared” under the military dictatorship, El Eternauta became one of the most important cultural texts of turbulent mid-twentieth-century Argentina. Today its story, set in motion by an extraterrestrial invasion of Buenos Aires, is read as a parable foretelling the “invasion” of Argentine society by a murderous tyranny. Because of El Eternauta, graphic narrative became a major platform for the country’s cultural re-democratisation.

In contrast, Brazil, which returned to democracy in 1985 after decades of dictatorship, produced considerably less analysis of the period of repression in its graphic narratives. Serious graphic narratives such as Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper, which explores issues of modernity, globalisation, and cross-cultural identity, developed only in recent decades, reflecting Brazilian society’s current and ongoing challenges.

Besides discussing El Eternauta and Daytripper, David William Foster utilises case studies of influential works – such as Alberto Breccia and Juan Sasturain’s Perramus series, Angelica Freitas and Odyr Bernardi’s Guadalupe, and other s-to compare the role of graphic narratives in the cultures of both countries, highlighting the importance of Argentina and Brazil as anchors of the production of world-class graphic narrative.

La Tecnica Del FumettoLa Tecnica Del Fumetto

Published in 1982, La Tecnica Del Fumetto features the work and techniques of of Breccia alongside numerous other articles. The book is in Italian and may be hard to track down. There is a little more information here on Google Books

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About Ron Tiner

Ron Tiner in his studio. Picture courtesy Ron Tiner
Ron Tiner in his studio. Picture courtesy Ron Tiner

Ron Tiner is a comics artist, illustrator, author and educator. In the mid-1970s, he gave up an art teaching post to draw comics. He drew Powerman for Pikin Publications, Spring-Heeled Jack and many other series for for DC Thomson’s Hotspur, worked with Carlos Ezquerra on Major Eazy and Mike Western on HMS Nightshade along with other series for IPC’s Battle Action, 2000AD, StarLord, and other titles. I

n the 1980s he adapted six of Enid Blyton’s “Secret Seven” stories as graphic narratives for Gutenburghus, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and The Arabian Nights for Escort and for two years drew the football strip Canon for EMAP’s Match Weekly. He also drew several features for the humour titles Oink! and Brain Damage, a five-book John Constantine story for DC Comics’ Hellblazer and one single episode of George & Lynn for The Sun newspaper.

In the late 1980s he turned to book and magazine illustration, working for Oxford University Press, Penguin, Usborne etc., producing illustrations for books by Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, John Buchan, Frederick Forsythe, Arthur Conan Doyle and many others. His illustrations have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer, The Financial Times and Punch Magazine.

He contributed articles to the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) edited John Clute and Peter Nicholls, and was a Contributing Editor to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant.

In the mid-1990s he was invited to construct a course in narrative and sequential illustration for Swindon College of Art, where he taught for seven years. In 2006 he gained a Masters’ degree from Falmouth University, specialising in comics theory and narratology.

He is the author of Figure Drawing without a Model, (1992), The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Techniques (written in collaboration with John Grant) (1996), Mass: The Art of John Harris (2000) and Drawing from your Imagination,  (2008). All of these books have been published in several different languages.

Ron is currently at work on a major illustrated Sherlock Holmes project – among other things.

Ron Tiner Collage

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor. He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY. Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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