The Life and Work of Alberto Breccia by Ron Tiner

Comic Creator Spotlight: The Life and Work of Alberto Breccia – Part Three 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 third… you can read Part One here and Part Two here and read one of his classic stories, in English, here

Martin Fierro by Alberto Breccia
Martin Fierro by Alberto Breccia

After working on The Life of Che, Breccia began work on a project that proved to be another milestone in his graphic development: to illustrate the nineteenth century Argentine epic poem of Jose Hernandez, Martin Fierro, El Gaucho. For this, his artwork took a new direction in technique with the use of collaged pieces of torn paper on which he had printed and painted areas of texture and pattern. This was his first major work in colour, but sadly, the originals were stolen after an unsuccessful exhibition which was intended to finance their publication, and the recent published edition, Martin Fierro (Doedytores, 2004), is monochromatic and incomplete.

Breccia now turned his attention to the writings of H.P.Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a writer of horror fantasies, initially influenced by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which he produced for US pulp magazines, most notably, Weird Tales. His stories show a strange obsession with imagined evil entities that lurk within the walls and under the floors of suburbia. Indeed the word “lurk” occurs frequently in his work, along with other equally obscure and melodramatic terms such as “eldritch”, “miasmic” and “gibbous”. Typical story titles include The Rats in the Walls (1924), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937) and The Whisperer in the Darkness (1931). David Langford, in his entry on Lovecraft in The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy says of him: “Unlike Poe, whose imagination was obsessed by death, Lovecraft was fascinated by sliminess, corruption and disintegration.” His stories often feature tentacled monsters, invariably conjured up by sinister old recluses using a book of ancient magic called The Necronomicon.

Alberto Breccia - Lovecraft Sample 1
Examples of Alberto Breccia’s work adapting HP Lovecraft

Alberto Breccia - Lovecraft Sample 1 Breccia chose to adapt Lovecraft’s most famous and influential sequence, now generally referred to as The Cthulhu Mythos. Once again it is the theme of unimaginable evil, concealed threateningly just out of sight, which seems to have had such a hold on the Argentine imagination, that becomes evident here. These stories treat of a unique fantasy world set around Arkham, a small town pervaded with an air of decadence and decay, in which legends of magic and devil-worship abound. In his most famous first story in the series, The Call of Chtulhu (1928), he created his basic myth of a mysterious “Elder Race” that once dominated the earth, but largely destroyed itself through sorcery, and whose members now lie sleeping under the sea and underground. He referred to these unpleasant entities as “the ancient old ones” (typically failing to notice the tautology) and the stories tell of incidents in which they are woken up to befoul the earth with evil.

It is evident that these stories had a deep psychological significance for Breccia. The work was mostly carried out in pencil, with some wax-resist and ink washes. The ghastly creature, Cthulhu, that emerges from underground is a disturbing creation of smears and indistinct shapes that suggest that it is constituted of myriad dagger-toothed mouths and the body parts of tortured, devilish creatures.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Breccia began a series of collaborations with the writer Carlos Trillo. The first of these, Un Tal Daneri, [“A Certain (man called) Daneri”], featured a return to the collage techniques he first adopted for Martin Fierro, (though not, this time, in colour) along with monotype processes and cut pieces of newspaper photographs and flat paper shapes. But the characters, rendered using all the techniques so far identified (including brush- and pen-and-ink drawing, with finger- and hand-print textures etc.), show a more pronounced vulnerability and pathos. Indeed, these graphics endow the short, sombre tales with a poetic nostalgia.

Powerful art art from Un Tal Daneri
Powerful art art from Un Tal Daneri

Un Tal Daneri is a series of bitter short stories about an enigmatic loner living on the margins of suburban life, set in the slaughterhouse district in which Breccia worked as a teenager. He was evidently born before the hell of the military dictatorships and survives within them as best he can, undertaking for meagre payments the beating-up of a wayward lover or the tracing of a lost son. The name, Daneri, is an allusion to Carlos Daneri, the protagonist of a short story by Borges: El Aleph (1942), a story to which Breccia’s work often makes reference.

Further collaborations with Trillo followed, each one in the form of a linked collection of short stories, usually featuring a single character. Among these were Los Ojos y la Mente [“The Eyes of the Mind”], about a man confined to a concrete prison cell, who lives through tragic, romantic and touching stories in his imagination.

A page from Los Ojos y la Mente
A page from Los Ojos y la Mente, which you can read here

Breccia also created during these last years a series of humourous, wordless pieces featuring a dyspeptic Dracula with permanent toothache.

Another, Buscavidas [literally “Life-Seeker”] narrates, with exquisite black humour, the vicarious experiences of a human parasite, a collector of other people’s secrets who, having no life of his own, is compelled to return to a bar to satiate his appetite for stories from the lives of others, and to live through their experiences by proxy. Breccia drew this series in a grotesque, sharp-edged, expressionist style, using razor blades to carve away white areas from a prepared black surface.

Buscavidas himself is a repulsive being, a gelatinous mass with only the most rudimentary indication of a face. Breccia said of these dark narratives: “One day I received a phone call and an anonymous voice told me that my house was going to be dynamited: I had to hide for several months.

“It was during this sombre period that I started to draw Buscavidas. It is a series full of symbols and hidden references; I tried to keep on drawing, avoiding trouble. I had to do stories that, at least on the surface, were ‘drinkable’… If, one day, they had come to the house, I would always have been able to tell them: ‘I am drawing a weird thing, a bit funny, a bit grotesque’. Maybe I would be able to make them smile and avoid being killed. The military were mistrustful and ignorant.” And again: “It’s obvious that my stories are not usually very happy, but neither are my surroundings.” (both quotes are excerpts from an interview published in Traces No. 2 (Paris, 1992).

Some pencils from the Buscavidas project. There are more here on the Spanish language Troesmas web site
Some pencils from the Buscavidas project. You can read one of the stories, translated by Ron Tiner, here

Buscavidas Sample 1In Introduction to Alberto Breccia: Obras Completas, Volume 1 (Doedytores 1994) the Argentine writer, Guillermo Saccomanno, wrote: “Buscavidas can only be properly understood when seen as a metaphor. Trillo and Breccia created this tragic saga in the darkest years of the military dictatorship, when our country was effectively turned into a concentration camp, and the individual destiny suffered the same fate as the enslaved creatures of deSade in his 120 Days of Sodom”.

Alberto Breccia - Perramus

Alberto Breccia - Perramus
Juan and Sasturain and Alberto Breccia’s Perramus

The military dictatorships finally came to an end with the Falklands War against Britain, and immediately, Breccia, along with writer Juan Sasturain, embarked on an epic (700-page) allegorical saga entitled Perramus.

Javier Coma says of this enormous undertaking: “Perramus is a remarkable work of expressionist literature. The art of Breccia here culminates in an audacious interpretation that is both titanic and victorious” (Perramus: Un Poeme sur l’Aventure Humaine [“Perramus: A Poem of Human Adventure”] Les Cahiers de la Bande Dessinee No. 62, 1985).

Evident throughout this long graphic novel is a great sense of release from the grip of terror that the military junta signified, with touches of satirical humour featuring leading political figures of the day (1983) including a savagely caricatured Henry Kissinger (characterised as “Mister Whitesnow” – i.e. “Snow White”) and a delightfully scurrilous portrayal of Frank Sinatra, among many others.

It is the story of a man who has become involved in the “disappearances” that the military junta indulged in during the latter 1970’s and early ‘80s, and who attempts to cope with his guilt by expunging it from his memory. In the sense that every Argentine citizen became complicit in the Junta’s terror tactics by turning a blind eye, (because not to do so would have meant death) he can be seen as the Argentine “Everyman”.

In the first few frames, he is pursued by a group of skeletal-faced military police to a bar called El Aleph (another Borges reference) where a radio is playing the song “Life is Full of Surprises”. The madam (it is evidently also a whore-house) offers him the choice of three women – Rosa for luck; Maria for pleasure; Margarita for forgetting. He chooses forgetfulness and wakes the following day with no recollection of his name or his life. What follows is the odyssey of his journey towards his final absolution, which is brought about by his finally regaining his memory, and the consequent struggle to come to terms with his past.

The allegorical and satirical references are often obscure for the non-Argentinian reader, including as they do an election in which posters proclaim “Usted elige: Si o si! Lo mismo es major que lo peor” (You choose: Yes or yes! The same is better than worse); and rival candidates who offer “the boot” or “the shoe”- “A move from the boot to the shoe,” promises one, “won’t mean change, just variety,” and together they chant, “You choose: the same or the self-same! It’s I or me! Feel free to choose the foot!” Another chapter features a market in which people are seen to be selling their own teeth, their personal love-letters etc. (“These people are selling themselves!” says a commentator) and a baker who refuses to sell bread to a group of starving citizens as he breaks it into pieces and feeds pigeons.

Throughout these angry, bitter stories, Borges acts as guide and mentor to the guilt-ridden Perramus. The fourth and final volume features a surreal quest, which begins with the discovery of the toothless skull of Carlos Gardel (a famous singer with a wonderful smile and the most beautiful set of teeth, who died in 1935 – i.e. at the beginning of the years of terror and repression). Only when the teeth – and thus the smile – of Carlos Gardel are restored, will Argentina be a happy country once more.

These four volumes constitute an anguished cry of bitterness and regret, and on the last page Borges and Perramus are seen walking away into an empty landscape. “Perhaps,” says Borges, “the only thing that exists is the road: the journey. We never arrive anywhere. There is no end.” And he makes reference to a poem by C.P.Kavafi “Ithaca”.

I append here a translation of the complete poem which, I think, sums up (if that’s possible) the meaning of Perramus.

ITHACA

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
You must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis: 1911

Chi Ha Paura delle Fiabe - Hansel and Gretel 1
© Héritiers d’Alberto Breccia
Chi Ha Paura delle Fiabe - Hansel and Gretel 2
© Héritiers d’Alberto Breccia
Chi Ha Paura delle Fiabe - Hansel and Gretel 3
Pages from Chi Ha Paura delle Fiabe – Hansel and Gretel © Héritiers d’Alberto Breccia

With the new government of President Alfonsin, came new freedom for the arts in Argentina, and the effect on Breccia’s work became immediately evident. He produced a book of “adult” fairy tales, again with Carlos Trillo, entitled Chi Ha Paura delle Fiabe? (“Who’s Afraid of Fairy Tales?”), that featured a cute, thickly lipsticked Red Riding Hood, who spends the weeks after the woodcutter has saved her from ruin, searching for her “wolf” in sleezy nightclubs, and a seven dwarves that included stubby-legged depictions of Napoleon, Laurel and Hardy, The Yellow Kid, Corto Maltese and a gentleman in a red track suit who looks uncomfortably like General Videla. For this book the artist used collage techniques once again, this time in bright colour, in which there were pieces of woolly cardigan, wallpaper and other unexpected ingredients.

Throughout the latter 1980s, Breccia continued to publish historieta adaptations of Argentine literature and of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In painted artwork for these, all traces of linework – such a strong basic ingredient of all his earlier work – is stripped away. An artist friend of mine, David A. Johnson, said of these: “It’s almost as though he has said to himself: ‘Ok, I’ve got to fly a bit lighter now…’ and simply discarded all but the most essential expressive elements of his work.”

Alberto Breccia: El Dorado: El Delinio de Lope de Aguirre Alberto Breccia: El Dorado: El Delinio de Lope de Aguirre

Alberto Breccia: El Dorado: El Delinio de Lope de Aguirre
Art from El Dorado: El Delinio de Lope de Aguirre by Alberto Breccia

In the two years leading up to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, a Spanish publisher commissioned the leading comic-strip artists in the world to produce a 25-volume set of encyclopaedic coffee-table books, each containing a 45-page historieta, under the series title Relatos del Nuevo Mundo [“Tales of the New World”] to commemorate the event. Breccia’s was entitled El Dorado: El Delinio de Lope de Aguirre (Planeta Agostini, 1992).

In 1992, I was fortunate enough to meet Albertio Breccia in a bookshop in Angouleme. It was a remarkable experience – it was like meeting Leonardo!

I had thought, I suppose, (judging from that ancient bulldog face) that he was just some solitary old guy who drew stuff; but not so! Being in his presence was an unforgettable experience. There was such a depth of wisdom and compassion in his eyes… Impossible to explain, but I shall never forget that 15-20 minutes I spent in his company. A very impressive man. I don’t speak Spanish, so spoke to him in my not-very-good Italian – and we had no problem whatever in communicating.

Alberto Breccia died in Buenos Aires in November 1993.

Web Links

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

• For more on the life and work of Alberto Breccia, 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.

Mort Cinder, Tome 1 : Les yeux de plomb (French) Hardcover
by Hector Oesterheld, Alberto Breccia

French edition, published in 2004

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, 2000ADStarLord, and other titlesI

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

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