Verboiconic Literature in Argentina Nearing the Third Decade of the 21st Century
Argentine comics are some of the most important in the world. Our scripts changed the way stories are told in comics. Some of the great artists of the genre are Argentine. Nonetheless, the vicissitudes of comic-book production in Argentina almost sound like a comic-book story themselves.
Verboiconic literature (or “LIVIC” for its initials in Spanish) is known in Argentina as the “Historieta.” Urban legend credits the name to the Spanish director of a Buenos Aires newspaper expressing his scorn for these necessary strips that “elevated” dead pages of advertising. “Comic” is the American name, referring back to the genre’s initial comic-satiric phase.
In the twentieth century, comics became one of the specialities of this South American country. In fact, there is an “Argentine School of Comics,” and its works can be clearly distinguished by their narrative style. Since the end of the twentieth century, hundreds of Argentine comic artists and a handful of writers have worked in the USA and Europe, and their style, the Argentine stamp, must have stuck to certain creations produced in these markets. One case is that of Eduardo Risso (Córdoba, 1959), winner of four Eisner Awards for Best Serialized Story and three Harvey Prizes for Best Artist, among others, in the United States.
One of the facts that led to the growth and popularization of comics was, perhaps, its stigmatization: treatises were written on the genre’s harmfulness and the need to prevent young people from reading such pernicious rags. The danger of surreptitiously reading the comics condemned by teachers gave them an extra touch of excitement, and I can say so as a witness.
The proliferation of comic strips in papers and magazines dedicated exclusively to their publication was a growing business until the appearance of the television toward the end of the fifties, at which point the two media coexisted. It was easier for comics to resist the onslaught of the home computer, and to this day the printed comic is preferred to the digital format.
At the start, imitation and “inspiration” came from American comics. Quickly, recognizable Argentine characters were introduced, especially in humor comics. In the “serious” or “adventure” comics, this wasn’t the case. Although they were written and produced in Argentina, their settings and characters were usually foreign. It was a way of eluding local, real, or imaginary references. An exception was the gaucho, who occupied an almost immovable place in the world of comics and enjoyed great success in the provinces but met with a cold reception in Buenos Aires. What’s more, the schema, the ideology of these stories also followed imported models, just as they shared their pages with foreign stories.
And then, Héctor Germán Oesterheld (1919-1977?), also known as “HGO,” appeared. He was a geologist with a passion for writing, starting with children’s stories and then transitioning to science writing. Más Allá [Beyond], from Editorial Abril, was a top-level journal of science fiction and nonfiction, the first of its kind in Argentina. HGO wrote many of its scientific notes, and it is believed that he selected and/or translated the fiction it published, as well as writing short stories and novels, either under his own name or a pseudonym.
Editorial Abril published comics, and it couldn’t conceal the growing demand for scripts. They asked Héctor Germán Oesterheld, who had only written a few comics and had little experience, to create a character who would be a test pilot (a recurring cliché at the time, as in Johnny Hazard or Steve Canyon). HGO decided to make him, besides a pilot, an advanced scientist, and to surround him with a cast of “Sancho Panzas”: a narrator, who could give away the emotions that the main character would not reveal, a know-it-all comedian, and a bossy mother. The group. The comic was based on the group, and on deep scientific themes, entering and leaving the genre of “science fiction” at will. It was called Bull Rocket.
Enjoying his work, Oesterheld presented another project: a frontier soldier who, disgusted by the massacres of preexisting indigenous populations during the evil known in Argentina as the “Conquest of the Desert,” breaks his saber and deserts. The subject was so repulsive in its era that the publishers forced him to set it in the United States. Sargento Kirk, a cowboy with the soul of a gaucho, was born, along with his group, his surroundings. From his beginnings as a comic writer, Oesterheld set about breaking traditional schema, the stereotypes of the genre, the foundations of the verboiconic melodrama.
He was so successful that he decided to continue his work in his own publishing house, Frontera, where he developed new anti-system characters: Ernie Pike, a war correspondent who revealed that evil was war itself, and that soldiers–on any side–were its victims. Rolo, science fiction set in Greater Buenos Aires. Sherlock Time, a mysterious extraterrestrial with a retiree as his co-protagonist. Cayena, an ex-con detective. Patria Vieja, tales of the Argentine War of Independence. The gaucho Nahuel Barros. Ticonderoga, a mixed-race soldier in colonial North America, teamed up with an English fop and a wise native… And many, many more. A whole universe of protagonists of disruptive, different stories, without prefabricated heroism, with people suffering and loving, with friends supporting the main character (who can’t even be called the “hero”).
To talk about The Eternaut would require a separate essay (and there are several, including one that I wrote: “La Argentina Premonitoria en El Eternauta” [The Premonitory Argentina of The Eternaut]). The Eternaut is an expression of the Argentine collective subconscious, which feels constantly invaded and constantly resists said invasion. Even though in my previous essay, written in 1992, I present the theory that the work contains the premonition of the terrible and bloody dictatorship imposed upon Argentina between 1976 and 1982 (fifteen years after its publication), subsequent historical events, up to the present day, allow us to appreciate the fact that the character allows for constant reinterpretations, that he is a permanent metaphor. A pinpoint description of this national subconscious.
These brilliant, exciting scripts, always of outstanding quality, attracted the country’s most esteemed artists, who competed to illustrate stories in which, inevitably, creativity sank in deep and gave the best of itself.
Oesterheld traveled to Europe with a selection of his work, hoping to sell it there. But, instead of buying the comics, they bought only the drawings and offered magnificent remuneration to these great artists, who gradually abandoned Editorial Frontera in pursuit of higher pay. Only in the seventies, when the presses Record and Eura republished many of these stories, did they reach Old World audiences.
Oesterheld forces us to distance ourselves from adventure, humor, fiction, to think of sociology, psychology, politics. The “Argentine Model” was consolidated around this new vision.
The devaluation of verboiconic literature went on for at least two thirds of the century. It began to reverse, to stop seeing the “historieta” as pernicious and light, after HGO, who broke with stereotypical subjects, narrative models, genre cliches, settings of adventure, and also the underlying ideology. It was “underlying,” not explicit, in all comics at least until the seventies. The genre’s use as a literary barricade during the resistance before and during the military coup brought propagandistic and discursive examples.
Experiences in France, especially their entrance into the Louvre, also contributed to the “dignification” of comics. Their consideration as art gave them a whiff of snobbishness, like so much art copied in Argentina. The Di Tella Institute, a top cultural research center founded in 1958, put on the “First Biennial of the Historieta,” curated by Oscar Massotta, in 1968. The exhibit gave the genre hierarchy, and introduced people as important as Burne Hogart and Héctor Oesterheld. The center was closed in 1970 by the military government of Juan Carlos Onganía.
At the time, there were a lot of magazines coming from a lot of presses, some so small they took up a single studio apartment; they emerged and disappeared; sometimes they paid their contributors and sometimes their checks bounced. We must say, nonetheless, that important professionals worked for these magazines and almost all their production is redeemable (although, of course, largely unfindable). Even Oesterheld, once his own publishing house fell, frequented these nooks and crannies of fiction.
There were also some big presses. The most paradigmatic, which based almost all of its production on the genre for almost ninety years, was Editorial Columba. I say “almost” making an exception for their “Colección Esquemas,” a set of valuable booklets of literary difusion featuring names as important as Jorge Luis Borges, José Babini, and Rodolfo Mondolfo.
Magazines published by Columba (a familial press, founded by the stenographer from Congreso and the artist Ramón Columba) gained experience by trial and error until reaching a certain perfection in the delicate art of selling stories.
The verb “selling” is important as the basis of any project’s subsistence, artistic or not.
Based on the old system of publishing in installments, they dedicated their pages to reproducing the same installments and similar novels, illustrated in square panels. There are some that can be considered “illustrated novels,” while others (the majority) come closer to LIVIC. That is, they come closer to the concatenation between the written story and the drawn story, combined with free space for the imagination, “the trench of mysteries.” “Blood in the gutter,” says Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, 1994, New York: Harper Paperbacks). This is the white line between panels where the reader unloads his experiences, feelings, imagination, etc., uniting the action told in one panel with the next.
When Oesterheld appeared, Columba was shaken up too. The old writers started referring to the style of the Maestro. The new generation is made up of those of us who decided to write comics after reading HGO: Ricardo Barreiro, Gustavo Trigo, Guillermo Saccomanno, Armando Fernández, and many other names, one of which is mine.
The main voice among them is a committed fan of the Old Man, a Paraguayan who came to comics almost by chance, compelled by a coincidental friendship with a great artist, Lucho Olivera (Corrientes, 1942 — Buenos Aires, 2005). Robin Wood (Colonia Cosme-Caazapá, Paraguay, 1944) “had learned Oesterheld’s music,” in the words of Antonio Presa (Buenos Aires, 1936-2006), art coordinator of Columba, at a display of the “Frontera” collection (Morón, November 2005). And he knew how to use it.
With a certain reticence, Columba published Wood’s first works, which had a much more comic-book style and were much lighter on text, much more reliant on art than the house’s classic productions. Their public success was immediate, and this improved the quality of work of the older creators and opened the door to new writers who could work with much greater creative freedom. Many of us couldn’t have dealt with the serious criticism that came before Robin.
The press started buying stories. Its selection was based on the scripts, which had to include unpublished plots, with original treatments and satisfactory endings. The idea was for the reader to feel a certain emotion upon reading them, and to be satisfied by the conclusion. After that, the artist was chosen. But the foundation was always the script.
The press had divided up its audience according to their intellectual capacity: for the least educated, the magazine Fantasía; for the mid-range, El Tony; for intellectuals and professionals, D’Artagnan; for the learned and women, Intervalo. Once an audience well-versed in modern comics appeared (affirmed by the work of Robin Wood), they released Nippur Magnum.
Wood’s prolific imagination took control of Editorial Columba and maintained it until the end. The family, like any family, had its disagreements, changes of opinion, and points of view. At one time, there was a civil engineer directing the magazines (!). That, along with the attention paid to business outside the editorial world, caused their schemes to start aging in the early nineties.
As far as content, this was a medium under rigid “Western and Christian” censorship. Implicitly, writers discovered this censorship little by little, and applied it to their own work. For a cowboy story in which the bad guy was the warden of a jail, I received a reprimand: “You should know that, in this house, anyone in a uniform is good by definition, down to the mailman.”
I wrote the series Pehuén Curá, set in the era of Juan Manuel de Rosas. In “the house,” there was always sympathy for our playing with the “Restorer,” but… we couldn’t write the word “unitarians.” We had to disguise them, alluding to “smugglers.” We couldn’t write about drugs (usually replaced with “diamonds”) or sex. We had to be careful inventing names: they couldn’t match up to any real name, past or present.
But, in the mid-eighties, in the wake of the revelation of the abhorrent horrors of the dictatorship, the ideological control was released, and we could write somewhat more realistic stories. I often said that when I was writing El Cabo Savino I was putting blinders on the character, so as not to see the abuses, the injustices, the tortures, the pointless massacres that took place around those bunkers. After that moment of liberation, the Cabo was disgusted by “those useless killings” and left the bunker to live with a widow and her son. He was going to form a family, but the closing of Columba kept me from telling the story.
Toward the nineties, there was a strange interregnum in which a couple of women took control and totally opened up the journals, eliminating all censorship, changing formats and even the type of paper, and breaking with the norm of telling stories upon acquiring LIVIC produced for other markets. This scared off a large portion of the huge volume of readers who bought Columba’s magazines, and sales fell to the point that, unbelievably, the press decided to return to the previous system. Too late.
Meanwhile, a pair of new presses filled the niche.
The other press was Cielosur, which had been founded by the extraordinary gaucho-writer Enrique Rapela, republishing in the magazines El Huinca and Fabián Leyes the episodes that previously appeared in papers and magazines, together with abundant material from within Argentina. The press passed into the hands of Andrés Cascioli (editor of journalistic landmarks like Satiricón and Humor Registrado), with vast experience, who had started out directing the magazines of one of those “little” presses, Gente Joven (which became Mopasa y Tynset in time). Ceasing their production of gaucho stories, they started publishing a science fiction magazine, El Péndulo, and then a comics magazine, Fierro (a Fierro), with a name registered by Cielosur and based on a former publication by Raúl Roux.
In a report published in the paper La Nación, Andrés Casciolo told me that “he used Fierro as a catalogue to sell products in Europe because in Argentina they lost money.”
In the mid-nineties, these three presses survived, for all their highs and lows. Then, in national politics, with the government of Carlos Menem, neoliberalism erupted. A false monetary parity with the dollar was created, which ironed out inflation but impoverished the country. It was impossible to publish in Argentina because the real costs were much greater than the “one for one” face value. At the same time, the indiscriminate opening of imports made foreign comic books enter the country, calculating their cost by weight, creating impossible conditions for competition. Between 1994 and 1995, simultaneously, the three presses closed their doors and comics were no longer produced in Argentina.
Around a thousand artists opted to work outside the country, with varying degrees of luck. About thirty writers (myself included) had to seek another profession. A few managed to work for Europa. Editorial Columba, under a new owner, continued publishing and republishing its wide stock until the year 2000. For ten years, not only every comic but also every comment, study, and essay on the subject disappeared from the media. When Columba closed for good, the paper Clarín published, on March 11, 2000, an obituary note so full of crude errors and false information that it looked like a caricature. This level of misinformation lasted for the whole first decade of the twenty-first century.
Not long after, critics began to appear with real knowledge of the subject, or with a desire to find out, or who simply enjoyed reading verboiconic literature.
Of course, I’m setting aside the recognized comic scholars who contributed notable works like Oscar Masotta, Oscar Steimberg, Germán Cáceres, Laura Vázquez, Felipe Ávila, etc. But the ignorance of the journalistic field in general was (and, to some extent, still is) unfortunate.
This ten-year silence dealt a heavy blow to the buying public of Argentine comic books. The quantity of lovers of manga or U.S. comics is infinitely smaller than that massive public that, in the whole country, in all of Latin America, used to buy Argentine historieta magazines and demand astronomic print runs. But the fire has not gone out.
Antonio Presa used to say, “in every town in Argentina there’s a music band and a comic book artist.” And it must be true, because since the middle of the first decade of this century the authors of LIVIC have multiplied exponentially. And the artists as well. Then the phenomenon of women’s emergence in the genre took place. In the twentieth century, there were fewer than ten women comic creators. Idelba Dapueto, Laura Giulino, and Martha Barnes (Martha continues picking up prizes and drawing in 2018) were the best known. Hundreds of girls, boys, and “older people” make comics, although the only magazine that regularly appears is the new Fierro (every three months), maintaining the original’s air of experimentation, no longer in search of sales but rather for the sake of experimentation itself. The kiosks are still invaded by U.S. comics (many published in Argentina) and manga (in lesser quantities).
The Internet has been a refuge for many, a place where you can find a large amount of local production. The rest has passed from the fanzines to the comic books, published by a handful of heroic presses, earnest and persistent, or by the authors themselves, who frequent hundreds of small or large expositions, conventions, meetings, and fairs in hopes of selling some book to recuperate something of what they paid to publish them.
In the end, Argentine comics have certainly left behind their stereotypical subjects: there are no longer (only) detectives, cowboys, war, science fiction, romance. Now comics can touch on all subjects, just like other forms of literature and film. There is neither censorship nor self-censorship. What’s more, there are new media. Computers and the Internet are already “old.” There are semi-animated comics, with sounds and special effects. There are as many styles of comic as there are styles of literature and visual arts. There are incomprehensible, hermetic, pioneering, retro, profound, psychological, political, salutary things. And bad things too. And also marvellous and moving things.
It could be said that we are witnessing the birth of a New Argentine Comic.
Let us pray it reaches, like in the twentieth century, the masses, everyone, that it is shared, enjoyed, and felt by the whole planet, starting with Argentines, followed closely by the rest of the world.
That is to say, the comic book, the historieta, verboiconic literature, is the future.
That is to say, we’ve won.
Jorge Claudio Morhain
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Jorge Claudio Morhain is an Argentine writer, playwright, scriptwriter, and journalist. He has published over 8,000 comic scripts, 800 short stories, several stage plays (one is an adaptation of the famous comic The Eternaut), works of journalism, etc. He started publishing comics in 1960, and he is still active in the genre. His graphic novel Los pueblos civilizados [The civilized peoples], produced in collaboration with Diego Ridao, was awarded the Premio Nacional a la Historieta Argentina in the Biblioteca Nacional Argentina.
Arthur Dixon works as a translator and as Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. His translation of Andrés Felipe Solano’s “The Nameless Saints” (WLT, Sept. 2014) was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize, and his most recent project is a book-length translation of Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza’s Cuidados intensivos (see WLT, Sept. 2016).
LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series.