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Books

Cult sci-fi comic 'Eternaut' still gives lessons in political resistance

The Argentine classic sci-fi comic from 1957 by Héctor Germán Oesterheld reflects his resistance to the terror that hit his country - two decades later. Now an exhibition explores the mythical work.

Aliens take power in Argentina's capital Buenos Aires. They send toxic snow, deadly beetles and stinging monsters. A clever father, Juan Salvo, decides to fight the powerful invaders who remain hidden and anonymous, remotely controlling their terrifying pawns.

He is the "Eternaut," an "eternal traveler," who ends up traveling through time and space in search of his family.

The Argentine comic book writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld was the author of the science fiction comic "El Eternauta," published in 1957 - and again in December 2015 in English under the name "The Eternaut."

Twenty years after writing this comic, Oesterheld experienced a similar fate as his character's. In his comic, aliens mercilessly exterminated the population in Buenos Aires. In real-life Argentina, the military junta under Jorge Rafael Videla imposed totalitarian rule in 1976, terrorizing the population.

Hector German Oesterheld

Héctor Germán Oesterheld disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship

Oesterheld and his four daughters joined a leftist guerilla group opposed to the dictatorship and ended up among the 30,000 Argentines who vanished during that period. Known as the "desaparecidos," they were tortured, kidnapped and killed.

It has since been established that his daughters were murdered, and it is believed that Oesterheld himself was murdered by the regime in 1979, but his body was never found.

'The Eternaut' in Germany

Oesterheld's comic, with its impressive drawings by Francisco Solano López, became a huge success in Argentina. It is now finding its way to the German market: In book form, the science fiction classic was translated to German and published in January 2016.

To underline this publication, the Literature House in Stuttgart is showing a comic exhibition called "The Myth Eternauta - Héctor Germán Oesterheld," held until April 15, 2016.

Anna Kemper, journalist for the German weekly "Die Zeit," initiated the project. In January 2015 she published a long-form article about Oesterheld's tragically disappeared family. She had learned about their story in 2009 while doing research in Argentina for another article. She saw pictures of Oesterheld's four young, lively daughters, who lost their lives fighting the regime. "Once I had seen those pictures, I couldn't forget them," Anna Kemper told DW. "I just couldn't let go of this story." Five years later, she met relatives of the comic book author.

Comic El Eternauta by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, Copyright: Francisco Solano López/avant-verlag

In the comic, aliens attack Buenos Aires with toxic snow

When dystopian science-fiction predicts reality

Oesterheld's personal story and the one he wrote offer chilling similarities: The invasion of a hidden power, a family organizing the resistance, captivity in torture camps and the endless search for the lost family, to name just a few.

Anna Kemper, co-curator of the current exhibition in Stuttgart, says the show explores how reality eerily reflects fiction. On May 10, the exhibition will move on to Berlin's "Literarisches Colloquium."

Did Héctor Germán Oesterheld foresee the events that would hit his country? Anna Kemper doesn't think so. The comic from the 1950s was inspired by the Cold War, and similar events occurred under various forms of totalitarian rule.

Instead, Kemper explains the similarities the other way around: "Someone who wrote such a story could not simply stay passive under those conditions. He was politicized and had to stand up for his values, even if it was clear that doing so, he was risking his life," she says. The comic book "El Eternauta" thus deeply reflected Oesterheld's personality and values, and that later led him to he join the resistance against the military junta's regime.

'Eternaut' as a symbol against forgetting

Reading "El Eternauta" today allows one to make associations with a dark chapter of Argentine history. A chapter that is not yet closed; the issue occupies Argentine society to this day. In recent years - particularly under the government of Néstor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007 - historical reappraisal of the events under the military dictatorship have become a stronger part of the public agenda.

In the comic, the hero is defeated, doomed to spend the rest of his life searching for his family through space and time. "An incredible number of Argentines can still identify with this condition," says Anna Kemper. Many do not know what happened to family members at that time and continue to search for their disappeared parents or children.

Comic El Eternauta von Héctor Germán Oesterheld -Copyright: avant-verlag

The subway station Uruguay in Buenos Aires features the Eternaut

The character, found in graffiti and in a subway station, remains a powerful symbol in Argentina. A political figure that stands for people who fight against odds for human rights, the "Eternaut" recalls the necessity of delving into the history of the dictatorship, says Anna Kemper.

History repeats itself

She also notes that people are being "disappeared" in other dictatorships today. In Syria for example, around 60,000 people have disappeared under Assad's regime, according to Amnesty International. "The same methods are being reproduced: You can simply switch names and see that what happened in Argentina keeps repeating itself," she says.

With his comic "El Eternauta," Héctor Germán Oesterheld created a visionary, historically important work that has lost none of its power. His two sequels, written during the Resistance, are even more political but still await a translation in English or German.

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