Obituary: Alberto Breccia

Alberto Breccia, strip-cartoon artist and illustrator: born Montevideo 1919; died Buenos Aires 10 November 1993.

THERE is a certain kind of strip- cartoon creator who is beyond the comprehension of the majority of this art-form's fans. He is usually someone with a pessimistic, left- wing, pacifist-anarchist outlook on human existence, expressed through picture panels that are dramatically composed and brilliantly detailed works of art in their own right. Such men often have a passion for literature of a marginal kind, and an acute sense of character. They may employ their own scenarists, or base their stories on famous novel or films.

Such a creator was Alberto Breccia. At the age of three, he was taken by his family from his birthplace, Montevideo, across the estuary of the Rio de la Plata to the lively working-class port district of Buenos Aires. This district was to form the sombre backdrop for Breccia's early realistic style.

By the age of 17, Alberto was publishing his first comic sketches in children's magazines, and he began to make his name as a humorous cartoonist and illustrator. By the 1940s, his Punto Blanco series was being syndicated all over South America and the United States. He started adapting popular movies, mainly B-movie detective features and Argentinian novels, producing over 300 books for children, and working in publicity.

He was teaching in a Buenos Aires art academy when the turning-point in his career brought him in contact with a colleague, Hugo Pratt, who was to become the celebrated creator of Corto Maltese, the favourite hero of Francois Mitterrand. Together with like- minded artists like Jose Luis Salinas and Arturo del Castillo they launched the avant-garde movement in strip cartoons whose influence was to spread throughout South America, the United States and eventually to Europe.

The timing was just right. The whole of South America, taking the lead from all kinds of writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Juan Carlos Onetti and Horacio Quiroga, the father of them all, became fascinated by novels and short stories on detective and mystery themes.

Hugo Pratt introduced Breccia to the man who was to become his favourite scenario writer, Hector Oestherheld: together they created the 'Sherlock Time' series, combining Breccia's obsession with mystery and detective stories and Oestherheld's fixation on temporal paradoxes of a science-fiction type.

In 1962, they invented the character of Mort Cinder, a sardonic time- traveller. Breccia began adapting classics like Poe, Grimm, Lovecraft, Borges, as well as South American authors like Garcia Marquez and Alejo Carpentier. Their collaboration on El Eternauta in 1969 was heavily politicised, and did not find favour either with the public or with the authorities. After the coup d'etat in 1976, Oestherheld was


In 1984 Breccia produced one of his best works, Perramua, with a sinister background of the Argentine dictatorship. It is somewhat similar in tone to Art Spiegelman's Maus. Together with Mort Cinder, it was published in France, and was an immediate hit, and constantly reprinted.

Breccia illustrated Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and other modern novels. But his masterpiece is his setting - reminiscent of both Gustav Dore and Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira - of South America's greatest writer's profoundest novels: Ernesto Sabato's Informe sobre ciegos ('Report on the Blind'), which is a fantastic story of a colony of blind men at the centre of the earth who direct the destiny of those on the surface.

Breccia is not as popular in Spain as in France, but Editiones-B, one of Spain's many flourishing small publishing houses, is now preparing the publication of Perramus. Alberto Breccia was a great originator, and the world of the strip cartoon will be the smaller for his departure.