There are different ways for great comic book artwork to elevate the stories it illustrates. Some comics art is inextricable from the content it delivers, defining not just the look of the world it presents, but its physics, its culture, its fauna and flora, its very vibrational frequency. Auteur cartoonists are usually the ones who pull this off, and when they manage to do so it's something to see - think Herriman, Moebius, Panter. But the vast majority of great comics art inhabits a less rarefied sphere: dazzling acts of drawing that yoke themselves to less distinguished narratives and pull two times the weight, forcibly imbuing whatever plots and characters they treat of with more gravity and import than their literary qualifications have earned. In collaboration, artists like Jack Kirby, Bernard Krigstein, or Frank Quitely use beautiful pictures and fertile visual imagination to put the team on their back and spin the gold of timeless tales from genre-story straw. Mid-20th century Argentinian maestro Alberto Breccia was another such artist, and Mort Cinder, the first volume of a projected reprint series from Fantagraphics, provides ample evidence of the will and energy he put into ensuring that his works exceeded the sum of their parts.
Breccia's art just about demands cliche descriptors. It really is eye-popping. Constructed with dense gnarls of absolutely brutal, slashing brush marks, every panel manages to cohere into a piece of realistic cartooning in the Norman Rockwell mode, with faces, figures, and lighting that startle with their dead-eyed accuracy. Imagine the sober Alex Raymond of primetime Rip Kirby inked over by Bill Sienkiewicz at his most manic and you're close; but honestly, neither of those guys' best work speaks to pure drafting skills as finely honed as Breccia's. Again and again the panels' flair for expressionism carries them to the brink of what looks like chaos - ink and wite-out splatter across the pages, furiously scribbled (and gorgeously reproduced) brush marks envelop blank space with black, and texturing effects that Breccia employed toothbrushes and razorblades to achieve spackle across surfaces. Again and again that chaos reveals itself as tidily observed compositions of light and shade - a group of dry-brushed gouges resolves into a birch forest, an elaborately marked scribble into a wrought-iron sign and its shadow, obsessive masses of ink flecks into a herringbone pattern that recedes perfectly into the light source.
Breccia's drawing doesn't merely serve writer Hector German Oesterheld's narratives. If anything, the reverse is true. The 1962-64 short stories collected in Mort Cinder are variable in quality, but none's plot or execution matches the mixture of ferocity and consideration with which Breccia brings them to life. Such is the strength of the visual treatments the stories are given that they accrue a somber, slow-moving power that can't quite be chalked up to anything their actual substance carries. Like Nicolas Roeg DP-ing Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death, the greater artist's presence lends an aura of majestic creepiness to material that would almost certainly have failed to earn a place in history had it been handled by a lesser. Breccia is the only reason to read "Lead Eyes", the graphic novel-length tale that introduces us to Mort Cinder's title character, an ageless adventurer cut from the same mold as DC Comics' Immortal Man. "Lead Eyes" has got to be the most virtuosically illustrated shaggy dog story of all time, a potboiler that never achieves even luke warmth, with a mad-scientist villain that the era's saggiest B-movies would have found corny as hell.
Still, Oesterheld was a talented (if wordy) writer, and only a simpleton could have completely failed to find a way of playing to Breccia's strengths. By 1963's "The Tower of Babel", a fairly straightforward retelling of the Bible story that reveals the prodigious scope of its hero's personal history, Oesterheld and Breccia are rolling, working with a shotgun marriage of mythology, historical detail, and genre trappings that Mike Mignola would eventually mine to greater effect in Hellboy. Episodes set on a transatlantic slave ship and at the Battle of Thermopylae are equally impressive, though they're spaced out with more drive-in movie type yarns. Still, even those feel more like silly fun than a slog as Oesterheld ditches the long form for three- or four-installment stories that more or less approximate the length of the classic comic book format.
Breccia's treatments of the peculiar wonders Oesterheld’s stories offer up remain the big attraction - the "vitrified, glassy walls" of the Tower of Babel approach Abstract Expressionism, and his idiosyncratic inkwork finds an ideal subject amongst the tombs and ruins of ancient Egypt - but Oesterheld's best plots have legitimate momentum, a force behind them built up less by velocity than weight. Mort Cinder's concerns are far beyond those of the typical adventure serial, and if the book's ambitious reach exceeds its grasp, well, it sure is a lot more interesting to read than those Immortal Man comics were, y'know? Rather surprisingly, what's lacking from the best of Mort Cinder is a good main character. The hero who acts as the fulcrum of these adventures, standing stoic at our side as we ping-pong from the Aztec empire to the Byzantine era and onward, is a completely blank slate, never filled in beyond the most obvious particulars - loyal companion, hardened warrior, possessed of a sense of honor.
It's easy to understand the appeal a less iconic hero might have held for Oesterheld and Breccia, allowing the particular character of each individual story's setting to come to the fore rather than coloring them all with a single paint set. But that doesn't actually happen. Instead, every episode carries a sedate, unruffled tone that mutes the dramatic stakes of the proceedings. At the book's best moments, this makes it feel eerie, dreamlike - and at the low points, narcoleptic. Mort Cinder's lack of passion is especially baffling given the personal history of Oesterheld provided at the back of the book: an uncompromising anti-fascist during the Argentine military dictatorship of the late 1970s, the writer’s commitment to releasing revolutionary work never wavered until his and his family's 1977 "disappearance". The creator, evidently, was much more heroic than his creation.
In the end, perhaps, that is the point. Mort Cinder, both changeless and frustratingly changeable, charts a course through history that more or less echoes that of "Western Man" as constituted by the textbooks of the 1960s. Whether enslaved at the dawn of history, heroic in the classical period, or placidly dealing in slaves along the Golden Triangle during the Enlightenment, he makes no effort to challenge or change the arc of reality. His only acts of true agency are the murder of an escaping fellow convict to save the life of an abusive prison guard in the Teapot Dome era; and the meandering, vaguely philosophical rambles he engages in to frame his tales. Surrounded by plundered antiques in the curiosity shop that provides his modern-day home base, he dispassionately surveys a history of cruelty and suffering: a past spent obeying the violent dictates of authority, a present spent in desultory reminisce of same. Oesterheld may have been the hero we need, but Mort Cinder is the hero we deserve.