The Nostradamus of Non-Sports!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2005 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
Most card collectors prefer domestic cards. A small percentage also collect foreign issues, but that usually means English, Canadian, and Australian cards. Only a tiny slither bother with cards printed in other languages. The truth is, there aren't many good non-English non-sports sets. For example, there is only one original Spanish sci-fi set that I know about. That one-of-a-kind series is the subject of this article. And the real life story of its author is as dramatic as any fantasy he wrote.
Hector German Oesterheld is considered the father of the Argentine "historieta" (comic). He was born in 1919 and educated in the field of Geology. His science background helped him write realistic science fiction. His most famous series was called El Eternauta (The Eternaut). It was an illustrated novel about an alien invasion where the bad guys win! This 1957 Opus is considered a milestone event in Spanish graphic novels. It was published in short installments in the magazine Hora Cero (Zero Time). But it was only the beginning for Oesterheld. He went on to write Sherlock Time, a story about a super human detective who worked in many worlds and times, and Mort Cinder, a story about an immortal who lived with the old antiquary Ezra Winston in London.
Oesterheld was a master of other genres as well. Sargento (Sgt.) Kirk was a Western filled with anti-heroes. Ernie Pike was about a WW2 war correspondent who dared to humanize the Nazis and Japs. Evita and Che celebrated the lives of famous (and controversial) Leftest icons. There was also Ticonderoga, Watami, Cayena, Bull Rocket and many others. He created countless characters and scenarios, yet he seemed comfortable working with all of them.
Adventure comics are usually about good guys vs. bad guys. But it was a different story with Oesterheld. His villains were not all bad, and his good guys were flawed, sometimes becoming rather evil in the end. It's a cynical but realistic evolution that we see played out in the news as today's heroes often become corrupt and embroidered in scandal.
Another headline we see a lot of lately is that of terrorism and bombing campaigns. Both subjects played an important part in the tragic fate of Oesterheld. But first, let's turn to one of the happier chapters in his life: His trading card series.
Platos Voladores Al Ataque! (Flying Saucers Attack) is a 100 card series inspired by Mars Attacks. It was issued during the 1970s in a very novel fashion: Only one card was inserted along with three sports cards per pack of Super Futbol (Super Soccer) cards. The artwork by Alberto Breccia wasn't of the caliber of the great Norm Saunders, but Oesterheld's script was far more sophisticated. Check it out:
Aliens from Pluto discover that human heart transplants allow them to live 10,000 years or more, almost like immortals. So all the Plutonians want transplants. They invade the Earth to harvest the hearts. They have weird weapons, like the Terror Blaze and the Super-neutron Ray. The Earth resists heroically, but alien underground digging machines produce huge earthquakes and massive destruction.
The invaders produce new weapons, like the Anger Ray, which transforms tame Earth animals like cows and sheep in to very dangerous beasts. The plants are also transformed, allowing them to catch and consume humans. Several kinds of carnivorous dinosaurs are regenerated and run amok. Earthlings counter-attack using super-tanks, but they are smashed by a meteor-rain produced by the invaders. The aliens also use a Size Ray that makes insects and animals hungry giants. A young boy is also effected by the ray. He uses his size to fight the invaders, but is eventually killed for his efforts.
Saturnites, the natural enemies of the Plutonians, arrive to help the Earthlings. But that help is actually self serving: Saturn wants our planet too, and they attack with a giant laser ring that cuts though cities and kills millions. The Earth is almost destroyed. London, Paris, and Rio are erased. The Saturnites turn their attention to Buenos Aires...
Meanwhile, a group of kids and their teacher devise a plan to take the war to Saturn. They have secret designs to a device which the inventor claims can actually alter a planet's orbit. They rocket to Saturn and use the machine to push the planet into the path of Pluto. When the two worlds collide, we discover that a species can only survive as long as their birth planet does, even if they exist on another planet. All the invaders on Earth die and humanity is saved. The young team returns home as heroes and an arduous reconstruction begins.
Even with the happy ending, it's a depressing tale of mass death and destruction, especially for a card set. It follows an eerie parallel to events that soon occurred in Argentina... and claimed the life of the author. In 1976, while we were celebrating 200 years of democracy, Argentina's government was overthrown by a military coup. The soldiers were reacting to a terrorist campaign by the Montoneros, a group that sought to establish a "Socialist Fatherland" lead by Juan Domingo Peron and supported by the Soviets. Peron had ruled a progressive Fascist government from 1946 to 1955, but was exiled to Spain. His supporters wanted him back, and started assassinating anyone who's death might destabilize the government or get the US to stop supporting it. They murdered American executives from Ford, GM, and Chrysler, and kidnapped others to raise money, including an Exxon executive who was ransomed for $14.2 million in 1974. Rich local business families were also targeted. One kidnapping resulted in a record breaking $60 million ransom. Then the bombing campaign began, killing 18 and injuring 66 in one day alone.
When the new military government seized control, they were hungry for revenge. They began a "Dirty War" that lasted from 1976 to 1981 and "disappeared" an estimated 14,000 suspects. Some were held for months on end without charges, others were flown out to sea in helicopters and interrogated next to an open hatchway. Oesterheld was a well known Communist sympathizer. In 1968, he wrote and published a comic book biography of Che, the famous communist comrade of Castro. He hoped it would promote Che's revolutionary goals in South America, but now Oesterheld's comic was dangerous to own-- let alone, publish. Oesterheld disappeared along with four of his daughters. One of them was pregnant and gave birth while in prison. Such children were usually adopted by soldiers, but this child was lucky: It was returned to Oesterheld's widow by fans of the comic genius that worked in the very government that jailed him. Oesterheld is rumored to have continued writing scripts on scraps of paper between interrogations. But those scripts, along with the author, were never seen again.
Could Oesterheld have known his own country would soon be in the grips of a war as bitter as the one depicted in his card set? Did the Plutonians symbolize the Americans, a foreign force that used its technological advantage to dominate and exploit Argentina? Did the Saturnites symbolize the Soviets, sworn enemies of the US and would-be allies of Argentina, but also treacherous partners hungry for conquest once their main advisory was beaten? Was the mass murder and destruction depicted in the cards prophetic of the suffering Argentina would endure during the "Dirty War"? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions were lost along with the author and his daughters.
Democracy was reluctantly restored in 1983 after the disastrous defeat of the Argentine Army by the British in the Falkland's war. An amnesty was granted to make the transition possible, but once the military surrendered absolute power, enemies and activists sought to undo the deal. It was overturned by Argentina's Supreme Court on June 14th, 2005. Although reversing the amnesty could have the unintended effect of discouraging other dictators like Castro from ever leaving office, we can pray it might lead to information about the final resting place of South America's best comic book and non-sports trading card writer: Hector Oesterheld, R.I.P.
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