Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

Even Comics has his political refugee: Francisco Solano López, 1928 – 2011

He may be best known in the U.S. for the many (stunningly drawn) X-rated comics he created for international consumption late in his 50-year career, most particularly the long-running Young Witches, but Argentina’s Francisco Solano López was a titan of South American comics, on a level with the great Alberto Breccia, the temporary honorary Argentinean (during the 1950s) Hugo Pratt, and the hugely influential writer Hector Oesterheld (who collaborated with all three).

Solano López was a workhorse comfortable in any genre, whose muscular, realistic artwork was instantly recognizable by the detailed textures created by clusters of short pen lines that gave it a noticeable resemblance to John Severin’s; his signature work in his native country was the ongoing science fiction series El Eternauta (created by his friend and collaborator Oesterheld), to which he returned periodically throughout his career.

El Eternauta told the story of an alien invasion of Buenos Aires from the point of view of a group of survivors. Its enduring image of men in suits traveling through a poisonous, weaponized snowfall was a sign of the still-young Solano López's growing strength as an image maker. In addition to the thrilling nature of the story and the chops put on display by the writer and artist, El Eternauta trafficked in an obviously rich series of potential and realized metaphors: the invasion of Buenos Aires by an outside force, the monsters and creatures the resistance fighters encountered, the ultimate enemy controlling these things from afar.
 Oesterheld would later rewrite and aim the story more squarely at political targets; its sequels, not all of which were drawn by Solano López, straddled the line between science fiction adventure and political satire, often to the dissatisfaction of one part of the audience or another. But because of the skill of its practitioners in executing the story, the hero-as-group at the story's heart and Solano López's haunting imagery, El Eternauta remains one of the most influential and most highly regarded of all Argentine comics series. The original serialization ended in 1959. The story was revived in its own magazine in 1961, soon before a national economic crisis contributed to the closure of Ediciones Frontera. A more stridently politicized remake of El Eternauta without Solano López's involvement came in 1969, and a sequel featuring the artist's work began in the 1975. Solano López would later work on sequels created after Oesterheld's disappearance and presumed death.

Like most Argentineans, Solano López was affected by that country’s political turmoil and he was forced into exile several times when the authorities started casting a suspicious eye on his work, which often featured themes of corruption and repression — themes that flowered most distinctly in the comics he created during these exiles to Spain and elsewhere, including the brutal, dark detective series Evaristo (written by Sinner writer Carlos Sampayo and published as Deep City in the U.S. in 1986) and especially two deeply despairing works written by his son Gabriel, Historias Tristes and the standalone graphic novel Ana, which ends with the naked corpse of his heroine on a garbage dump, half eaten by vultures.

Solano López must also be credited with employing, training and encouraging a young cartoonist who would go on to become one of the most honored artists in the comics world: José Muñoz.
It was during this period of publication in the U.S. that Solano López became known as one of the best artists in the world working in erotica, splitting efforts between Fantagraphics' Eros line and comparable international outlets for that material like Spain's Kiss Comix. In his last two decades, Solano López (who had returned to his now less perilous homeland) became more of an international gun-for-hire, gamely entering the X-rated comics field with his series El Instituto (Young Witches in the U.S., as published by EROS Comix), a cheerfully perverse saga of supernaturally-powered sisters that morphed into a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style extravaganza featuring historical characters behaving very libidinously, as well as the lush, full-color Sexy Symphonies. Solano López later won a Best Erotic Author prize for that work and the "Silly Symphony" full-color comics (this may have been another collaboration with son Gabriel). He also drew an adaptation of the classic horror movie Freaks, as adapted by Jim Woodring (for the Fantagraphics imprint Monster Comics), and returned, beginning in 2001, one last time to his beloved Eternauta, now written by his regular collaborator Pablo Maiztegui (POL).

Those that worked with Solano López in the U.S. remember the man in addition to the artistic achievements. "Professionally, he was a delight to deal with. Personally, he was even more delightful," said Gary Groth. "He stayed at my home once in the early '90s, and he was sweet, funny, and gregarious. I remember a wonderful dinner we had at my home barbecuing ribs and talking late into the night."

Ryder Windham was an editor at Fantagraphics and Dark Horse and was Solano López's primary contact at the Seattle-based alternative comics publisher. "It was while working on Freaks that I really got to know Solano and appreciate his work even more. So when he visited the US in 1994, when I worked at Dark Horse Comics, I was happy that he agreed to stay at my place for several days. Robert Boyd and I had great fun showing him around town. We went to the Columbia River Gorge, the zoo at Washington Park, and drank beer at the Goose Hollow Inn. He loved looking at women, and I got the impression that they found him adorable. We threw a big party for him."

Boyd remembered that same party. "Ryder hosted a party in his honor. It was a few comics types and the usual collection of young singles who came to Ryder's parties. Joe Sacco and Thom Powers cornered Solano because they wanted to talk about comics and politics, but Solano, then in his mid-60s, was more interested in chatting with the 20-something girls there. I remember he found one who spoke Italian and surprised her with his Italian flirtations." He added, "Solano was 35 years older than me, but I felt a strong connection with him -- he was charming, a delightful dining companion, worldly but unpretentious."

Windham remember the artist's hands, and a specific act of kindness. "Solano López was doing a pencil sketch at the dining table in my apartment in Portland, Oregon, in 1994, when I noticed his hands looked younger than mine, which was kind of annoying because he had a few decades on me. I said, 'How old were you when your hands stopped aging?" He thought this was very funny. But it's true, he had lovely hands, not a mark or age-betraying wrinkle on them.

"After I moved to New York City and married, he asked me to send a photo of my wife, Anne, and over a year later, in May 1997, I was surprised to receive a pencil sketch of Anne based on the photo. He wrote, 'It has been a huge pleasure to try and make the portrait of Anne. I sincerely hope you like it.'

"He was a real sweetheart, and I miss him very much."

Sources: Tom Spurgeon (Comics Reporter), Kim Thompson (TCJ)

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