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August 15, 2011

Francisco Solano López, 1928-2011



Francisco Solano López, the acclaimed Argentine artist who published with an array of international publishers including those in the U.S., died on August 12 from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 83 years old.

imageFrancisco Solano López was born in 1928. His first published comics work came in 1953, when the young artist signed a contract with the publishing company Columba. His first assignment was with the writer Roger Pla on the feature Perico Y Guillermina. Solano López met the writer Hector German Oesterheld when he was assigned to scripts at Abril. They began a series Bull Rocket in the publication Misterix. Oesterheld recruited Solano López as a co-founder of Frontera, a publishing effort that the writer funded and ran with his brother. Among their collaborations were the character Joe Zonda and the series for which Solano López is best known, El Eternauta. That series debuted in September 1957.

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.

It was in part because of the political undertones of El Eternauta, particularly its commentary on Argentine and Chilean politics, that saw Solano López flee to Spain out of fears of reprisal. This was the first of two extended periods away from his homeland, although wherever he traveled he remained distinctly an Argentine both in mannerism and art style. "He was the absolute exemplar of the courtly South American gentleman, an enthusiastic and ultra-reliable professional, and an artist to the core," wrote Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson in his tribute.

While in Europe, Solano began to provided more work for Fleetway, a relationship that would last for decades off and on and see the artist illustrate several comics series including Kelly's Eye, Pete's Pocket Army, and The Drowned World.

In the 1970s, Solano López returned to Argentina and picked up work on older series such as the El Eternauta sequel (the property was now with Editorial Records) and newer ones such as Slot-Barr and Evaristo. The latter of those two new efforts paired him with the writer Carlos Sampayo. Evaristo was a series of short stories about a police commissioner in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. That work was the basis of Solano López's eventual first major entry into the North American market, the 1986 Catalan publication Deep City. Says arts writer and former comics editor Robert Boyd. "I wish someone would retranslate and reprint this book. These stories are extremely abbreviated -- so much is left out. As you reread them (as I often do), you fill in the blanks. The richness of Solano's art helps you. He had a gritty, earthy realistic style. It's a brilliant work -- a classic." Boyd praised Lopez as an urban artist whose cityscapes were specifically South American, and particularly evocative of his longtime home Buenos Aires.


Despite this facility with urban storytelling, both Boyd and eventual Solano López publisher Gary Groth compared Solano López's artwork to that of famed U.S. western and war artist John Severin. Groth: His work always reminded me of a more proletarian John Severin; just as Severin captured the environment of dust and dirt in his Westerns, Solano captured the grit and texture of urban life -- and like Severin, he could adapt his style to humor."

"When I think of Argentine artists, I think of artists who were influenced by Milton Caniff," Boyd told CR. "Lots of chiaroscuro. Alberto Breccia and Hugo Pratt seemed to use Caniff as sort of a starting point, though both evolved in very different directions. Ditto with Jose Munoz. But Solano approached it differently. His art felt more like John Severin's than Milton Caniff's -- although I think Solano was a better artist than Severin."

Fleeing Argentina once again at the end of the decade because of further political turmoil, Solano López set up shop once more in Spain. He arranged for the continued serialization of his then-current work in two Italian magazines: LancioStory and Skorpio.

imageBy the time the 1990s rolled around, Solano López was in the midst of a relatively short but fruitful period working for a variety of North American publishers. Having already run a piece of the work in a 1987 issue of its anthology Prime Cuts, in 1991 Fantagraphics re-issued a 1978 Solano López comic featuring a script from his son Gabriel, Ana. A brutally-told story again using both offbeat science fiction and a series of events loaded with metaphorical power, Ana was distinguished by Solano López's stunning portraiture work. Much of Ana is told in the faces and figures of its participants, giving it a affecting fragility not always found in politically oriented comics. While Solano López certainly had the skill to make idealized forms, something he would put on display to great effect later in his career, many of the characters in Ana have a real-world, beaten-up quality, and its his evocation of what co-publisher Gary Groth called "the rot of politics" on what was essentially a canvas of flesh that made Ana a ruthless, unsettling work.

imageSolano López collaborated with the cartoonist Jim Woodring on Freaks, derived from Tod Browning's film, for the ill-fated Fantagraphics Monster imprint. There were four issues, published in 1992. The artist Jim Blanchard, who art directed the series, remembers the artist's general skill and the facility with which he worked. "I saw a few quick portraits he did of Fanta employees that were terrific -- his drawing talent was immense, and it seemed like he cranked out detailed, high-quality comic pages faster than anyone."

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. His best known series for Eros were the Young Witches books, Young Witches 2 in particular bringing an incredibly high quality of art to its imaginative series of couplings and depredations. 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).


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."

Solano López did receive some work from Dark Horse, illustrating a Robert Boyd short story in Dark Horse Presents, an Aliens story, and working on several issues of an abortive relaunch of the Jonny Quest property. "I wrote [the short story 'Buoy 77'] with the intent of giving him some work, but really I was the main beneficiary--my amateurish hard-boiled story was immensely improved by his brilliant artwork." López also returned to work for Fleetway during this period, doing six-page "Nipper" stories for Roy Of The Rovers monthly, and provided inside art and cover illustrations for Bram Stoker's Burial Of The Rats at the short-lived Roger Corman's Cosmic Comics.

One of his final original comics to appear in the US was a two-page contribution to Dark Horse's 9/11 anthology with writer Pablo Maiztegui. As Boyd was quick to point out, the work López did that has been translated into English or meant primarily for English-language audience is "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of his overall career output. "There's so much he did that should be in print here. And maybe some of it will be published. I'm only sorry that Solano won't be here in person to receive the praise his work so richly deserves."

imageWindham 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."

Solano López was briefly hospitalized after the hemorrhage in the Italiano Hospital in Buenos Aires. It was believed he had been in ill heath for a while.

In addition to son Gabriel, Argentine news sources mention another survivor: a daughter Maria, who was with him near the time of his passing.


* from El Eternauta: a great López face
* photo of the artist provided by Ryder Windham; my thanks to Windham for this one and the one below
* a cover to one of the magazines serializing El Eternauta
* Ana
* one of the Freaks issues
* from the Young Witches cycle of stories
* Ryder Windham and F. Solano López in Portland, 1994
* another great López face
* self-portrait of the artist at his drawing table



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