Mort Cinder is one of the giant works of the comics medium, that for the longest time has been out of reach even as an import. I’d only ever seen sections of it. Obviously never in english. But better late than never. Alberto Breccia was an atomic bomb to the style of comics. It actually says a lot that you can see his influence even in American comics without his work really ever being in English. His students and the people he influenced though were big enough that even with that barrier, you can still say Breccia has touched american comics. Even if it is more through artists like Jorge Zaffino and Jose Munoz. But even saying that, there’s nothing like the real thing. And a lot of what was lost in this translation via Munoz and Zaffino was the incredible texture Breccia works in. He really does carve light with whatever is at his disposal. And if Breccia is something of a mystery to the English speaking world, Hector Oesterheld, the writer for Mort Cinder is a complete unknown. For me the revelation of Mort Cinder isn’t so much Breccia, because I have seen Breccia. But Oesterheld, and what’s more seeing Breccia in conjunction with the words on the page. That is what is new for me. So that’s to say my interest here is the totality that is Mort Cinder.
Mort Cinder is a series of stories involving the titular character of Mort Cinder and his friend the antique collector Ezra Winston. The two of them warp through time and genre to tell gothic stories that largely orbit around an explored relationship to Authority. I think Derrida gives the perfect description of Mort Cinder as a character in his book Cinder where he describes the cinder as “what remains without remaining”. Cinder is a man who cannot die, and whose life is a constant state of resurrection from his undeadness. He lives in all of these different eras not as a king or anyone especially glorious. He is always somehow outside of things. Even as he is in them. He is what remains without remaining. He is death as witness through time, exhausted, coming home to his friend Ezra to tell the stories of his time.
All of these stories involve living with a kind of crushing authority. Mort never lives the life of a king. He’s always just below authority. Just outside of it. He is both always complicit and always subversive. He subverts authority by surviving it. Carrying with him this feeling of complicity. This guilt. In “Lead Eyes” our introduction to Mort, he is on the run from the Lead eyed men. These people whose imagination and memories have been sucked away so a devious hyper mind professor can ride them as he chooses, Get Out style. In Charlie’s Mother, he’s an infantry soldier blindly charging into battle. In “the Tower of Babel” he’s a slave, who becomes a master, who then destroys the masters. In “In the Penitentiary” he’s a prisoner, but he kills escaping prisoners once they become the guards. In “The Slave Ship”, he’s forced to work on a slaver ship, but then he becomes complicit in the slave trade, then he helps slaves escape, only to again betray one of the slaves--through every story there is this shifting role of resistance, and complicity--there’s a guilt that comes through it all, because Mort Survives it all, and it just becomes more weight that he has to carry as this never dying witness. He’s a haunted man and Breccia carves him as much out of shadow as he does light.
And while Mort Cinder is not quite as abstract as some other Breccia work like his awe inspiring HP Lovecraft adaptations, there’s a controlled fire here that is truly something to behold. It’s as if every panel Breccia reinvents the rules of mark making. His throws everything at the image, like there’s this palpable sense of straining against the limitations of ink itself. Every image is the truth of itself. And with that it is still completely coherent. His mastery of white space or is it his mastery of shadow? They ebb and flow back and forth between each other, is it the light that made this image or is it the darkness.
There is so much being expressed here. The strain of Mort Cinder’s face here. The violence underscored by these tire marked hatchings that whip around him like a halo--these smears of ink, and yet the control in the execution of the faces and the muscles--who has ever tried to say so much in a single panel? The quality of Mort Cinder against any other Breccia work I’ve seen, maybe Perramus is somewhat similar, but less expressive in this particular way, is that will to be free. To be so in control that you could seem out of control.
Mort Cinder is like Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster in some ways. He is this tall behemoth shamble of a man whose presence is so granite on the page that it is hard to believe Oesterheld and Breccia actually invented him, and that they didn’t actually just meet Mort Cinder someplace and decide to tell his story. That’s the feeling I get from him. He’s somewhat terrifying, but also sad. He’s a tragic figure. And there’s something elegiac in his relationship with Ezra Winston. Ezra is an elderly antique dealer, and in some ways he allows Cinder to express a kind of nostalgic sadness for all he’s seen and couldn’t prevent. You feel like we are starting at the last chapters of a great man’s life. Everything is looking back. Nostalgia comes about because when we reach the end, we are too scared to look forward, to dream forward, the future terrifies us, so we turn our backs to it, and look to the past as the present crumbles down around us. Cinder is a man who knows dying, but doesn’t know death. He’s a man who is existentially nostalgic. He’s neither the fire nor the ash.