A Lifelong Passion
A Londoner from Argentina, Oscar Zarate’s enthusiasm for comics has shaped his life and fuelled collaborations with Alan Moore and Alexei Sayle, and now his first solo graphic novel, The Park. By Paul Gravett
No youthful dreamer in the ’50s could resist those comic strip advertisements for the PanAmerican School Of Art in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. The short strips claimed to be “a real story” about “How An Artist is Born”? It opens with a 17-year-old who supports his family by labouring in a factory but has a talent for drawing. Sending off for the free introduction, he is accepted onto the “Twelve Famous Artists” correspondence course. On graduation his teachers recommend him to a magazine, where in no time he becomes a success, creating comic characters and sketching glamorous models in his studio. The last panel shows the likely lad beaming and relaxing with his pretty wife over a poolside drink, saying, “I feel really happy. This profession is marvellous. It gives me lots of satisfaction.”
A young Oscar Zarate couldn’t resist. He was convinced that, “Fame, fortune, silk dressing gowns and beautiful women were bound to follow! My parents were very supportive as long as I did my homework. I put my heart and soul into this one-year course but despite getting my diploma, I knew I was nowhere near good enough. However I found out something very important – learning to draw doesn’t finish when you get your diploma. Drawing is a lifelong project.”
ch ildhood dream
Among Oscar’s tutors were Alberto Breccia and Hugo Pratt, two of the medium’s greatest maestros. A lover of comics since before he could read, Zarate once felt that imported American adventure strips like Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, Bob Schoenke’s Laredo Crockett, Frank Godwin’s Rusty Riley, or Roy Crane’s Captain Easy were more accomplished than anything made in Argentina. But his views changed in 1953, when, aged 11, he discovered the atypical Western Sergeant Kirk written by Héctor G Oesterheld and drawn by Pratt in Misterix weekly. “Sergeant Kirk was a soldier of the 7th Cavalry, who breaks his sword, quits the regiment and decides to live among the Red Indians. This was subversive stuff! Hugo Pratt’s art moved me so deeply. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to make people feel what Pratt made me feel.”
Leaving school at the age of 14 (secondary education was not compulsory then in Argentina), Zarate landed his first job in the industry through a friend as an errand boy for Editorial Abril, a publisher of weekly comics, including Misterix, the most popular selling 250,000 copies every week.
“One of my jobs was to go to the artists’ homes to collect the artwork for the following issue. Every week I went into the homes of my gods – Pratt, Breccia, Carlos Freixas, Solano López, Carlos Roume. I began showing them my drawings and I learnt a lot from their very patient comments. I was in heaven. And every month I got my salary as well.”
In 1957, Oesterheld left to set up his own comics publishing house, Editorial Frontera, and many of Abril’s top artists followed him. “They knew that Oesterheld would provide them with the best stories and they would become better artists. Oesterheld changed the landscape of how to tell stories. No matter which genre, he created excellent human characters. When they opened their mouths, you believed in them.” Zarate found work at Frontera too: “By this time I had progressed to sticking the balloons on the frames and drawing the tails!”
During this period, however, comics were being criticised for corrupting young people, while other influences were distracting Zarate. “I was reading contemporary fiction, Karl Marx and looking at painters like Van Gogh,
Modigliani, Lautrec and Japanese artists. I watched not only American movies but the films of the French Nouvelle Vague [New Wave]. Gradually I questioned my childhood dreams and thought comics were ‘inferior’ to ‘real’ art. This was one of the most distressing times in my life, my first real crisis. I quit comics, or at least the idea of being a comics artist.”
Zarate got his secondary school qualifications and after studying architecture, ended up in advertising. “That was the level of my confusion; with all my left-wing ideology, I became a very successful art director in the Walter Thompson advertising agency.”
Turning his back on this success, Zarate made the life-changing decision to leave his homeland in early 1971. “The political situation in Argentina was getting worse, the right-wing military was in power, friends were arrested and some disappeared. It was better to leave the country, hoping that eventually everything would improve and I could return.”
Travelling around Europe, he arrived in London in May 1971, where he was surprised to find an alternative culture close to his sensibility. “Meanwhile in Argentina, more people were being killed by the military and some of my friends escaped to Europe. It was no time to think of returning. The birth of my son in London made the decision for me. I stayed in London for good.”
Looking for work, he approached British publishers with whom he shared some political empathy, like The Writers and Readers Co-Op, who commissioned him to illustrate Introducing Freud with co-founder and writer Richard Appignanesi. His first graphic book in England has been a bestseller for 35 years, translated into 24 languages.
“Around the late ’70s, Britain was a difficult place to make my own comics, so I adapted Shakespeare’s Othello with the complete text and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. It was fun but I wanted to tell stories with no specific roadmap or genre, stories about people I can believe in. I wanted to find out, page after page, what it is to be a human being.”
Rather than adapting another dead playwright, Zarate began seeking out living writers to collaborate with. In 1984 he contacted alternative comedian Alexei Sayle after reading his travelogue parody Train To Hell. “I thought what he was saying in his words had to do with what I was saying in my pictures. The starting point was something on London. We’d both moved here 16 years ago, Alexei from Liverpool.”
Gestating the project together and responding to Thatcher’s Britain, they released Geoffrey The Tube Train And The Fat Comedian in 1987, part socio-political commentary, part Sayle’s skewed autobiography, part warped version of Thomas The Tank Engine. Zarate explains, “The book tackles serious issues. It’s not fatalistic, it’s pointing out what is going on. It’s more like a mental state than any specific topical satire.”
Next, Zarate connected with Alan Moore in 1988 post- Watchmen, while contributing to the anthology AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Gay Homophobia), published by Moore’s Mad Love to protest against Clause 28. Zarate’s initial spark – an adult pursued by a child – so intrigued Moore, that the two of them began evolving it co-operatively through a synergistic meeting of minds into Small Killing, published in 1991. The story concerns Timothy Hole, an advertising executive who has, as Zarate comments, “...countenanced such a big betrayal, that he loses himself. He goes back to the place where he was born looking for something of what he used to be.” This allegorical, redemptive critique of callous
I can see my work improving. I’m even more in love with comics than before
Thatcherite values stands up as one of Moore’s most singular and significant non-genre graphic novels.
Zarate would conspire with Moore once more on an unofficial coda to From Hell, charting Moore’s state of mind on visiting the Spitalfields pub where Jack the Ripper picked his victims. “I Keep Coming Back” ran in It’s Dark In London in 1997, an ambitious collection of new graphic short stories by acclaimed comics scribes such as Neil Gaiman and writers new to the medium like Iain Sinclair and Stella Duffy. Zarate also edited it and in 2012 expanded it for SelfMadeHero’s re-issue.
By far Zarate’s most productive collaborator is his fellow countryman and former colleague in advertising, writer Carlos Sampayo. Another Argentine exile, Sampayo settled in Spain, where he scripted short pieces drawn by Zarate for Alter Linus magazine in Italy, later translated in in Britain. When the anticipated readership of adult graphic novels in the UK proved slow to materialise, Zarate sought opportunities in French-language comics and resumed his partnership with Sampayo. As with Moore, Zarate works with Sampayo “in a very organic, natural way. I present Carlos with an idea and if Carlos says yes, we begin slowly building a story around it.”
Zarate’s latest might have also debuted in France, but he was attracted to the fresh energy in the British scene. “I see a growing readership with a genuine interest for comics telling straight fiction and a new breed of publishers too.”
The Park is set in and around Hampstead Heath, which Zarate views as “a miracle happening every day in North London, where you can get lost in its woods for a few minutes, and dream about a time before industrial life, about yourself in history and an oak 400 years old telling you everything is all right.”
The book contrasts this serenity with one incident which triggers repercussions among two fathers and their offspring. “These four characters respond to the aggression according to their total makeup and social position. Their disagreement gives the pulse to the story.”
The Park also addresses tensions, still prevalent today, between generations and classes. “Contrary to what many people want us to believe, the class struggle is still on. It may take a different, more confusing form, but issues of inequality and abuse of power are as bad as ever, if not worse.”
Zarate is now entering his seventies and is in his prime. “I’m working again with Richard Appignanesi on a book about Sigmund Freud’s first case. And ideas are floating around my head for my next solo book. I’m charged, I can see my work improving, I’m even more in love with comics than before. This is where I love to be now, writing and drawing.”