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

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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.”

Park life

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.”

Above: The Park’s beau­ti­ful wa­ter­coloured pan­els de­pict how Lon­don­ers in­ter­act with the green oa­sis that is Hamp­stead Heath.

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