There have been a lot of “Kings of Black and White” in terms of comics art: Sienkiewicz, Toth, Mignola, Samnee, Bolland — you can take your pick of the many names that have graced the pages of comic books all over the world and find someone who could arguably be crowned the Official King of Black and White Comics Work. To truly reach the level that these greats have achieved, though, one first has to acknowledge their predecessor to the crown — a title that lands almost solely on the head of the late Argentinian artist Alberto Breccia, whose chiaroscuro inks and deft brushwork set the tone for an often-overlooked corner of comics history.
We should go ahead and accept up front that, considering that he was a part of the founding of the prestigious Pan-American School of Art alongside fellow artist and figurehead Hugo Pratt, Breccia’s grossly forgotten history is a gut-wrenching problem for the medium as a whole. We should also agree, on a more positive note, that Breccia is easily one of the most talented inkers within the past century of the comics industry, with a subtlety to his grays and blacks that is seldom harnessed even by the world’s most accomplished fine artists.
Obviously, such boldness and grace in equal measure could only come from the most humble, and ambitious, beginnings. Born in Uruguay, but raised in Buenos Aires where he lived out the rest of his days, Breccia rose quickly into publication with his first drawings at the age of 17 while he was working in a meat plant. With tons of potential and natural skills apparent on the page, his talents were soon picked up by a number of small commissioning publications such as TitBits Magazine — a British weekly magazine who were best known for short humor strips, a task that Breccia liked best at the time — and El Gorrión where he created comic strips such as Kid Río Grande and El Vengador (based on the popular novel of the same name), and several others.
The years saw Breccia develop something close to the style most people remember him by, as his inks became darker and a bold, graphic expressionism began to show itself in his work. This latter development was what saw Breccia made an honorary member of the Venice Group — a highly influential association of ex-pat artists comprised on Francisco Solano Lopez, Arturo Perez del Castillo, and most notably, Hugo Pratt — where not only was Breccia pushed to further greatness but, notably, almost gave up art because of it. Breccia has noted in previous interviews for having said “[Pratt] said to me ‘You are producing shit and it is unworthy of you’ […] I did not speak to him for a long time, but slowly came to realize that he was right.”
The late 1950s continued to bring new influences to Breccia’s work, linking him with writer Hector German Osterheld — a fellow creator who was bogged down by the repetitive, glossy, dull themes being published by mainstream popular magazines of the time — and whose publishing house Frontera Editorial would house many of Breccia’s most regarded works such as Sherlock Time for Hora Cero magazine.
Around this period, Breccia’s increasing penchant for dark, moody imagery began to take hold in new ways, with conceptual changes making a marked turn on new pages, and creating images that, for all that it took to try and keep a-political in an unrestful political period of Argentina’s history, inspired fear and vulnerability alongside Osterherld’s oblique and thinly-veiled commentary.
A man has to eat, however, and while the publishing houses of his home country of Argentina were attractive, the pay rates of British publishing company Fleetway productions called his name in a way that, when rolled off the tongue, was pronounced “a decent mortgage payment”. While this period of his career didn’t last long, it’s widely accepted that Breccia’s work on Fleetway’s lighthearted — and surprisingly clean-line — Westerns and World War II stories are second to none.
The death of Breccia’s wife, however, harbored a new, darker, feel to his work. Depressed and filled with grief, Breccia poured himself into his latest morbid story with Osterheld, Mort Cinder, where the main character — created in his own likeness — paints a deeper and more harrowing narrative of Breccia’s bereaved outlook at the time. His techniques had become more aggressive with shadowed faces and odd points of view for the reader, but furthermore, Breccia’s methods to create the art themselves had become more experimental and bizarre; using traditionally non-artistic tools to create overwhelmingly dramatic expressionistic art that became a touchstone for decades of creators who preceded him.
Breccia’s career flourished, of course, both with the assistance in opening into Instituto Panamericano del Arte as well as the many titles he would later produce in his personalized chiaroscuro style, including El Eternatua, Un Tal Daneri, Perramus (inspired by a poem against dictatorship by Juan Sasturain), adaptations of many works by H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, and — of course — The Life of Che Guevara, a project created with Osterheld once again; a title that would haunt Breccia with paranoia until his dying day, hiding the art proofs in his garden from fear of being arrested by the secret police at any moment for exposing the true stories of the revolutionary’s life for all to see.
Though Breccia died in 1993, his artistic legacy is something that lives on in every artist whose inks are determined to evoke deeper, richer emotions. While the title of King of Black and White might seem something of a moving target in an age where our cups run over with talent and creativity in comics art, there’s something to be said for tipping that cup in remembrance — and in reverence — to the King that started it all.