Mort Cinder — the character, not the book — offers more questions than answers, but that’s how it should be. Mort Cinder, the book, written by Argentinean journalist Hector Oesterheld and drawn by Uruguay-born and Argentine-raised cartoonist Alberto Breccia is probably just as mysterious as the man it is named for. This new Fantagraphics collection brings the Mort Cinder stories together in English for the first time. They originally appeared from 1962 to 1964 and are legendary for their importance to comics history, so the book serves an archival purpose as well as one of entertainment.
Perhaps that’s the biggest surprise of all — the entertainment part. It’s a strip that’s aged incredibly well, and there are aspects to the character that are very much still stirring in modern comics.
We aren’t introduced to the character Mort Cinder at first, but rather his sidekick, the antiquarian Ezra Winston in a light horror story in which mysterious hieroglyphics bring strange visions. Cinder arrives in the narrative from a distance in the next story, a murderer who has been hanged, which Ezra reads about in a newspaper. But the macabre story begins to insinuate itself on Ezra’s own life through an antiquarian coincidence, and Ezra is visited by groups of strange skeletal men who lurk eerily and lead to Cinder’s resurrection and the secret of the so-called Leaden-Eyed Men.
This first full story is my favorite of the bunch, an epic that is unique in its mysterious plot elements and atmospheric weirdness, evocative of the time the story was created but with a universal quality that maintains fascination.
Ezra and his new friend Mort Cinder contend with other strange situations, often brought about by Ezra’s acquisition of some antiquity. Sometimes these lead to not adventures, but revelations from Cinder, who is quick to tell his biography to his new friend in the second full story, “The Tower of Babel,” which recounts Cinder’s origin during the building of that fabled structure.
As an origin, it doesn’t explain everything, only how Cinder’s apparent immortality started, and many of the other tales he passes onto Ezra just adds more mystery as to how he gets in the situations he does. Through different eras, Cinder is revealed as a slave and a warrior at various times, involved in dark endeavors like the slave trade, serving time in an American jail, and more. Connecting the dots between these portions of his life is impossible and part of the fun.
As a type, Cinder lives on the form of characters like John Constantine and, especially, the Phantom Stranger, mysterious beings who dart in and out of our own reality as they take part in universes and dimensions we can’t perceive. But given the time the stories were created, well before share universes were the standard of presentation and over-indulging was the typical way of revealing mysteries, Cinder is very spare in what it gives you. Weirdly, it’s much more aligned with British TV fixtures of the time, Quatermass and Doctor Who, both preferring to present their main characters in fantastic situations that unveil what information about them you are fed.
Regardless, it’s incredible fun and a type of comic you never see anymore in this era of taking narratives too far and turning them inside out routinely.
Breccia was the master of the Italian drawing technique known as chiaroscuro, which uses the contrast between light and dark as its portrayal of action. Partly this puts Mort Cinder very in line with other comics of its time, particularly those that were serialized and appeared in newspapers, magazines, that sort of thing, but Breccia’s images can be more complex and evocative than others you might encounter at the time, bringing a fullness to it that makes it equal to the story. What the script doesn’t tell you, Breccia does, and he’s ready to match any genre Oesterheld throws at him — suspense, historical adventure, horror, even science fiction — with a sincere and unpretentious mastery.