Alcatena: The Argentinean Master


Let’s play a word association game. If I said the words ‘books’ and ‘Argentina’, most people would respond by saying ‘Borges’. And in fact, they would be right. Borges is just one of those writers that keeps repaying dividends the more you read (and reread) his works. The man creates labyrinths out of words that resound in the mind’s eye and trap you.  He’s a verbal Daedalus and a master manipulator. There is another master that hails from Argentina, who also traps people in his constructed worlds, but instead of words this other uses pens and inks. In my top ten list of illustrators, this gentleman ranks in the top five. Names like Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta and J. Allen St. John are some of the luminaries of the field when one thinks of sci-fi/ fantasy paperback illustrators; although, to be fair, Frazetta made his start in comics. The likes of Simon Bisley, John Buscema, Barry Windsor Smith and Tim Conrad were guys that made their mark on the industry primarily by drawing sword and sorcery comics. And what a mark they left. And like Frazetta, many were able to transcend their field and go on to illustrate paperbacks as well. Gray Morrow, Thomas Yeates and Mark Schultz have all graced paperback editions with their art, as well working in the medium of comic books. This other master from Argentina that I have been a fan of for some time could have easily excelled in both categories due to his unique style and detailed line work. However, to my knowledge, he has not reached the level of crossover success (at least in the United States) that would place him in that group among the likes of Frazetta or say, Gary Gianni. That is a sad state of affairs, in my humble opinion. The artist that I will be discussing certainly has the chops to keep up with any of those previously mentioned individuals and in addition, his execution is a hybrid style that combines surrealism with a sense of Orientalist fantasy.  

I first encountered the works of Enrique ‘Quique’ Alcatena back in the late 1990s. A comic book store I used to frequent was unfortunately going out of business and all of their merchandise was slashed down to liquidation prices.  I must have passed these books sitting on the shelf several times during my frequent visits to this particular shop and I was always intrigued by their evocative covers.  The books were published by a company called 4 Winds Publishing Group, who put out some high quality works during their limited lifespan. The titles were Moving Fortress and its sequel, Subterra. Moving Fortress was graced by a fully painted cover done by the incomparable Timothy Truman. This cover sported a giant eagle riding, desert nomad bristling with edged weapons. In the distance are what seem to be a several castle turrets, kicking up dust in its wake, propelled by giant tank treads. This is the selfsame ‘moving fortress’ of the book’s title. Subterra’s cover consisted of a giant bat creature perched atop a spire in a city composed entirely of Gothic architecture. The second I cracked these books, my mind was made up; especially at half price, I walked out with them. When I got the opportunity to finally read them (both in one sitting), I was flabbergasted. These two graphic novels were straight up sword and sorcery fiction, leaning slightly towards science fantasy. Written by Ricardo Barreiro, these two stories originally appeared in Argentina within the pages of the comic magazine, Skorpio. The books follow the picaresque adventures (and misadventures) of the rogue, Bask D’Avregaut. In Moving Fortress, Bask is captured and forced to work as a furnace stoker within the bowels of what is in essence a city sized war machine. The conflict of the story is akin to The Illiad, where the theft of a beautiful woman sparks off a war of titanic proportions between two kingdoms. The follow up novel Subterra picks up after the events of Moving Fortress, in which Bask is enmeshed in the political mechanizations of a kingdom subsisting completely underground. These two stories read like a fusion of the high adventure aspects of Robert E. Howard, the 1001 Nights flavored decadence of Clark Ashton Smith, mixed in with steampunk and Lovecraftian elements as well. Although these books are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, I would nonetheless strongly encourage fans of sword and sorcery fiction to pick up this duology. Ricardo Barreiro writes a pair of exciting adventure stories, but what makes these books special is the striking and downright bizarre imagery that Alcatena puts down on the page. He is one of those artists who is able to convey dense amounts of information nonverbally; the world building is mostly transmitted through the art.  The artistic aesthetic is distinctly non-Western; clothing, architecture, sculptures and reliefs of the various gods and monsters are informed by Arabic, Japanese and Southeast Asian cultures. A bold departure from the eternally recycled, Northern European trappings of countless Tolkien clones. 

Throughout the late ‘80s and the 1990s Alcatena was a regular contributing artist for both Marvel and DC Comics. He worked on several Batman Elseworlds books, Legends of the Dark Knight arcs, Hawkworld and Conan the Savage magazine.  He also illustrated Predator vs. Judge Dread (Dark Horse) and the follow up to The Spider miniseries, The Spider, Reign of the Vampire King (Eclipse).  In 2000, he released through French publisher Albin Michel, Les Carnets Secrets de Marco Polo (The Secret Notebooks of Marco Polo). Working as both writer and artist, this graphic novel is, in my view, Alcatena’s crowning achievement. This edition set me back a few dollars back in 2003; an oversized hardback that sports a red and gold foil cover with a depiction of a whirling dervish, and it is worth every penny.  My French is lacking, but this graphic novel tells of the secret history of the travels of Marco Polo and details all of his fantastic and supernatural encounters from the near East all the way through India and China; a Tim Powers novel by way of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a travelogue of a man’s journey through a chimerical Orient that never was. This book is overflowing with wonders; it is representative of a master at the top of his form.

For those reading this that can understand Spanish, an extended interview and quasi retrospective was released in 2015 entitled Alcatena: en blanco y negro and is readily available on YouTube. This documents Alcatena’s journey and process as an artist and reveals several of his influences. He cites four filmmakers in particular; Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Akira Kurosawa and David Lynch. This does make sense to a large degree considering that Alcatena is an artist that regularly blends heroic adventure fiction with heavy doses of strange and surrealistic imagery.  In a perfect world, Alcatena would be a household name here in the United States, gracing the shelves of bookstores and comic stores alike, just as he is in Europe and Argentina. Or if this is too much to ask for, perhaps some daring American or U.K. publishing house would take up the challenge and begin translating and packaging his works for an English speaking audience. This relatively unknown Argentinean Master deserves far better from the country that invented the medium of comic books, a field that he has contributed so much to.  I would encourage fans of adventure stories, comic books, old pulps, sword and sorcery and fantasy fiction to track down some of his works. Although his American back catalog is somewhat limited, an easy place to start would be in 1994’s Detective Comics (Elseworlds) Annual 7, in which Bruce Wayne dons the pirate cowl as Leatherwing and then checking out another Elseworlds collection, The Batman of Arkham. Both are readily available and reasonably priced through the online comic book back issue wholesaler of your choice or through Amazon. These inexpensive volumes convey Alcatena’s art style without delving too far into the outré. But for those hard core fantasy fans, I suggest trying to locate copies of Hidden Fortress, Subterra and Marco Polo. These works are representative of an Alcatena at his most imaginative and creative state; these works will stay with you long after you have finished reading them.