By Alan Hebden and Carlos Ezquerra
Returning to a nation that once kept kept him as a slave, an avenging fury has swept north from Mexico. The United States are tearing themselves apart, providing plenty of work for a mercenary who never wastes a shot. History remembers the American Civil War as being fought between the north and south. It forgets that there was a third side, and his name was El Mestizo!
The Treasury of British Comics collects this series from the pages of Battle, where it was originally published in 1977. Regular readers of these archive publications will by now be familiar with the British anthology format. As with his stablemates, El Mestizo had just three or four pages a week to grab the readers’ attentions and get them crawling back for more. Here this was achieved through a form of brute-force storytelling. Names, scenarios, and twisting plot points are bluntly blurted out to clear the way for the main attraction; gun slinging, bolas throwing, railway exploding action!
At its simplest, El Mestizo is a classic Spaghetti Western; a laconic mercenary hunting his quarries with only a horse and moral code for company. Rather than visit endless identical frontier towns, however, writer Alan Hebden decided to throw his protagonist into the heart of the American Civil War. This decision, and the unique perspective of the central protagonist, turns El Mestizo into something far more engaging.
The European creators both bring an outsider’s view to events usually dominated by American interpretation. This distance is enhanced as we follow Mestizo, a multiracial man of African and Mexican parentage. Mestizo can see through the comforting narrative of a heroic north fighting to save the slaves from the south. Whatever the outcome of the war, Mestizo knows black people and indigenous people are unlikely to find much peace in the resulting reunited states. A comment by Mestizo that “…the British are the same as me… they don’t take sides!” forces the reader to compare Mestizo’s personal hard-won freedom of choice with the belated support and passive attitudes of those claiming to oppose slavery. If the plot is propelled though whiplash dialogue and convenience, then it is the points left unsaid that give the reader plenty to ponder.
It is hard to talk about artist Carlos Ezquerra without reflecting on his recent passing. Though he had a good few years of work under his belt by this point, having a career spanning close to half a century allows us to place El Mestizo among his earlier work. His scratchy, evocative penmanship is instantly recognisable, along with soon-to-be familiar flourishes like thinly marked flashbacks and dynamic ‘negative’ images. Those who love studying the art-history of comics can while away the hours wondering how Carlos managed to develop his style so far when he was already starting from such an exemplary position.
It would be a mistake to approach this comic anticipating a flawless critique of race and politics in the USA. This is a story from a British weekly war comic, published without the benefit of modern research resources, and written by people living free from the period’s grim legacy. For those comfortable accepting this context, this story can be enjoyed for the usual mix of entertainment and historical insight so regularly provided by the Treasury of British Comics.
Sadly, this volume collects the entire, short run of El Mestizo. Authors’ commentaries for this and other Battle series suggest that their adolescent audience were somewhat militant when it came to the military genre, and this story strayed a little too far west for their tastes. As a result, the story and characters only have so much room to grow. Recent output from Treasury owners Rebellion, however, suggest that they are not afraid of revisiting old properties, and 2000ad recently made a statement that they were committed to working with more diverse creative teams. If this book sells well, perhaps suitably informed and invested creators could see Mestizo make a return…