America on my Mind

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Italian Comics and the Industry of Imagination

by Alfredo Castelli

A short history of comics in Italy, from a lecture by Martin Mystère

America has inevitably exercised a great influence on the industry of Italian (and world) comics, if only because the first internationally known representatives of the medium are of American origin. As the homeland of comics, America was – and still is – idealized by cartoonists as a somewhat ultimate goal, the only place in the world where the creator of a successful character may become as “rich and famous” as a film or sport-star.Italy – like many other European countries – soon developed an autonomous production of comics (fumetti, or “Little clouds of smoke”, from the shape of the balloons) that outran the imported one (the ratio is of 80%-20% in favor of the Italian product). Yet, most of the European-made adventure series continue to be characterized by “American” main characters and settings (with the exception of French ones, that are a somewhat logical continuation of the autochtonous “feuilleton”, and English ones, that existed long before than in the United States).

It’s an iron rule from which not even Martin Mystère, the “Detective of the Impossible” of whom I am the creator, can escape. Though many of his adventures are set in Italy, Mystère “is” American and “lives” in Washington Mews, NY, a stone’s throw from New York University, where he has been a lecturer more than once (and this is why he acts as a testimonial of this lecture).

Apart from the differences in character between the Europeans (more open toward what is foreign, as they are used to be surrounded by different cultures) and the Americans (more self-centered, as they live alone on an enormous continent-island), the reasons for the “American choice” are easy to understand. Although it can be reached in a few hours’ flight, to European eyes America still represents a far-off country, whilst not being exotic or “different” like China or India. The things that happen there (and the social situations, and the people) are similiar enough to those who happen in Europe, thus making identification possible, with the advantage that distance makes it difficult to check their exact correspondence. Thus we can accept situations we won’t accept if they were set in our own country: we can pretend to believe, for instance, that, in America, a university professor like Martin Mystère can become famous and maybe rich; were the professor Italian, it would seem rather unrealistic, as we do know the problems that afflict our school system (probably the same as in American schools, but we can pretend not to know them).

Europeans never got tired of Western comics as has happened in the U.S.; Italy, in particular, produces the world’s best-selling Western strip, Tex (500,000 copies monthly). Here again, the explaination is simple: we tend to want (and to mythicize) what we don’t own, and in Europe there is nothing comparable to the Western epics. Reciprocally, popular American literature swarms with barbarians, knights, dragons and magicians: a genre, Sword and Sorcery, that has never taken root on the Old Continent, where the Middle Ages and epic-chivalric literature have existed (and are considered by many young European readers as boring “school subjects”).

The Italian production of comics presents, however, two features that make it different in an “American” sense to that of the rest of the world. Italy is the country that has indipendently continued the largest number of comic strips created in America, either because the original series had been cancelled in the United States (like Little Eva, discontinued in the U.S. in the 50s, and carried on with great success by cartoonist Terenghi up to the middle 80s), or because the popularity of an American series in Italy was such to impose the production of new material and stories longer than the average American ones (Italy produces more than 70% of the Disney material distrubuted in the world; almost 90% of Popeye comics, and hundreds of Warner Bros.-MGM funny-animal strips).

The second distinctive feature is more important. The narrative style of the most successful Italian comic series resumes and developes in modern terms the narrative style of the American adventure strips of the 30s and the 40s: wide-ranging stories with strongly marked characters and well-built intriguing plots. When, in the sixties, the adventure series were dropped from American newspapers, this style of storytellyng was completely lost in the U.S.A., and was replaced by the fast, often over-simplified comic-book scripting. Paradoxically, it is the Italian cartoonists who keep up the great narrative traditions of the originators of comics.

Italian comics and the industry of imagination

Comics were introduced into Italy a few years after their appearance in the United States: from 1908 onwards the weekly paper Corriere dei Piccoli (“Children’s Courier”) published the Sunday pages of Buster Brown, Happy Hooligan, The Newklyweds, Bringing Up Father, Little Nemo. The original American drawings were adapted to the style of illustrated children papers of the period: the balloons – considered miseducating – were eliminated, and the story was narrated by rhyming captions. On the same style (no balloons and rhyming captions), Corriere dei Piccoli published the first Italian comic series; some of them (Bonaventura by Sergio Tofano, Sor Pampurio by Carlo Bisi, Quadratino by Antonio Rubino, Bil Bol Bul by Attilio Mussino), were drawn keeping in mind the art movements of those times (Cubism, Dadaism, Modernism), and reached a surprisingly high quality.

Until the 30s, comics were considered a medium aimed exclusively to children; then the first weekly Giornali (literally, “Journals”) for “young adults” were issued. The editorial formula of the Giornali has no correspondant in America; they were weekly tabloid-sized periodicals, and featured articles, games, short stories, and serialized comic series. Topolino (“Mickey Mouse”, 1932), L’Avventuroso (“The Venturesome”, 1934) and many other Giornali introduced into Italy Mickey Mouse, The Silly Symphonies and the great American adventure series (Secret Agent X9, Mandrake, The Phantom, Tim Tyler’s Luck, Brick Bradford, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, etc.) in their original form “with balloons”. An “Italian School” of comic artists came into being, with excellent authors of realistic and humor series (Albertarelli, Molino, Pedrocchi, Scolari, Moroni Celsiin Milan; Toppi, Scudellari, Fantoni, Vichi, Burattini in Florence). Il Monello (“The Kid”, 1933-1990) and L’Intrepido (“The Intrepid”, 1937-1967) specialized in tales that would now be defined as “Soap Operas”; the Catholic weekly Il Vittorioso (“The Winner”, 1937-1967) launched the work of Caesar, Caprioli, De Luca, Landolfi and Benito Jacovitti, a sort of Italian Al Capp who was for many decades the most influencial and beloved author of humor strips in the country.

After having been serialized in the Giornali, the American and Italian stories were reprinted in albi devoted to a single character. Unlike American comic books, Italian albi were published in many different formats; the most widely diffused was the horizontally-developed formato all’italiana.

Immediately before World War 2, the Fascist regime forbade the importation of American films and comics: Mussolini was afraid that readers could be attracted by the “American Way of Life”, and ordered to publish stories starring Italian characters only, with (again!) captions instead of balloons. Many new series were created, but readers liked American strips better; so the publishers tried to get round the censure by italianizing (or germanising, in the case of Tarzan, who became “Siegfried”) the titles of American series. When the supply of original strips ran out, episodes of the most popular characters (in their new all-Italian names) were created by local authors: Federico Fellini wrote some installments of Flash Gordon. All the American material disappeared from the news-stands, not to return until the end of hostilities; the last character to be banned was Mickey Mouse, as the Duce’s children especially liked him.

After the war, comics returned with American films and Jazz music. New Giornali like L’Avventura (“The Adventure”) replaced the old ones, running all the “classic” characters and some hitherto unknown ones (Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, Rip Kirby). But the Giornali formula was not as successful as in previous years; readers preferred smaller, comic-book sized magazines, with more pages and complete stories. Hugo Pratt, Mario Faustinelli and Dino Battaglia tried to create a super-hero in the style of Batman, l’Asso di Picche (“The Ace of Spades”, 1945); the experiment did not work. In fact, super-hero strips never took root deeply in Italy: up to the late 60s, of the thousands American costumed heroes, only Nembo Kid (“Superman”) and Batman were known in the country.

In 1949 Topolino cancelled all the non-Disney strips and assumed the current pocket format (the same format as the recent Disney Adventures published in the U.S.). Its success exceeded every expectation; after almost fifty years, Topolino is still the best-selling Disney magazine in the world. Italy is the main world producer of Disney comics, created by fine authors such as Bottaro, Carpi, Cavazzano, Chendi, De Vita, Scarpa. Topolino‘s success induced other publishers to adopt its format, which thus became characteristic of humor and funny-animal comics aimed to a young target. Cucciolo (by Caregaro & Rebuffi), Tiramolla, (by Renzi, Rebuffi, Manfrin), Pepito (by Bottaro), Trottolino (by Carpi) were created, soon becoming popular in many European countries.

Becouse of the shortage of paper, minor publishers were forced to use a very small format known as striscia (“strip”), the same used in the U.S. for “Giveaway” comics in the 40s and the 50s. The most lasting striscewere interpreted by Western heroes, such as Tex (1947) by Bonelli and Galeppini,

Il Piccolo Sceriffo (“The little Sheriff”, 1948) by Torelli and Zuffi, Capitan Miki (“Captain Miki”, 1951) and Il Grande Blek (“The Great Blek”, 1954) by Esse G Esse. When the paper crisis was over, Tex began to appear in a new formula – the so-called “Bonelli Format” – that, later, became a standard: thick, 96-page monthly books, 6.2×8.2 inches, in black and white, six panels per page. Meanwhile, importation of American syndicated strips begun to slow down. Only a few “classics”, like The Phantom and Mandrake held out.

Until the beginning of the 1960s, no important changes took place on the market; in 1962 Diabolik, by Angela and Luciana Giusani, introduced a new genre and a new format (128 pocket-sized pages, two panels per page, with a complete story): for the first time, the hero of a comics series was a villain. Diabolik gave birth to dozens imitations, the so-called fumetti neri (“black comics”); Kriminal (1964) and Satanik (1964) by Max Bunker and Magnus – authors of the still popular Alan Ford (1969) – distinguished themselves for their originality, quality and irony.

The “Diabolik format” was adopted also by hundreds of erotic series; born “soft core” in the late 60s, in the 80s they had become decidedly “hard core”.

A press campaign, similar to the one held in the 50s’ against horror comics in the U.S, broke out against fumetti neri. No wonder: the Church, critics and educationalists considered comics as a miseducating and socially dangerous medium. But, in 1965, Linus (from Linus of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts ) came out; it was the first comic magazine for an adult and cultured public. Linus published the best examples of comics from all over the world; its promoters – Oreste Del Buono, Umberto Eco, Elio Vittorini – came from the world of “high” culture; thanks to Linus, media began to treat comics with a different, more respectful approach.

Linus, Eureka and the other “prestige format” magazines that were later created launched authors of realistic series as Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt, Milo Manara, Vittorio Giardino, Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri, Tanino Liberatore, Attilio Micheluzzi; authors of humorous strips as Bonvi and Silver, political cartoonists as Altan, Chiappori, Pericoli & Pirella. In the 70s, a group of authors (the late Andrea Pazienza, Lorenzo Mattotti, Massimo Mattioli, Carpinteri, Igort, Giuseppe Palumbo, Filippo Scozzari) created a line of innovative comics, many of which were drawn in a peculiar “post modernistic” style.

Most of the authors of “prestige” magazines are widely translated in Europe (especially in France, where their works sell better than in Italy) and in the United States; the late Hugo Pratt, creator of Corto Maltese, and Milo Manara are the best internationally-known Italian cartoonists.

In 1965 the first of several fanzines (Comics Club 104) was published, and the first Comics Convention, the Salone Internazionale dei Comics was held in Bordighera (it was transferred to Lucca the following year).

In 1960-70 some “vintage” papers, such as Corriere dei Piccoli and the catholic Il Giornalino (“The little Journal”, founded in 1924 and sold exclusively in churches) took on the format and characteristics that were typical of the French “family” weeklies (Tintin, Spirou, Pif): colour magazines printed on slick paper, with complete or serialized stories, articles, photographic features. The most widely remembered “family weekly”,Corriere dei Ragazzi (“Boys’ Courier”, 1972-1976) published several French strips (Lucky Luke, Dan Cooper, Michel Vaillant, Comanche, etc.) and many original series by Italian authors (Battaglia, Bonvi, Di Gennaro, Manara, Micheluzzi, Nidasio, Pratt, Tacconi, Toppi, Uggeri) who illustrated stories mostly written by Mino Milani and Alfredo Castelli. Many comic artists from New York have declared that they were inspired by the fine “school” of Corriere dei Ragazzi, which, at the time, could be found at the international news-stand in Times Square.

In the 1970s the market was thriving, divided into well-defined lines: “prestige” magazines such as Linus, Eureka and Il Mago; fumetti neri and erotic comics; “soap opera” and adventure weeklies such as Intrepido(700,000 copies per week) or Skorpio and Lancio Story; “family” weeklies and “Bonelli Format” comics. The Marvel line of Super Heroes , brought out by Editoriale Corno, enjoied for a while an unexpected popularity.

The “boom” of the 60s and the first years of the 70s was stopped by the sudden coming of the Televisioni Libere (“Free TV Stations”): between 1976 and 1980, profiting by a flaw in the law that guaranteed to the Government the monopoly of TV broadcasting, hundreds of private TV stations and networks were founded. The comics market was totally disrupted: TV offered programs of all genres, free of charge, 24 hour a day. Comics made for fast consumption disappeared; extremely successful “Soap” publications such as Intrepido were discontinued. Hard-core video killed the market of erotic comics. Only the publications characterized with high-quality long stories – needing an hour or more to be read – could offer a valid alternative to television.

So, from 1980 onward, the “Bonelli comics” have boomed; they are genuine 96-page novels in comic form, written and drawn by the best Italian authors; every series is usually scripted by its creator, and illustrated by 10/15 different artists. Besides the already mentioned Tex (1948, by Gian Luigi Bonelli and Aurelio Galleppini), Sergio Bonelli Editore publishes Zagor (1961, by Guido Nolitta and Gallieno Ferri), a costumed-hero story ina a Western setting; Mister No  (1975, Guido Nolitta), adventures with ecological shades set in the 50’s Amazonia; Ken Parker (1977, Berardi & Milazzo), another, more mature and sophisticated Western series;Martin Mystère (1982, Alfredo Castelli), dealing with mysteries in line with Von Daeniken’s “Chariots of the Gods”; the trend-setting “cult” horror series Dylan Dog (1986, Tiziano Sclavi), an absolute best-seller with over 500,000 copies sold every month; the detective series Nick Raider (1988, Claudio Nizzi); the science-fiction series Nathan Never (1991, Medda, Serra & Vigna). When Martin Mystere and Dylan Dog came out, critics began to abandon the traditional differentiation between “prestige” and “popular” publications; these terms have now lost all qualitative connotations and denote simply different formats and sales.

80% of the Italian comics market is shared by Sergio Bonelli Editore (40%) and Walt Disney Company Italia (Topolino and many other Disney magazines, 60%), selling a total of over 100,000,000 copies every year.Linus (30,000 copies monthly) and Comic Art (10.000 copies monthly) are the only surviving representatives of the “prestige” format; Diabolik, the only surviving representative of “black comics”, sells around 150,000 copies a month. The weeklies Skorpio and Lancio Story, which publish fine adventure series from Argentina, sell approximately 60,000 copies a week; the “family” weekly Il Giornalino, featuring fine Italian series,sells about 150,000 copies; Lupo Alberto, a “funny animal” strip created by Silver in 1974, and Cattivik, by the same author, sell a total of 100,000 copies monthly; Comix, featuring humor strips and satiric pieces written by music-hall and TV comedians, sells approximately 15,000 copies a week. The Italian branch of Marvel publishes the bulk of super-hero-type comics, that are now enjoing a small boom, with combined sales of appriximately 6,000,000 copies a year. “Manga” (Japanese comics) – another small “boom” of the 90s – sell about 2,500,000 copies a year.

A few comics are published in book-form (among them, the works of the Italian cartoonists Crepax, Manara and Pratt, and the translations of the French “album” Asterix, Lucky Luke, Tintin) are sold exlusively in bookshops; sales seldom exceed 10,000 copies.

Italian newspapers publish very few or no comics. As syndacation is not possible due to the small number of newspaper in Italy (about one hundred), the cost of a series made for just one newspaper would be too high.

The merchandising inspired by Italian comics began to spread in the late 1980s, the leading character is Silver’s Lupo Alberto, which ousted Snoopy and Garfield in the market.

The average prices of Italian comics are lower than American ones; a black and white 96-page Bonelli book costs 3,000 lire, less than two dollars. 97% of Italian comics are sold at the country’s 37,000 news-stands; they are distributed by three national distributors and 175 local distributors (the percentage kept by the distributors ranges from 30% to 50% of the cover price). Italian news-stands are much bigger than American ones, and offer a great variety of periodicals: besides comics (not less than 250 titles), magazines and newspapers, they display series of videocassettes, records and software. Only in recent years comics begun to be sold in bookshops and department-stores. There are “Comic Book Shops” in all the major towns, but they do not costituite, as in the U.S., an alternative to national distribution.

In Italy there are no Unions of cartoonists; the Italian law doesn’t provide for a specific legislation concerning comics, but, for accepted custom, most publishers (with the exception of Disney, which doesn’t recognize any right to the authors) stick to the same unwritten rules. The average retribution for the first printing ranges from $ 100 to $ 350 per page (art) and from $ 35 to $ 100 per page (script); original pages remain of property of the artist; net profits of reprints are divided 50%-50% between the publisher and the author(s). In some case the originator of a comic series is granted a royalty on the sales. Licensing rights are divided 50%-50% between the publisher and the author.

Alfredo Castelli è anche l’autore del prezioso albetto Come si diventa autore di fumetti: click qui.