Friday, October 9, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Chi è quell'uomo?

Rick Marschall.

I have been blessed to participate in cartoon festivals, book fairs, and comic conventions around the world. The first for me was Lucca 13 in Tuscany, in1978. I was sent by Stan Lee to scout for artists and properties for the a-borning Epic Illustrated. The trip yielded results – for instance, a strip by Mirko Ilić, the Bosnian artist who subsequently became Art Director of The New York Times Op-Ed page; Art Director of TIME International; and is in MOMA’s permanent collection. And I negotiated Marvel properties with other publishers in Germany and Denmark.

But I returned to Lucca many times, sometimes as the American co-representative with David Pascal; then, often, solo on juries and as speaker; and later at Rinaldo Traini’s ExpoCartoon in Rome. I also attended, for visits, speeches, or awards, at Angouleme, Erlangen, Prague, Frankfurt, Bologna, and elsewhere. Comics + Travel (oh, + food + wine too) makes a Crowded Life easy to take.

A privilege was meeting the world’s greatest cartoonists through the years. I will chronicle Lucca here, especially, and Rinaldo Traini, when I gather my chicks: many stories to tell about this remarkable festival and its great Director. To come.

A lingering mystery is whether I was being watched at those festivals. Not spied upon – I am not paranoiac – but observed, sketched? My friends think so, unanimously about one instance, among the friends I ask.  But I don’t know…

One of the world’s great comic artists, the modest and urbane Italian Vittorio Giardino, is a master of artwork, and of storytelling, pacing, and dialog. His characters are genuine types and accessible. Vittorio’s scenarios are as mature as great novels of the ‘30s, and his graphic narration is on a par with the best movie-makers. As a designer, to use the European parlance, his artwork is realistic though slightly linear – to keep it as comic art – and his coloring employs stunning techniques; for instance, in night scenes, and the interplay of sunlight and shadows upon figures. In short, a master.

His characters have included the memorable and parodic Little Ego; the pre-War risk-taker Max Fridman; the detective Sam Pezzo; and Jonas Fink, a 1950s counterpart of Fridman, a Jew in Communist Prague.

Vittorio has also created uncountable shorter tales for magazines, some purely episodic and with characters exclusive to those stories alone. And that returns us to this column’s “mystery” mentioned above.

One year at Lucca, Vittorio presented me with an album of his work, the lavish paperback (with double-wraparound cover of a beautiful women in a gondola in Venice), entitled Vacances Fatales (this was the French reprint).

I was not familiar with any of the stories, all of which had appeared in European monthly comic magazines, so I eagerly feasted back in my hotel room that night. The rest of this tale is completely subjective, told only from my point of view. I report; you decide.

Two of the stories featured characters that looked very much like the guy I knew from many mornings, in the mirror as I shaved. The same lurking double chin; the same beard; the same Western boots that I favored at the time (and Italians infrequently did); even, in one story, a professorial tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows (I was, ahem, a teacher at the School of Visual Arts at the time). A pretentious scarf. Even my dopey little nose. One story had a spot-on setting, without identification, of beautiful Lucca in Autumn, atop the ancient walls.

Mostly flattered, I found Vittorio the next day, thanked him, and quickly asked – too quickly – why he had “me” killed in each story. More than that, “I” was a skunk and enjoyed sex and some gun-play and fist-fights in each story before justice was served.

If I hadn’t asked so quickly, I might have received a different response, which seemed to me a somewhat nervous denial that I inspired either character. So I accept Vittorio’s eye-blinking protestations of innocence... and have been disappointed at the Official Version ever since. Friends “see” me, and I was ready to be flattered… up to the point of being unable to share the stories with my grandchildren!

Well, I’ll share some panels, and let the jury decide. I also dug out a couple photos of me from the approximate era. One with Bosnian publisher Ervin Rustemagic at the Frankfurt Book Fair, pranking about some forgotten money matter; and one with Virginia Davis, the “Alice” of Disney’s pre-Mickey cartoons (I brought her to Lucca one year), and friend Jassanne Wallace, then of the Circle Galleries.

Compare. Maybe, of course, I am fooling – or flattering – myself. If you don’t see any resemblances, then you at least have some glorious comic artwork by Vittorio Giardino to enjoy. And that’s never a bad thing, in any language, even when the protagonist gets killed... 


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