Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Lucky Lucchese Memories

by Rick Marschall

“Have you lived here all your life?” “Not yet,” is the answer packing the most optimism. 

“Yesterday’s Papers” and “A Crowded Life” are dots I intentionally connect here. I have sort of chosen to live in the past, as a trained historian and collector of vintage and nostalgic pieces of days agone; and as someone who sometimes forgets what I’m supposed to do tomorrow.

A couple of artifacts have bubbled to the surface as I try yet again to sort my collection, currently seven storage units and every room of the house, sigh. It was fun to find some materials from my first Lucca Comics Salon in Italy. Lucca was the world’s prototypic comics festival. Its first year was in Bordighera; Angouleme in France grew larger, as did San Diego; and it split for awhile, like an amoeba, with a rival event in Rome. But Lucca is Lucca.

It is a small city or large Medieval village, a commune inside a complete ancient wall, in Tuscany, close to Florence, Pisa, and Heaven. I keep threatening, here, to tell more of Lucca, and I will – but Where to start? how to organize my tales? The first year I attended was 1978, and it already was the 13th “salon.” I attended thereafter in unbroken succession, usually as guest, juror, speaker, or exhibitor, or all of those, as well as American representative, for many years.

The festivals were like family reunions, only seeing the world’s great historians and critics who gathered there; and, eventually, where I met the world’s greatest cartoonists. Many of the great friendships and “connections” I have today were forged at Lucca, so you can understand my affection.

It all seems like yesterday, but these materials from my “first date,” 1978, are more than half my life ago. Our mind’s memories are merciful, however, when the ancient past can  seem fresh.

I will quickly share some incidents. I attended in 1978 partly as an emissary of Marvel Comics, where I was an Editor involved in the creation of what became EPIC Magazine. I convinced Stan Lee that I could scout European talent there, and indeed I made contacts with cartoonists who appeared in the magazine.

One was a Bosnian cartoonist living in Zagreb, Croatia, named Mirko Ilić. His work blew me away – detailed, a great sense of design, and a unique manner of depicting unfolding narratives. Evocations of darkness and doom and, in lighter moments, irony. His work appeared in the first issue of EPIC; and soon Mirko himself was appearing the United States.

Mirko became Art Director of TIME International, and of the op-ed pages of The New York Times. He opened a studio and has become a major figure in American art, design, and graphics. He has specialized in designing visual “identities” and motifs for major hotels and restaurants; collaborated with Milton Glaser on the title sequence for the movie You’ve Got Mail; and has co-authored books on design with the great Steven Heller. After I left the Illustration Department and moved to California, Mirko became a Professor in its Masters program; I wish we had overlapped.

The sketch he drew for me displayed his thematic preoccupation, at least of emotional content and style. The strip was a typical page of his that showcased his ironic outlook on life. It is from the exhibition and catalog of his work at Lucca. The other cartoonist so showcased was his fellow Yugoslav (this was pre-“Fall”) Ivica Bednjanec.

The late Ivica, sadly little known in the West, surely was Croatia’s most prolific and beloved cartoonist. He created many characters and series for children and adults; in comic and semi-serious styles; and wrote his own works. In a sketch he caricatured me as a marshal (not surprisingly), rudely treating his popular character of the time, Gentle the convict.

Speaking of caricatures, I met up at that Lucca with an (already) old friend, Peter Maresca. This was long before Peter became a lord of Silicon Valley and publisher of the great Sunday Press line of reprint books. But he was into collecting and curating vintage Sunday comic pages. His sales of these sheets each year paid for his travel and seeded a generation of Europeans’ appreciation of classic American strips.

As at book fairs like Frankfurt and Bologna, most of the business and all of the fraternizing at Lucca happened at grand three-hour meals; and far into the night at the bars and lounges of hotels (I had meals in America; I learned to dine in Italy and France). Will Eisner used to say that he and I saw each other more often in Europe, at such venues, than in America; and so it was with Peter. In my haze one night I drew a caricature of Peter enjoying a grappa or amaro. To prove I am an equal-opportunity mangler of likenesses, I also show a self-caricature from the same sketchbook page. Also, here, a photo at Peter’s table with Michel LaBelle and Eric Leguebe of Paris; Maurice Horn; myself; and Peter. I think 1980; Peter clean-shaven.

Yes, more than half a lifetime ago. After a stretch where I produced some reprint books (Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Polly and Her Pals; and titles like Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, and Red Barry for Fantagraphics) Peter eventually went pro with his Sunday Press reprint volumes. Major works like the brand-new Milt Gross volume, and obscure gems like White Boy and The Upside-Downs have received their due. Splendid work. I don’t know about anyone else, but I refer to books of the SP dimensions, and I have done a couple myself, as “Maresca Format.”

It is a famous aphorism that “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” where generals contended as youths. It might be said that much of comics scholarship and reprints was hatched in the commune of Lucca – or, to risk a pun – in the lounges of Lucca and the eatin’ spots too.

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