Interview with Sergio Bonelli
by Paolo Ottolina and the Staff of uBC
translation by Alessandra Murray
Each month he finds himself at the helm of a considerably large firm and yet, the success of SBE is not due to a production-line mentality. Rather, its success is a result of a lot of work, a good dose of luck and some rare intuition. And, obviously, guiding this work, luck and intuition is a gray-haired gentleman, with a voice that's a bit hoarse, who is affable, spontaneous, paternalistic, and self-deprecating. A man decidedly different from the stereotype of the entrepreneur of Northern Italy who is money hungry, vain and, obviously, ignorant.
For many Italians, Sergio Bonelli is a signature at the bottom of a column of letters, a totem of sorts, virtually an imaginary character of the same type as Janine or Martin Mystere. We can assure you, however, that Sergio Bonelli actually exists; in fact, he had a friendly, hour-long chat with the editorial Staff of uBC. Our meeting took place in an austere office lined with shelves displaying, in groups of five albums, a large portion of SBE's publications, from blockbusters such as Tex and Zagor, to little known, failed experiments such as Judas and Full. This is what he told us.
Sergio is apprised of our geographic origins. Giovanni, the web master, explains to him that we are from different parts of Italy, that we first met each other on the Internet and then in person. And here SB interrupts us and good-naturedly clarifies that he has "no inclination for technology":
I don't know anything about the Internet and I have decided to continue not knowing anything. Therefore, we will talk and I will pretend that you are publishing this interview in an ordinary magazine [audience laughs, ndr]. I have decided to die without ever having looked at the Internet.
But at least once you surfed the Internet. At least, that is what we were told…
Yes, but only once, because I had read that I only published rubbish… [he laughs, ndr]. I concede myself luxuries, sometimes mistakenly. I pretend that certain things don't exist. I don't know how to use a computer. I haven't even gotten to the point of using a typewriter: the pen is my most advanced technological conquest.
After having set up an International section at the uBC site, which was reserved for translations, we were contacted by many passionate Bonellians from other countries. Do fans from other countries also write to you?
There is a fan in Catalogna, Francisco Tadeo Juan: he is very tenacious and does publications and fanzines, all single-handedly. There are also a few publishers of fanzines in Curitiba, Brazil, a city that, according to some research, has the highest standard of living in the world.
There were twenty design plates of that story that I had Ticci completely rework.
Why does Ticci always substitute for deceased designers?
In Giolitti's case, the motivation was sentimental. Ticci was his student as well as his very good friend. Even his style was similar. It seemed to me, therefore, that the most logical choice was to have Ticci finish that story. A number of pages had already been completed. One of those stories, which was very long, was mine. Really, there is a reason that my stories are so long. I never have enough time… When a designer doesn't have anything to do, I write ten pages for him. I put in, let's say, a snake, and that way he can work three days with that snake. But to return to Galep, I had Ticci rework the plates because I thought I would write the entire story myself (then things worked out differently) and I enjoyed working with him. And also Ticci is one of the most beloved by the average reader. So is Villa, for example, but he's very, very slow and we always bother him with cover and other types of artwork. With regard to Galep's story, we decided to rework those plates he had designed because, it is so difficult to discuss but it is the truth, in the last period of his life he did not feel at all well. He had problems with his eyes that even altered his perspective plane. He really worked in impossible conditions. In the future, I could run a special edition of this last story but I prefer not to because it would not be representative of his true capacity.
It's a shame, however, not to see these plates…
Exactly. I was thinking of a special edition or to put them in the appendix of a Texone, but I am embarrassed because I am not sure it would be right to show these plates since Galep himself was not satisfied with them. It is a conflict in my conscience.
Well, you know, to tell the truth we are pretty casual at SBE. We are even lucky because things are going well but we also believe that we are quite good. Certainly we have also had a lot of luck and this has created a situation in which we tend to approximate things. This isn't the company that everybody imagines it to be. The other day the evening news [the TG5, in a series of services on Italian comics, ndr] said that we were "the largest firm second only to Disney". Well, if you hang out with us for a day, you will see that we don't have that kind of organization. We do a lot of approximating. Roles aren't so well defined and we aren't one of those firms that organize its people with rigid schedules. We don't establish, for example, "this year we should invest X million": we proceed day by day on the waves of our own sensibilities and bearing in mind that designers and writers might get the work in late. The fact that there has been this explosion of titles all at once is due to chance: they are series' that have been up in the air for many years. And we have, a bit out of laziness, a bit out of insecurity, in many cases postponed them. In certain cases we move more rapidly: Magico Vento was prepared in just a few months. In fact we have only a few stories "in storage" because the decision dates from last year. While with Brendon, a fantasy, it seems to me that I have been talking about it for a lifetime.
Why do you give such little advance notice and not much definite news on new titles to be published?
Because we reserve some space for error and whim. Actually, we find ourselves in a situation that requires us to be aware of the state of the market, which is dull, and instead we have many new characters we are working on. There is Julia by Berardi, which, it seems, we have been talking about for ten days and instead he has been working on it for over a year and a half. It seems that Bonelli is explosive, vivacious, instead we are rather slow and we feel quite insecure. We don't have the vocation to put all of these things out at one time. Also because we encourage extemporaneous projects, like Napoleone, which is managed by the author Ambrosini who only has a few designers. He has taken the trouble to avoid perturbing the other series and to manage those few designers that he has. On the other hand, I don't want to hire new designers when I don't know where we'll end up. Magico Vento has arrived at number eight and we still don't know if it will be a success that will last ten years or if it will close down after three years. I don't want to give work to a young person and then leave him on the street because I can't manage to sell.
Yes. I have just returned from England and I couldn't find a comic book at the newsstand even if I had a million lire to spend, except for the manga and the Americans, which are sold in special stores. Not even the shadow of a serial comic strip, and in black and white. They produce twenty to thirty pages of Tex per month in France, in a very small format. Until a few years ago, almost all of our titles had a French edition. They were the first to take a turn historically a few years back: now they publish almost exclusively colored cartoons. But it's only a formula; it's no longer a prize that the editor concedes to a worthy author.
Even in other countries the popular comic strip doesn't sell any longer?
Yes. We used to be able to sell our comics in Sweden, in Yugoslavia, in Norway. In Finland we still sell something because it's an old and traditional market. They probably only sell by subscription because with the cold they don't get a chance to go to the newsstand. They therefore aren't aware of changes and in this way they pass Tex from father to son [general laughter, ndr]. Brazil is the only place in South America that continues to sell. Actually, Tex is the only one that sells. The others (Nathan Never, Dylan Dog, Zagor) have all tried but failed.
Mister No also arrived down there we were told.
Yes, but only three or four issues. That was a shabby editor that disappeared into the Amazon jungle. Without paying, obviously. Instead, the publisher of Tex is great, the same owner as Rete Globo. Tex sells 30-40,000 copies, second only to Mauricio De Sousa, the Brazilian Disney.
Now there is this project to publish with Dark Horse in the United States.
I am not involved on the front lines and to be honest I don't know much. I know that we will attempt this for obvious reasons, and it will have different characteristics than our Italian edition. It's an attempt that they are making rather unwillingly, for the black and white and the number of pages. It is a market on which we have never been able to depend. There are too many differences. They are contrary to the formula of continuity and even 100 pages are too much. And they have a completely different way of narrating.
Oh yes. Has been working on it with a lot of good will and has already completed a good number of pages [you were able to see a sample in the previous issue, ndr]. Now he is testing his character and certain faces of Tex still need to be approved. He doesn't quite have his usual bounty hunter jaw and he's a bit delicate. Even if it is part of the philosophy of the Texone to have somewhat different interpretations of the protagonist that in the regular series would not be accepted. It is a game, which I concede to myself in order to push the average reader, who thrives on large passions and who has a tendency not to respect the work of the great author that moves beyond the usual designs, to grow.
And of this, alas, shut down of Ken Parker?
Ken Parker is a publication that I have dearly loved. I gave free reign to the authors when they presented themselves here with the project and then I conceded to them a great deal of autonomy because I realized that they were good. Yet, I suffered a great deal because we couldn't manage to affirm this series. There was a qualitative type of success and we understood that the readers were rather particular (university students for example). And when we reached a decent circulation this illusory prospect of the author's magazine exploded and they had chosen against seriality which naturally imposes certain choices. Then they decided to go off on their own and the issues started to come out even more sporadically. Since they have decided to return with us, there are, unfortunately, two observations that must be made: there are only a small number of old readers (about 20-25,000) and for the new generation it was an outdated theme and was not successful. Furthermore, the authors themselves have exhausted their desire to recount those themes as well as having exhausted their very interest in the character.
So, wouldn't it be appropriate to close the matter of this character with the death of Ken Parker?
I have made my own request to the two authors and they promised that they would consider it. I felt bad that the series had to be interrupted while Ken was still in prison. They told me that for now they don't have much time, but every time I see them, I insist.
Well, if the public, as I hope, accepts this new price increase, then it certainly isn't such a failure that we would close it down. That is, unless we assume that the character Mister No has already said everything and it is simply not worthwhile to continue the series. We would have to exclude our greatest successes from such reasoning, because otherwise Tex would have already said everything quite awhile ago. If the authors have difficulty finding new inspiration, then who knows. You know, we become very attached to our characters: not only to Mister No, because I wrote him, but to each and every one. And then let's admit an uncomfortable truth: today it isn't very easy to sell 37-38,000 copies of a title with a new character. If I close down Mister No to launch a new series and this new series only sells 15,000 copies, as has happened with other publishers, what kind of a fine figure would I cut?
But Napoleone and Magico Vento seem to be doing well. Or not?
Yes, but they are under observation. You readers always give us an opportunity with a first issue. When I come out with a new series the newsstand keeper sees the publicity on the other albums, understands that it is one of my products and reserves a space for it. The reader passes, sees one of our new products and says, "let's see how it is". Because he knows that he has never been too disappointed with us. Then, maybe, he doesn't like it and he stops buying it after the third issue. But he always gives us an opportunity. Magico Vento started out with very high sales, around 130,000 copies. Now that number has decreased. We must know at which sales quota the series will eventually stabilize.
Bearing in mind that there are fewer young readers today, wouldn't it be more appropriate to focus on miniseries?
You see, we are slow and fussy people. We like to think that when we expend energy on a new project that this new project will have some continuity. We don't like to open and close, open and close. Even if it is in part a path that we are following. Napoleone is a miniseries. However, we keep an eye on it and we can, theoretically, transform it into a regular series if it goes well. If it doesn't, we can say, "we were joking. We always said that it would close down " [laughter, ndr]. Anyway, for us a close-ended project is disheartening from the very beginning.
Is an editorial experiment like the one between Bonelli-Dargaud improbable in the future?
Alas, "Pilot" sold 15-17,000 copies, "Orient Express" never arrived at 20,000 copies. Theoretically, the Dargaud albums could have been continued since it was foreign material and cost relatively little. But those albums sold only 10-15,000 copies. It was a considerable economic loss. We don't over-scrutinize the figures. If a series is only a bit in the red it is compensated for by the large success of other series. In that case, however, those matters were tied to an illusion of a market that had ended, that of the author's magazine. Even Comic Art has returned to the newsstand, but I fear that it won't last.
Oh, that will cause a cataclysm [he laughs, ndr]. Unfortunately, this firm really depends on me: in the past more than now, because now there are people capable of running things without me. You cited retirement and it would be correct. What we're missing is the dauphin; in other companies there is an heir ready to continue the father's work. I have a son that is not, however, interested in following in my footsteps. My preference would be that each one of the authors manage his own publication. Another idea would be to form a cooperative, but I fear that after a year the various authors would cut each other's throats and nothing would remain. Another hypothesis, obviously, would be that a gentleman buy the firm, but in that case we would need the consensus of the authors. This is not a soccer club and I am not the president. The most serious hypothesis would be that each author become an editor himself, as Secchi is. The thing that would be missing from this scenario is what today we call "synergy".