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Fifty years of Tex Willer:
memories from the Western
renaissance in Italy

by Paola de Martino

What was the West like?

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Although comic strips and books appeared in Italy only a few year after their debut in the United States, at the time Bonelli and Galleppini started working on Tex, it was difficult to find the right documentation to illustrate the places and the people of a land that neither one of them had ever seen.

Italians had read their first American comics since 1908. At that time, the Corriere dei Piccoli (The Little Ones' Messenger) hosted the Sunday pages of Buster Brown, Happy Hooligan, The Katzenjammer Kids, The Newly Weds, and especially Little Nemo. These comics were adapted to the characteristics of children magazines of the time, which included censuring the dialogue and inserting mere rhymed captions. The first Italian comics followed the same schema.

In the 30's, with the publishing of the first giornali (magazines), the readers of comics started to include adults. Usually they were issued weekly and contained articles, illustrations, and games, American and Italian comic strips. In magazines such as Topolino (Mickey Mouse) and L'Avventuroso (The Adventurous) readers could find some of Disney productions, and Mandrake, The Phantom, Buck Rogers, Tarzan and many others. With Mussolini's imposition to publish only things with Italian protagonists, the pages of these magazines underwent a drastic change. With the exception of Mickey Mouse, beloved by the sons of the Duce, the other characters were Italicized or Germanized and their stories translated until the supplies lasted. Then, Italian authors would write their own episodes. Federico Fellini, for example, wrote a few episodes of Flash Gordon [note IV].

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Flash Gordon and Dale Arden
Sunday page of Flash Gordon
drawing by Alex Raymond 1935 (c)

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Cover of Tex "Gigante" n.33
example of inspiration to classic comics
drawing by Galep (c) SBE

The Italian western was "born under the star of popular culture," says Giromini. The articles of the first "travel" magazines looked "more like pages of novels (London's, J. F. Cooper's, Grey's...) than like magazine's articles and this fact had contributed to create a fantastic image of America. Fascism and the war had made things especially difficult. The former with its ostracism to democratic and wild America, the latter with its misery and destruction.

Luckily enough the authors were dealing with an audience that was even more unprepared that they were. People were na´ve and didn't know whether this or that other detail was accurate or not, and dwelling on the same sources of adventurous narrative they must have felt a deep connection with the improbable adventures of their Italian-American heroes. From the very beginning, Bonelli and Galep worked on their documentation on the American West. Their main sources were adventure novels; movies and the illustrations published in Il Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi (The Illustrated Magazine of Journeys). They tried their best to respect the geography even in precise details and they studied it through maps of the West. It took years, though, before Bonelli and Galleppini could consult a map of their heroes' time ["Tex e il sogno continua"], as it took at least a decade to read the first descriptions of Indians that would go beyond the scholastic and imperialistic approach of the former text-books.

The changes made in the figure of Tex, both in his physical and moral quality, and the increasing accuracy in depicting landscapes, Indians, white adventurers, objects and places, went along with the coming of age of the audience and it is probably one of the secrets of Tex's longevity. At first there where movies, John Ford's Howard Hawks', Anthony Mann's, and so on, with charismatic actors and actresses. Tex's face was modeled on Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, John Wayne and later, the same Galleppini. There were, of course, reproductions of paintings by Bodmer, Catlin, Remington, and the western, or rather "wilderness" narrative with its classics published in a collection called "Romantica" published by Sonzogno. For Galep (Galleppini) the real inspiration came from the popular strips of Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby drawn by Alex Raymond, and in particular from Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon.

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"My name is Tex" (c) 1975 Mondadori
Another visual example came from the illustrated version of Salgari's adventurous novels. Walter Molino, whose style was considered a model to imitate, had illustrated "Sulle Frontiere del West" (In the Western Frontiers). In spite of these few examples, Galleppini and Bonelli had to rely more on their creativity. The diversified settings and people required more examples than the few these artists were able to find. As a consequence, a lot of the visual elements had to be invented. Galleppini, keeping in mind the fleeting images of American movies as well as he could, had to fill the blanks with images drawn from his fantasy or his immediate reality. He would go in the Trentino's mountains and collect sketches of gorges, peaks, valleys and cabins that he would later transfer to the pages of his comic ["Conversazione con Galleppini"].

Then, to diversify the faces and personality of the different characters, he would borrow the features of neighbors, colleagues and friends. In his "Indiani di Fantasia" ("Fantasy Indians"), Galleppini writes: ...I find inspiration for my work from everything that surrounds me. May I be forgiven, then, if sometimes my Indians may have looked a little too familiar and home-made, just like for many other elements of my Tex: perhaps the marked and wrinkled faces of the fishermen casually met in some Ligurian Beach are not totally foreign to that.

Commenting on the dreamy and surreal quality of the first Italian westerns, Antonio Faeti talks of the "extraordinary, emotional tribute to the American West" expressed by the first na´ve, later mature, art of Italian first Westerns' makers ["I butteri di Nerbini, Gli scorridori di Sonzogno"]. Perhaps, if these facets of Italian culture had been known by Americans at the time of the "Spaghetti Western" (where the surreal and dreamy element often returns), the critics would have been moved rather than irritated - as it was often the case - by the parody and distortion of their national myth. This tribute is a way to integrate the extraordinary and unique American adventure into an older society through popular culture. It defines the mental landscape of a nation whose culture was deeply influenced and transformed by the American experience, not just the "Frontier" as a Manichaean symbol of opposite worlds, but the world of a national memory mixed with the "Wild West Show" and the long parade of older heroes that made history.

G. L. Bonelli had created the hero that he wanted to be: a brave and generous man intolerant of arrogance, domination, lies and soldiers. A man that would despise any gratuitous act of violence but that would not fear anything or anybody. As an expression of a dynamism and an energy that was a concentrate of the images of the West as conveyed by movies and narrative, but also of the heroes created by London, Dumas, Hugo, Verne and Salgari, Tex is a hybrid that came out spontaneously from Bonelli's and Galleppini's imagination later refined by Bonelli's son Sergio, Claudio Nizzi and a number of different artists. G. L. Bonelli loved action and plots, Sergio had a inclination for the fantastic, Nizzi went back to the original model and made the hero even more invincible, and the stories more realistic.

On the other hand, Bonelli and Galep loved the wastelands, and found inspiration not just in Ford's Monument Valley but also in the "deserts" of Galep's native Sardinia ["Tex e il sogno continua"]; Ticci loved both figures and landscapes. He tried to visualize the tension present in the characters before and during an action, to bring both realism and cinematographic style to his interpretation of Tex; Tex himself, born with Gary Cooper's traits , becomes at time Charlton Heston and at times John Wayne. The alternating authors saved this comic from repetition and guaranteed that the heroes would evolve, mature and refine themselves in accordance with the spirit of the time and the new suggestions coming from movies and culture [note V]. Some critics, for example, defined the current "Tex" as a "twilight western". Many of Tex's episodes of that time, in fact showed a character "more doubtful and puzzled than the classic one, lacking any triumphant utopia and connoted by a bigger bitterness and more evident poetry. It is finally possible to grasp the foolishness of war and the absence of meaning in violence, in a tight relationship with movies such as "Little Big Man" and "Blue Soldier" ["Io sparo positivo"].

To conclude I would like to underline the progressive approach of G. L. Bonelli toward the racial problem. Tex occasionally runs into bad Indians, but he has more friends than enemies among them. Writing at a time lacking the sense of "politically correct" and "Eurocentrism", Bonelli tends to let the Whites be predominant, and as in the American tradition doesn't allow an interracial marriage to survive. On the other hand, Lilith herself must be a half-breed; at least this is what her name and her green eyes lead to believe. This "thinning of Indianess down" probably accounts for Kit Willer's survival.

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Tex "Albo d'Oro" n.22/1 (c) 1949 SBE
An exception to racial problem, was Chinese, always bad
In Tex, the Indians are a prehistoric but yet civilized culture. Tex shows at times an "imperialistic" attitude toward them, but he is usually fascinated and lured into their world. Certainly Italians could fantasize these people more than Americans. Guided by the myth of the "noble savage," and unspoiled by a direct fear of them as well as by a sense of hidden guilt, they liked to think that good Indians were all beautiful, agile, and proud. Their poetic language and spiritual world represented another way to freedom ["Immagine degli Indiani"]. Nevertheless, stereotypes, naivetes and discrimination abound.

On the one hand Italian kids were led to believe that Indians could read complex sentences in smoke signals, complete with adjectives, number and verb tenses ["Western Graffiti"]. On the other hand whoever wasn't a friend, or a friendly tribe, was irremediably stupid, gullible, and bloodthirsty. G.L.Bonelli was guilty of this. At the same time, he believes that in the Manichaean world of Tex, all the bad ones were represented as stupid, ugly and mean. According to him, he gave Indians a great dignity as they were simply the defeated, impoverished and saddened by the circumstances ["Conversazione con Bonelli"]. G. L. Bonelli wrote that in many ways the Indian represented the necessary negative figure of the story. He disagrees with the modern fashion to make good all the "wolves of the fable". He thinks that we all already knew that the discovery of America coincided with genocide, but if Tex had been too much on the Indian side, he probably would have resulted unpleasant. Bonelli, on the other hand, loves Indians but believes that their way of life couldn't be understood by the White man ["Mi sono simpatici"].

When Tex was moving his first steps, another great Italian artist, Hugo Pratt, wrote and illustrated a pro-Indians story. Sgt. Kirk, published in Argentina, is the story of a deserter from the American army who chooses to live with an Indian tribe of the Plains ["Comics of the American West"]. It took more than two decades to find something similar in movies. Out of the main stream industry, and away from the real "West," it was already possible to "dance with wolves".

Notes

I. This and the following are my own translations.

II. Albertarelli admitted in an interview (Linus, Sept. 1966) that he didn't know anything about the real Kit Carson. He had found his name in a book by Truslow Adams and had learned that Carson had been a famous hunter, and a scout in Fremont's expedition in the Rocky Mountains and up to California. From: Ferruccio Giromini. "'Spaghetti-Wilderness': un'epopea fantasticata."

III. From: Brunoro, Gedda and Verger. "Gli Ambienti." Tex e il sogno continua. (49-76).

IV. This outline of the story of comics in Italy comes from a Web page: "Italian Comics and the Industry of the Imagination." (http://www.bvzm.com/english/italianeng.html)

V. The description of the style of Tex's different authors is described in several of the works I consulted. In particular, see the volumes, Tex, Un Senese nel West con Tex e..., and Tex e il sogno continua.

List of works cited
TITOLO EDITORE AUTORI
"Un senese nel West con Tex e.." Florence: Glamour International Production, 1995 Becattini, Alberto, et al.
"Conversazione con Gianluigi Bonelli." Siena: Editori del Grifo, 1982 Eds. Mauro Paganelli and Sergio Valzania
"Mi sono simpatici!"
I Cerchi del Mondo..
Comune di Genova, 1983 Ed. Claudio Bertieri.
"Tex. La Leggenda. 1948-1998 cinquant'anni di avventure." Milan: Mondadori, 1997
"Il caso Tex, non a caso una storia lunga decenni" Florence: Glamour International Production, 1994 Eds. Gianni Brunoro, Antonio Carboni, and Antonio Vianovi
"Tex, e il sogno continua" Torino: Edizioni d'Arte Scarabeo, 1994 Brunoro, Gianni, Alberto Gedda, and Giovan B. Verger
"Cerco Piste Inconsuete."
I Cerchi del Mondo..
Comune di Genova, 1983 Canale, Antonio
"I butteri di Nerbini, gli scorridori di Sonzogno" Roma: Edizioni De Luca, 1994 Faeti, Antonio
"La scrittura malinconica. Sceneggiatura e serialitÓ nel fumetto italiano." Firenze: La Nuova Italia editrice 1987. Frezza, Gino
"Conversazione con Aurelio Galleppini." Siena: Editori del Grifo, 1982 Eds. Mauro Paganelli and Sergio Valzania
"Indiani di Fantasia"
I cerchi del mondo..
Comune di Genova, 1983 Ed. Claudio Bertieri
"'Spaghetti Wilderness': un'epopea fantasticata." Roma: Edizioni De Luca, 1994. Girmoni, Ferruccio
"Comics of the American West" Stoeger Publishing Co., 1977 Horn, Maurice
"Io Sparo Positivo" Firenze, Italia: Glamour International Production, 1994. Mantegazza, Raffaele, and Brunetto Salvarani
Introduzione Montepulciano (Siena): Editori del Grifo, 1982 Paganelli, Mauro and Sergio Valzania
"I lavori bonelliani" Un senese nel West con.. Florence: International Glamour Productions, 1995 Spiritelli, Franco

 

 


 
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