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40 years of Zagor
by Moreno Burattini

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(3k) Zagor's 40, and he looks it
by Daniele Alfonso
translation by Ron Harris

Perhaps I should have said he doesn't look it. It would have been nicer. Still, it's true: the Spirit with the Tomahawk has been on the newsstands for forty years now, and he shows absolutely no signs of wearing out. On the contrary, he continues to live through new and surprising adventures every month, maintaining an enviable freshness. After four decades, Zagor is still a youth in top form, bless him.

Indeed, try to imagine you live in a world where Zagor doesn't exist. Try to imagine you're proposing to an editor, perhaps even Sergio Bonelli, that he publish a character who dresses like a superhero, lives in the 1840s United States, gets around using vines like Tarzan, has a bungling Mexican as a travelling companion, convinces the redskins that he's a spirit sent by Manitou, and fights as easily against ordinary cutthroats and kidnappers as against vampires, sorcerors, and the living dead. The editor would probably think you were out of your mind. This isn't the time for that kind of strip. Not the 21st century. Not when kids expect flying heroes who do kung-fu while shooting fireballs from their hands. Not when playing on the credulity of Indians is considered "politically incorrect." Not when the West-the real West-has already been visited by Gino d'Antonio, Berardi & Milazzo, Bonelli & Galep. Not when comedy in synonymous with "The Simpsons" and "South Park." Not when the vampires are those of Dampyr or the zombies those of Dylan Dog. Not when the more adult readers want greater realism in their stories, and characters with real psychological depth. Not when the self-assured champions of justice have given way to increasingly tormented anti-heroes (see, sticking to the Bonelli universe, the likes of Ken Parker, Dylan Dog, and Nathan Never). In short, to publish Zagor nowadays one would have to be crazy.

Lucky for us, Zagor was born in the carefree days of forty years ago, born as a lightweight product expressly designed for an audience of very young kids, under the banner of adventure for all. For them, here was a character who offered in a single package the traits of several successful heroes (Tarzan, The Phantom, Batman or some superhero of that ilk), who lives in the perfect Land of Adventure (19th-century America), and so on. In those days such a character could work, and work it did. The mystery remains how he managed to survive to the present day and still remain true to himself (or nearly so). The magic word is: "alchemy." In Zagor one finds everything and then some. From familiar Western themes to parallel dimensions. From classic enemies armed with knives and guns to more exotic antagonists, all the way up to the supernatural. From characters who are little more than amusing sketches (think, for example, of Icaro la Plume) to those who show complex personalities (like Guitar Jim). From the most improbable adventures (for example "The Last Viking") to those solidly rooted in the real world. From comical situations to highly dramatic plots. And so it goes. In the past he was missing a touch of the color red, but recently even that has fallen into place, and so the picture is complete. The secret is this: no limits of any kind. Giancarlo Berardi says that "the good stories are the ones with good characters." Zagor demonstrates that this is only partly true. The variety of settings and situations is just as important, and this is the series' main strength.

And consider how this intermingling manifests itself not only from one story to the next, but also within a single story, in which humorous or paradoxical situations stand side by side with more realistic, intense, and dramatic sequences. One needs only consider the dual nature of the Zagor-Cico pair. Even if some people-be it readers or (perhaps!) authors-consider Cico an annoying and cumbersome character, if not outright loathsome, his presence constitutes one of the central features of the series. His clumsiness provides a counterpoint to the heroic protagonist providing, so to speak, a counterbalance to all of Zagor's nearly superhuman qualities, increasing the strip's variety immensely. Zagor needs Cico as much as he needs his tomahawk.

"Zagor tells..."
(c) 1970-2001 SBE
Naturally one must also be able to construct a good plot. Even if Zagor was unquestionably born to be a "B series" product, even if Sergio Bonelli admitted to having written many scripts very quickly, "spontaneously" and without a lot of thought, Zagor never really was a B-series strip, unless perhaps in its very earliest days. In reality, the level of the art and story demonstrated that Zagor's authors always did their utmost to deliver a quality product to the newsstand (okay, maybe not in every case; we've all read stories that should never have seen print), even if it was only at the beginning of the 1970s that the series achieved full expressive maturity, with the publication of the final "Zagor tells" which gave the character an unprecedented emotional charge, transforming it for the first time into an adult comic, complex and mature, which it has remained to this day. It was truly in that decade that the series reached the apex of its quality, and consequently the apex of its success.

Since then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Comics in general have changed in form as well as in content. Moving away from the so-called "underground" American comics to the so-called Italian "auteur" comics, even the more popular genres changed their expressiveness, becoming somehow more mature. Even Sergio Bonelli abandoned Zagor to dedicate himself to Mister No; and then came the likes of Ken Parker, Dylan Dog, and Nathan Never, who relaunched the art form in full force, demonstrating that comics aren't just kids' stuff, if someone needed to see this painfully obvious matter demonstrated. Good for us. Or rather, good for comics in general. But not so good for Zagor, who once again finds himself labelled a juvenile product. Completely unjustly, this we know: perhaps it's those people who can read "Terror from the Sixth Planet" and see only the absurdity of a guy armed with only a bow and arrows fighting aliens, never noticing the perfection with which the story is written and drawn. Like dismissing Dylan Dog as an idiot because he shoots at zombies.

(8k) (8k)

But something is changing again, responding to an eternal urge toward renewal that is in the end cyclical. The publication in more or less recent times of Legs, Jonathan Steele, and Gregory Hunter testify to a will to steer comics toward a form of entertainment less problem-ridden than the aforementioned Dylan Dog and Nathan Never, because, after all, a part of the readers (or perhaps a part of every reader) needs to read a comic for simple enjoyment without struggling with existential doubts. It's surely no accident that Antonio Serra cites the first issue of Zagor in the first issue of Gregory Hunter. One might almost see a division-but we could also call it diversification-that sets a more fantastic and carefree kind of comic against another more realistic and introspective, with the aim of reaching as wide an audience as possible, especially considering the various age brackets.

Naturally, a comic already exists that combines entertainment with introspection and fantasy with realism: it's called Zagor, and it's been on the stands for forty years.



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