Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Bonelli Comics: the Marvel and DC of Italy

Italy has a really robust comic book industry, and one of its premiere publishers is Sergio Bonelli Editore. Its various long-running series are incredibly popular not only in Italy, but in many countries throughout Europe (including, obviously, Croatia, which is how I became familiar with its output) and even beyond. However, they never seem to have caught on in any English-speaking countries, so very little of Bonelli’s material has been translated for that audience – with a few exceptions, which is what this post is about.

Back in the late 1990s, Dark Horse made some forays into publishing Bonelli comics for the American reading public. This involved three 6-issue mini-series featuring some of Bonelli’s more popular long-running characters –which are now very hard to find. Last summer (and partly this summer) a reading project of mine was to track down the Croatian translations of those particular stories in the library.

I’ll start with Martin Mystère, the creation of writer Alfredo Castelli and artist Giancarlo Alessandrini, Mystère is an archeologist, art and artifact collector, and all around globe-trotting adventurer and “detective of the impossible” based in New York. He’s accompanied in his adventures by his trusty assistant and friend Java, an actual living, breathing Neanderthal man, and a frequent member of his supporting cast is his long-suffering lady love, Diana (long-suffering because Martin tends to be a magnet for attractive young women in distress). The series is still ongoing, and there are a few spin-offs as well.

Covers by Dave Gibbons #s1-4, Giancarlo Alessandrini, #s5-6

Dark Horse, by the way, changed the main character’s name to ‘Martin Mystery,’ and very logically started its mini-series with the first story from 1982 under the title “Destroyers of the Past” (in Italian, the story’s title is “The Men in Black”). This one really sets up what type of series Martin Mystère is, as the action takes place in Greece, the Azores and Egypt, and involves the discovery of evidence that the lost continent of Atlantis did indeed exist, and the main adversaries are members of a secret organization that wants to destroy that evidence.

Martin and Java kicking butt

The rest of the stories in the Dark Horse series in issues 2 through 6 are: “The Sword of King Arthur” (originally published in 1983; it’s a two-parter in issues 2 and 3; it’s a real Da Vinci Code type story that posits that Excalibur is actually the Holy Lance/Spear of Destiny, and aliens are also involved); “Manhattan Ghosts” (originally published in 1987), “The Revenge of Ra” (originally published in 1982)s a direct sequel to the first story, so I’m puzzled as to why DH put it in the fifth issue; and “The Mystery of the Sagrada Familia” (originally published in 1992, under a title that translates into “Ten Years Later,” because it was the tenth anniversary story). All of these stories were by the same creative team, i.e., Castelli and Alessandrini, although a number of other artists, and later also writers, have worked on the series.

Next up is Dylan Dog. The creation of writer Tiziano Sclavi, Dylan Dog is a ‘nightmare investigator’ (as the sign on his front door says) based in London, where he lives with his wisecracking sidekick named Groucho (who looks, and acts, exactly like the eponymous Marx brother). He takes on any case that has some kind of supernatural, paranormal or magical aspect, i.e., if you’re having trouble with vampires, werewolves, demons, zombies, etc., Dylan’s your guy. As such, this is very much a horror comic, with a rather somber tone, peppered with little bits of humor, and the stories often take a surreal turn. The series was launched in Italy in 1986, and apparently it became an instant hit.

All covers by Mike Mignola

As with Martin Mystère, the six Dylan Dog stories published by DH in 1999 start off with the very first one, “Dawn of the Living Dead,” which was originally published in Oct. 1986. As the title suggests, it’s a zombie story. The art, by Angelo Stano, is quite good and would not have looked out of place in one of Warren’s b&w horror magazines.

The other five in order are: “Johnny Freak” (art by Andrea Venturi; by originally published in June 1993), “Memories of the Invisible World” (art by Giampiero Casertano; originally published in April 1988), “The Return of the Monster” (art by Luigi Piccatto; originally published in May 1987), “Morgana” (art by Angelo Stano; originally published in Oct. 1988) and “After Midnight” (art by Giampiero Casertano; originally published in Nov. 1988). All were written by Sclavi, although Mauro Marcheselli also gets a ‘story by’ credit for “Johnny Freak.” That latter one, together with “After Midnight” (basically a sort of riff on Scorsese’s After Hours, except with a body count) are my favorites of these.

A few years later, in 2002, Dark Horse also published another one-off Dylan Dog story, “Zed.” It’s also written by Sclavi, with art by Bruno Brindisi. This one has Dylan traveling to an other-dimensional paradise where (as one would suspect) all is not as it seems. In my opinion this is the weakest of these Dylan Dog stories.

By the way, in 2009 Dark Horse published a tpb collecting the Dylan Dog stories, called The Dylan Dog Case Files, but it’s out-of-print and used copies are pretty spendy.

Finally, there’s my personal favorite of the Bonelli material I sampled, Nathan Never. This is an SF action series set in the future, about a century or so from now. In this world, there’s not much information about history prior to the early 21st century (in the aftermath of some vague but major planetary catastrophe that happened in 2024). Although there’s some kind of global governing body called the Security Council, power is mainly exercised by large corporations and wealthy individuals. While the police and judiciary still exist, many law enforcement tasks and investigations are handled by private security agencies. One such agency is called Alfa, and that’s where Nathan Never, an ex-cop, works. Alfa is has its HQ a giant eastern metropolis in North America (basically an agglomeration of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC, etc.).

Nathan Never is the brainchild of three writers, Antonio Serra, Michele Medda and Bepi Vigna, who scripted (either individually or jointly) most of the initial stories (for about the first 100 issues). The series was launched in 1991 and rapidly became quite popular, with well over 300 issues now, not counting special and ‘giant’ issues (kind of like annuals). There are also been about a half-dozen spin-off series, a few of which are also still ongoing (I think).

Covers by Art Adams (#s1-4) and Roberto De Angelis (#5-6)

The stories in the six Dark Horse issues are: “Vampyrus,” a sort of retelling of Dracula set on an orbiting space station, written by Medda with art by Nicola Mari (originally published in July 1993); “The Darkness in the Heart,” sort of loosely modeled after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written by Vigna with art by Stefano Casini (originally published in Aug. 1993); “Dirty Boulevard,” a cyberpunk story set in the streets of an impoverished section of the city, written by Medda, with art by Germano Bonazzi (originally published in Jan. 1994); “Tragic Obsession,” another one with Gibsonesque cyberpunk concepts, written by Medda and drawn by Casini (originally published in May 1994); “Children of the Night,” a sequel to “Vampyrus” but set on Earth, written by Medda and drawn again by Mari (originally published in July 1994); and “The Babel Library,” a really complicated story involving a secret society in possession of actual books (something looked down upon in this dystopian future), written by Serra and drawn yet again by Mari (originally published in July 1995).

I really like Mari’s work in particular; sample pages from “Vampyrus” (left) and “The Babel Library” (right)

Another thing I liked in the Nathan Never stories are all of the little hat-tips and/or Easter eggs from other media, from SF books and movies to comics. Thus, you’ll find references to, say, Asimov’s laws of robotics, mnemonic couriers, or a character getting frozen in carbonite. as well as characters with names like Giraud, Greunwald, Sirtis, Michelle Forbes, Aaron Stack (an android), Sung (the inventor of AI in Nathan’s world), or Ubiq (a genetically modified house-pet owned by Nathan’s next-door neighbor), and corporations with names like Starfleet, Ultron or Gibson Informatics. Also, one of Never’s arch-enemies, an international criminal mastermind named Aristotel Skotos, bears a striking resemblance to Ra’s al Ghul.

A little later, in 2005, a publisher called SAF Comics released an English translation of a story featuring one of Bonelli’s marquee characters, arguably the one that launched the publisher’s empire: Tex. This incredibly popular Western series, the creation of Gian Luigi Bonelli (Sergio’s dad) and Aurelio Galleppini, was launched in 1948, and has never ceased publication since. The titular character, Tex Willer, is a Texas ranger, although he tends to travel and have adventures far and wide throughout the American West and beyond. Anyway, the book I’m talking about is Tex: The Lonesome Rider, which was written by Claudo Nizzi and drawn by none other than Joe Kubert.

In Italy, this first appeared in 2005 as part of a line of giant-sized specials which are only published a few times a year, always feature art by some notable artist who doesn’t normally work on the regular Tex series, while the stories are usually well over 200 pages (they’re called ‘Texone,’ which can be loosely translated as ‘Big Tex’). This is, obviously, a beautifully drawn story…

This is, obviously, scanned from the Croatian edition

(By the way, Dark Horse later reprinted this book in 2015)

And that was – as far as I know – was about all from the Bonelli line that could be found in English until just over a decade ago, when a small publisher based in San Diego, Epicenter Comics, was established. Its seems to be almost exclusively dedicated to publishing translated edition s of European comics, Bonelli titles in particular, in hefty full-color trade paperbacks. These include several volumes of the aforementioned Dylan Dog and Tex…

…as well as a few other popular Bonelli heroes, like Magic Wind (a white guy who’s a shaman living among the Native Americans in the post-Civil War American West), Mr. No (an anti-hero adventurer  set in South America during the 1950s/1960s)…

…and Zagor  – a sort of cross between Daniel Boone and Tarzan, set in the US northeast (Pennsylvania or thereabouts) in the 1820s. This latter series is hugely popular in Croatia and several other post-Yugoslav countries.

Epicenter has published almost a dozen Zagor titles

Epicenter is an odd company, as not much information can be found at its website; in fact, you’re better off checking its Facebook page. It’s owner is a guy named Igor Maricic, who near as I can tell immigrated to the US from Croatia (where he sometimes posts on a popular local comics forum). The company seems to fund a lot of its books through Kickstarter campaigns, and uses eBay as its sales platform. Personally, I haven’t read any of these, although I did once flip through a few of them at comic book show here in Zagreb about a year ago – didn’t end up buying any because I’d already shot my purchasing budget. However, they’re really nice-looking books and if you’re living in the US, I think they offer free shipping.

3 Comments

  1. Greg Burgas

    Those Tex books – the SAF one and the Epicenter ones – are really nicely done. Big hardcovers, with nice introductions. I didn’t love Magic Wind, but I liked the Mister No book that came out here, and I’m looking forward to more, if I see them!

  2. Adrien

    I know I’m a little late in this post, but I always find it funny how they made a cartoon adaptation of Martin Mystery, and just took the core concept of blondie ladies man with caveman best friend battle weird stuff, and took it in a different direction. Oh, and I think they turned the love interest, Diana, from the comic and tur ed her into a rival/sister in law for Martin that was also involved in the adventures, so that was a choice.

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