Monday, September 9, 2013

Lo Sai Vittorio?

What does Italy, electrical engineering, and the international comics scene have in common?  Can't guess?  Even with the title and/or opening image of this article?  Well, I'll tell you.  It's Italian comics creator, Vittorio Giardino, who, at 31, quit his job as an electrical engineer and devoted his life to comics, only to gain international acclaim with his series of WWII era espionage and intrigue comics starring Max Friedman, an obvious stand-in for the author himself.  Sound overly specific?  Well, it is, but that's okay, Vittorio Giardino is pretty specific, himself.

I first discovered Vittorio Giardino through his Max Friedman series; specifically the first volume of NBM's No Pasaran, found at my local comic book store in a discount box for like, five dollars.  I didn't know anything about it other than his name sounded Italian, and I loved the artwork.  It turned out that although there were two more volumes of that story, a couple preceding Max Friedman tales, and a few shorter collections, not a lot of his work has been published in English.  What was available, at the time I discovered the author, was sometimes hard to come by or a few dollars more than I was expecting.  To an extent, I can understand a more modern comics fan having trouble relating to his work; imagine your dad, who loves WWII, Robert Ludlum and John le Carré novels, and beautifully exotic-looking naked women, decided he was going to quit his job and use his meticulous drafting skills to draw comics that he also wrote.  Doesn't sound awesome?  Turns out it is!
 Born in Bologna in 1946, and premiering in 1981 with his private eye character, Sam Pezzo, it's not hard to imagine that Giardino was inspired by other notable Italian comic creators such as Hugo Pratt and Milo Manara (both of which I have mentioned before), though I would compare Max Friedman more to Pratt's Corto Maltese than Manara's freewheelin' Giuseppe Bergman (both are, as discussed elsewhere, also stand-ins for their respective authors).  Though Giardino also took express inspiration elsewhere, this being my blog and all, I feel free to speculate that the aforementioned authors must have had some impact on our subject, especially given his penchant for historical fiction and eroticism (if you are even mildly interested in either, spend less time looking for weird shit on the internet and pick up whatever you can by Pratt and/or Manara, you won't be disappointed).  Though only one volume of Sam Pezzo P.I. was released in English (that I'm aware of, at least), what is available is nonetheless entertaining, and really wonderful to see as a starting point for Giardino.  Collected in the first (I imagine sales fell short of projection, leading to the cancellation of the translation project before volume two could be produced) volume are The Jockey Rides, and the appropriately hard-boiled-sounding Shit City, through both of which you can see the artist's graphic storytelling skills improving.  As early as these first stories, it seems apparent that Giardino knew the kind of stories he wanted to tell.  While still not the startling quality of his later works, his thoughtful, intelligent style of writing, paired with his blend of precision draftsmanship and cartoonish black lines are all present, waiting to be refined, as his later works would certainly prove to be.
 No Pasaran is the third English Max Friedman story to appear in English, following Orient Gateway,which was itself preceded by Hungarian Rhapsody (I'm listing them as such because, unfortunately, that was the order in which I read them).  Hungarian Rhapsody expertly introduces the character as "...someone who doesn't burn up so easily, someone unknown... In short, someone skillful but an amateur."  He plays the part of an unwilling participant in a life that is alluded to be behind him after the First World War.  As you learn later in his life story (No Pasaran), Friedman was part of the International Brigades, and although each book works as a stand alone subject, there is definitely a sense of linearity to them.  I have a feeling, from illustrations that I have come across in art books and collections of his work that there are more Max Friedman stories out there, but I haven't found any hard information on where they might be; in his Glamour Book, there are several pages of illustrations and story involving the character, but I have yet to find specific titles or years that any missing stories may be attributed to (in fact, it took Giardino several years to complete No Pasaran, with the three NBM volumes released in 2000, 2002, and 2008, respectively).

After making my way through all the Max Friedman I could find, I immediately scoured any outlets I could to get my hands on more work in English, which brought me of course, firstly, to Little Ego.  Inspired by Winsor McCay's Little Nemo, Little Ego is an adventure in sexuality, in which the titular protagonist, a twenty-something heroine, continuously finds herself in the middle of one erotic dream after another.  Like Nemo, she soon wakes, only to declare her need to tell her therapist all about it (in McCay's Nemo, the young boy would wake from his very vivid dreams only to tell his mother all about them).  Though seemingly a simple exploitative adventure (Little Ego was, after all, reprinted in Penthouse Magazine in the mid-nineties, after a successful initial serialization in Glamour International in 1984, Comic Art in 1985, Epix in 1986, and Heavy Metal in 1993), Giardino fills his strip with all the psychological trappings that McCay did himself; in one installment, Ego is confronted and seduced by a crocodile in her bathtub (the crocodile a symbol of duplicity and hypocrisy in dreams), before finding pleasure in literal mirror images of herself in the next episode.  The sheer beauty of the linework and brilliance of paneling again, brings to mind Winsor McCay's obvious influence; though decades later, Giardino was keeping the linge claire style as relevant as McCay and Hergé had done in the early part of the twentieth century (though the "clear line" style origins are attributed mostly to the early Franco-Belgian comic movement, reaching  the height of it's popularity in the 1950s, the style was initially inspired by the work of American cartoonists like McCay and Gluyas Williams).  Little Ego eventually abandons it's initial series of unrelated psycho-sexual misadventures to give way to a more installment-based continuous dream in which our protagonista jumps from one thrilling moment to another, at some moments making the reader forget the trouble that led her to where she is at any given moment.  It's all very dream-like and disorienting, even if each separate installment feels lucid and makes sense within itself.  Ego is not to be trod lightly upon, though as a casual read it can be pure escapist entertainment as well.
Giardino's other long-form collected work, Jonas Fink: A Jew In Communist Prague, stars Jonas Fink, a, uh, Jew in communist Prague.  It takes place during Joseph Stalin's regime in the 1950s and focuses on the persecution of Jonas and his mother following the arrest of his father.  The art and writing are again superb, as one would come to expect from his other work.  Jonas is obviously more youthful than his counterparts in Giardino's other tales, but he remains generally very similar in tone as Max Friedman.  The third volume, Rebellion, even went on to win a Harvey Award for best foreign material in 1999, so that's something!
 As I mentioned before, I had a little more trouble, at the time, finding too much more of his work for a little while.  I ended up finding a few of his books in either French, Italian, or German, though I did end up finding a copy of Deadly Dalliance, an English language Catalan Communications edition of Vacance Fatales, a French language hardback published by Casterman, which I had founds a few months prior.  Unfortunately, as is most often the case with foreign imports of the time (Catalan's edition is dated January of 1991), the printing quality and general presentation is much lower in the English language edition, with printing being offset to the point of blurriness on many of the pages, and even the cover seemingly a low-resolution scan.  Dalliance is also missing about half of it's counterpart's chapters; and while the short stories are generally, in no way related to one another, it's still sorry to see that the full work was not translated in full, for whatever reason that may have been.

Though many of his works remain untranslated (not to mention his bevy of illustration work for magazines, advertisements, and any other number of graphic related productions), I encourage any reader interested to keep their eyes open for anything they come across; translating Latin based languages has become easier with the inception of the internet, if one has time to pursue such a task, and the art honestly stands on it's own enough to warrant such purchases, granted the fee is not too steep.  I would still love to see more translations of his work, if only to find more of it available without hours of searching or paying import shipping costs, but for now we will have to be content with what is available; and while most if not all of his translated work is out of print, it's definitely still out there if one is interested in looking.  Vittorio Giardino has become one of my personal favorites in European comics throughout the past decade, and I again encourage any reader to explore and discover his work for themselves; highest recommendation.
As a quick post script, I want to point out that I have attempted to, upon request, provide more hyperlinks within the text of my articles.  I often forget that some readers may not know many of the references made here, and when it comes to comparing the work of other creators or forerunners in whichever medium I am speaking about, I think that that bit of constructive criticism is appropriate, as I hope to encourage readers to explore beyond my modest-yet-well-meaning articles.  To that point, though many of the links provided throughout this blog often redirect to Wikipedia, I in no way mean for that to be the end of any inquisitive mind's journey.  While I appreciate the ease with which Wikipedia delivers certain information, it is rarely if ever complete, instead providing a very good bouncing off point for those interested in pursuing any information further.  Just saying.

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