Thursday, February 28, 2013

Guilty Pleasures: Frisco Bill

Hello, Frisco, Hello!

I have a soft spot for early postwar Italian comics. Like Golden Age American comics, their vigor and naive enthusiasm make up for simplistic stories and so-so artwork. Frisco Bill, which launched in 1948, is historically significant because it was one of the first titles published by Edizioni Audace, the company which evolved into Sergio Bonelli Editore, powerhouse of modern Italian comics.

At the time Audace was run out of the family home by Tea Bonelli, ex-wife of Gian Luigi Bonelli. a major figure in prewar publishing who gained immortality as the creator of western hero Tex Willer. Tea's all-purpose gofer was her son Sergio, who would work his way up to become one of the most important figures in Italian comics history.
Tea Bonelli

Like many comics of the day, Frisco Bill appeared weekly in the striscia ("strip") format. These were saddle-stapled 6.5 x 9.5 inch booklets with color covers and black-and-white interiors. Counting the covers each issue ran 12 pages. Nine pages of story began on the inside front cover. Fan features and a sports article filled the inside back cover and a page of house ads completed the package.

1940s Italian comic readers weren't much interested in costumed heroes or science fiction. The big sellers were period pieces like westerns or pirate stories, and modern "street clothes" adventures in which a valiant two-fisted hero chased bad guys. Frisco Bill fit solidly into the latter category. Bill was an American journalist (Italian comics were full of American heroes) stationed in Rio de Janeiro. Like most comic book reporters he never wrote anything. He was too busy stumbling into mysteries. Though he started his first adventure solo, in issue 5 Bill joined forces with a street urchin named Zazzera and Zazzera's dog Pillacchera. More on them later.

In the first issue Frisco Bill visits a night club with his girlfriend Lupe, daughter of a local millionaire. They watch a performance by an oily dancer named Zapac and his sultry partner Amarilla. Bill is called to the telephone, where (like most heroes called to telephones) he's knocked unconscious. In his absence crooks abduct Lupe. We learn that Zapac and Amarilla are behind the kidnapping. They belong to an ancient cult called the Sect of the Serpent, a cabal of  Indians led by a character named Zanco (lots of Z's in this story). Zanco has determined that if Lupe is married off to the Sun God, the sect will make a comeback and conquer Brazil. Zapac, Zanco, and company hustle Lupe out of town. When Bill wakes up he vows vengeance, and off we go.

The tale's structure, such as it is, resembles old Saturday morning movie serials. After the first-issue setup the story is an endless cycle of chase, capture, escape, chase, and recapture, punctuated by fist fights and gun battles. As in movie serials,  nothing much changes until the final chapter. After more than 200 pages of frantic action, in issue 25 the saga is wrapped in four breathless pages. By the time the "coming next issue" blurb rolls around Frisco Bill is already deep into a new mystery.

Franco Baglioni by Franco Bignotti
Franco Baglioni's rudimentary script seems to have been made up as it went along. One character, Zapac's jealous girlfriend, appears, wanders awkwardly through a couple of scenes, then quietly vanishes. Amarilla's role changes several times during the story. She starts as a secondary character, but by the last chapter she's practically the boss. It is she who frees our heroes and seals forever the entrance to the sect's hidden city. An impressive percentage of Baglioni's dialogue consists of exclamations of surprise and name-calling. Along with "brick face," Frisco Bill likes to call his opponents "Maccabees." Maybe someone out there can tell me why.

Artist Guido Zamperoni was a competent craftsman who went on to do some good work. Here, though, he delivers precisely what he's asked for and not a dot more.
Guido Zamperoni
Generic backgrounds and props rob the story of exoticism. It doesn't help that he uses only a handful of character faces. All the Indians look alike, all the white bad guys look alike, and the women are distinguishable only by their hairdos. In fact, when she is introduced the jealous girlfriend's hairdo is identical to Lupe's. Even Zazzera mistakes her for the kidnapped heiress. I suspect that's why the poor girl was eliminated from the story.

The strangest artistic choice is co-star Zazzera. Frisco Bill isn't the first "realistic" hero to have a cartoony sidekick. However Zazzera's design is so wildly out of synch with the rest of the artwork that he seems like a grotesque visitor from another universe. Zazzera's head is almost as big as Bill's entire torso, and when the boy starts socking baddies his bizarre proportions make for some very strange pictures. Pillacchera the Pooch is also broadly drawn, but somehow it's easier to accept in a dog. Zamperoni was a capable artist and I'm not maligning his drawing ability. Rather I'm suggesting that somewhere along the line someone made some unfortunate artistic decisions.

To wrap up this glance at Frisco Bill I want to give English readers a taste of his adventures. What follows is a translation of episode 7, "Prisoner of the Serpent." Reading it one might wonder what on earth I see in such stuff. But that's what guilty pleasures are all about, right?

(Note: I don't know if it bothers you as much as it does me, but you're supposed to read the captions before reading the dialogue, even though they appear at the bottom of the panels.)

The photo of Tea Bonelli came from
The drawing of Guido Zamperoni was found on
The portrait of Franco Baglioni, drawn by Franco Bignotti, came from:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Brick Bradford Revisited

The Brick of Human Kindness
In an earlier post I ruminated upon my ambivalent relationship with Brick Bradford, the "other" 1930s s-f adventure strip. In brief, it was a strip full of interesting ideas overwhelmed by meandering scripts and indifferent artwork.

While looking for bathtub reading recently I stumbled upon a small press reprint of "The Lord of Doom," a Bradford continuity from 1936. I realized I'd only read the story once before, and that was Club Anni Trenta's Italian translation. So I gave it another look.

Like many of William Ritt's yarns, "The Lord of Doom" is a huge story, running for nearly a year (13 Apr 1936 to 6 Feb 1937). The tale opens with Brick, June, and Dr. Salisbury crash-landing in the arctic wastes of northeastern Canada. They discover a hidden nation populated by descendants of Ghengis Khan's Mongol warriors. The place is technologically advanced and bristles with modern weaponry.

When they're brought before Temuchin, ruler of the hidden land, our friends are surprised to recognize Gola Mongola, a noted Hollywood actor. Mongola, it seems, was sent into the outside world as a youth to study foreign ways and plan for an ivasion. The Mongols are fed up with their hard life in the arctic wilderness. They want to seize territory in Canada and the United States so they can relocate to a friendlier climate. With the aid of brilliant scientist Kalla Kopak, Temuchin has amassed vast army and air forces. The Mongol invasion is about to begin.

The rest of the story describes the war between the raiders and the North American nations. The narrative alternates between a long view of warfronts and troop movements and a close-up view of Brick's adventures. Professor Salisbury helps the allies deploy an "electric wall" across central Canada. The wall is a series of stations transmitting a ray that causes moving metal parts to congeal into a single mass. There is a chilling scene in which Temuchin's planes first encounter the invisible wall. The entire fleet falls from the sky as engines and control surfaces freeze solid. Their modern weapons rendered useless, the warring armies revert to cavalry  and foot soldiers. The Mongols attempt to break through a section of the front not yet protected by the wall. Canadian, American and Mexican troops beat them back.

Ritt describes the war in elaborate detail. As the opposing forces mass for their first combat the story switches to "real time." Each daily strip presents the events of a day in Bradford's universe. The device becomes unwieldy when Brick's personal adventures move to center stage and Ritt wisely abandons it.

Our hero survives numerous clashes on both sides of the front. Several times he enlists the help of a plucky Canadian boy, a short wave radio enthusiast whose home always seems to be nearby when Brick's plane crashes.

This reliance on coincidence spoils a potentially exciting story. The North Americans' final victory arises from two credulity-straining events. To begin with the allies notice that Brick resembles one of Temuchin's lieutenants who died in battle. They disguise Brick as the officer and send him across the enemy lines to penetrate Temuchin's inner circle. Whereupon the warlord notices his lieutenant's resemblance to Brick...and sends him back to spy on the allies "disguised" as Brick Bradford! By the time Temuchin figures things out Brick has communicated all the invaders' plans to the good guys.

Equally unimpressive is the incident that finally ends the war. Ignoring his officers' advice Temuchin flies a solo sortie over allied lines. He is promptly shot down and taken prisoner. In captivity Temuchin realizes his cause is hopeless. He gives up and sends orders to Kalla Kopak to surrender.

It's a disappointing way to end the story, but Ritt saves it with a last-minute surprise. Following the surrender Bradford sympathizes with the Mongols' desire to escape the frozen tundra. He proposes that Temuchin's people be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Brick personally lobbies the League of Nations to permit the former enemy to resettle in the central states and to take a shot at becoming productive citizens of the World's Greatest Country.

It must be remembered that when "The Lord of Doom" was written America was living through one of its many periods of belligerent xenophobia. Popular literature teemed with sinister Orientals leading yellow hordes. For Brick to offer a vanquished enemy--a vanquished Asian enemy--such generosity is astounding.

Brick's faith proves well-founded. The new immigrants thrive. They even carve a commemorative bust of Brick into a mountain overlooking one of their new cities. Kalla Kopak becomes Brick's friend. In subsequent stories he is Brick's Dr. Zarkov, sharing the hero's exploits. Kopak's origin is quickly forgotten as is with the war itself. Forgotten it may be, but in my book Brick's handling of the invasion's aftermath wins him permanent standing as a first-class hero.

Postscript: Sorry I was able only to reproduce part of most of these dailies. My regular scanner was unavailable and this damned "all-in-one" monstrosity wouldn't fit an entire page without wrecking the book. All reproductions are from a two-volume "Limited Edition  for Collectors" with no publisher information.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Comics and Censorship

You Can't Say That!

When I was a kid I discovered many old books about comics and cartooning in my home away from home, the Snohomish Public Library. Almost every one of them mentioned the arcane rules regulating what you could and could not put into a syndicated comic strip.

These weren't official rules, like postal regulations. They were rules of thumb developed by editors based on feedback from their readers. "Feedback" usually meant a threat to cancel a subscription. Editors, the story went, estimated that for every person who complained there were several times that number (3, 4, and 5 were common figures) who felt the same way but didn't bother to write. So the editors passed each complaint up the line and threatened to drop the strip if the syndicate didn't keep its cartoonists in check. The result, the story went, was that newspaper strips were among the most conservative storytelling forms, their content dictated by a vocal minority of readers in the South and the Midwest.

I read so many variations of that story that I began to wonder if it was an urban legend. The alleged list of taboos included obvious stuff like nudity and profanity, but also depictions of black persons, alcohol use and snakes. Authors always mentioned snakes. Yet at the same time these strictures were supposedly in effect, major strips broke many of the rules. Just one example was Leslie Turner's Captain Easy, which offered plenty of lingerie shots and backlit semi-nudity.

I still don't know whether readers demanded those hidebound restrictions, but I'm certain editors believed they did. A case in point is this remarkable Bud Sagendorf Popeye strip I found on Segni & Disegni's site. It is dated 13 April 1976.

This strip was the payoff of an extended sequence in which a vampire menaces Olive Oyl. She scares him off by using the moonlight to cast a shadow shaped like...a dagger?! Anyone want to bet on what might be hidden beneath that pasteover? I didn't think so.

Obviously someone at the Syndicate got scared that some editor would figure some reader would be offended by the words "A cross!" I suspect the hypothetical editor feared not an outraged atheist, but rather a conservative Christian who found the scene sacriligeous. And this was in 1976, well after strips like Doonesbury had challenged most of the old taboos.

When I was drawing Dallas in the early 1980s I had my own brush with editorial second-guessing. One storyline had bad boy J. R. bribing a hot-pants Arab oilman by offering him a shot at his niece Lucy. J. R. presents his offer by showing the oilman a sexy photo of Lucy in a swimsuit. The "reveal" is in the final panel of a Sunday page, where there is plenty of room to show the picture that makes Abdul's mouth water.

From the beginning the Syndicate editor instructed me to be ver-r-r-y careful not to make the picture sexy, lest it shock an editor into cancelling the strip. I was to present Lucy in a demure pose in a one-piece swimsuit with a high neckline and a modest cut about the hips. I did what I was told. The result looked something like this.
And believe me, there was no cleavage--precious little bust, in fact--and the legs were chastely crossed. But when the editor saw it he still wondered if the drawing went too far. At his instruction I pasted an enormous piling over the middle of the figure, large enough to cover any conceivable area of interest, drawn large enough (and carefully placed) so as to avoid any unintended phallic suggestion. It came out something like this (I no longer have a copy of the strip to show you):
Actually, I think this sketch shows a little more than the revised art; I was charged to eliminate any chance that someone might ogle Lucy's boobs. Not the sort of thing to fire the passions, is it?

The incident spotlighted a fundamental problem with basing a newspaper strip on the Dallas TV series. The two key elements of the show were sex and booze. In the strip we couldn't do sex--period!--and the booze was limited to endless shots of  J. R. pouring from a bottle of wine. Kind of took the wind out of the sales.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Swiping Among the Masters

Don't Draw What You Can Trace...18th Century Edition

Explaining my sudden reappearance after months of inactivity will be dealt with in a future post. At the moment I'm much more interested in an oddity from the days of real painting.

I follow a fascinating blog titled "Where is Ariadne?" Each posting takes a venerable art theme (e.g. Birth of Venus, Apollo and Daphne, Mermaids, Cain and Abel) and presents a gallery of interpretations of that theme by painters down through history. It's interesting to see how each artist staged a time-worn story: his (almost always his) choice of which portion of the tale to present, its setting, which details he featured, and so on.

This week's theme is "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife," one of those great tales in which artists could present a salacious story ennobled by Biblical trappings. You may recall the plot: the wife of Potiphar, a rich bigwig, attempts unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph. The woman scorned grabs Joseph's coat as he beats a retreat.  Later she uses the coat as evidence when she accuses Joseph of rape.

As I examined the paintings, two of them caught my eye. The first was this 1703 canvas attributed to Lazzaro Baldi.


The second was a 1711 painting by Jean-Baptiste Nattier.

Do you see what I see? Curious, I took the images to Photoshop. First I flopped the Baldi.

Then I laid the Baldi over the Nattier, making it transparent so we can compare the images. Here's the result. Baldi is on top, reduced to 33% opacity. I moved it around a bit, but I didn't rotate, scale or otherwise alter the image.

There's no question. The Nattier is a flopped tracing of the Baldi. The fringing on Joseph might come from his figure having been moved by Nattier, but it could just be differences in the photos of the paintings. This isn't someone's careful re-drawing of the earlier painting. It's a direct trace. Considering that the image is flopped, I wonder if it was copied with one of those prism / half-silvered mirror contraptions. Or was the 18th century version of tracing paper laid over the Baldi and the resulting tracing transferred to the new canvas?

I'd love to hear from readers who know more than I do about classic painters. What was going on here?