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:


john adcock said...

Something about the artwork seemed familiar and at first I was thinking of Alex Raymond, but then it came to me - Lou Fine - definitely some Lou Fine influence in there.

=link said...

oddly, the brushwork reminds me of Ditko. Kooky, eh? In any event, I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into a post-war culture. 1940s, you say?

=link said...

May I ask, where did you find this English language version? I assume it was originally in Italian...