Friday, March 10, 2006

Napoli Report

(signing at the Coconino Press booth. l. to r.: Gipi. Marco, Baru, Paul Karasik, Igort. Ever notice how all the GREAT cartoonist have only one name?)

From the Florentines, this is what I have learned about other Italians:

The Siennese are snobs.
The Luccans are xenophobes.
The Pisans are morons.
And people from Prato (right over the hill barely 20 minutes away, mind you) not only do not know how to drive, but they drive big, fancy new cars because they are show-offs.

Bring up the name of another town that you might be considering visiting, and everyone will have an opinion about what is wrong with the citizenry as well as with you for lacking the God-given common sense to want to go anywhere else in Italy. This animosity has been explained to me as a result of hundreds of years of turf wars where everybody was trying to take over everybody else’s towns. Italy did not become a Republic until 1861, and even now a Florentine can have trouble understanding the speech of a Sicilian should he be lacking God given common sense and find himself in Sicily (where, I am told, those barbarians do not know how to make a decent cup of coffee). In conversation, the mention of a trip to another town will merit at least one or two side-swipes, but mention that you are going to Naples and expect a head-on culture collision that will snarl-up conversational traffic for at least 30 minutes.

I made the mistake about bragging to some of my Florentine friends that I had been invited to attend the comics festival (from now on referred to as “Comicon”) in Naples and I am now qualified to write the guide book on why not to go there for a visit.

Florentine checklist:
In Naples:
DO be very, very careful whom you talk to.
DO look both ways and make sure your insurance is paid up before crossing the street.
DO accept directions from nobody, especially anyone in a uniform. (You will note that this last directive is a double-negative, or a double-positive, or something. I could not remember anything else that anybody told me to do that was draped in a positive tone.)

In Naples:
DON’T wear a Rolex.
DON’T accept opera tickets from a stranger because he will then know that you are out of your hotel room from 8-11 and take everything that is not bolted down, but they usually bring bolt-cutters, too.
DON’T forget to count your change.

My neighbor summed it up when he heard I was going by putting his hand gravely on my shoulder and explaining to me in terms that an American might understand that Naples is, ‘like the Wild West”.

The one thing that everyone begrudgingly admitted was that in Naples they do know how to make pizza, sort of.

Most of all, my Florentine sources informed me: do not expect to be treated well. The Neapolitans do not know how to treat a guest. “Spoil a guest” is one of the Italian Commandments right after, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s mother-in-law who makes really good gnocchi”.

They were wrong. As the guest of Comicon Napoli 2006, I was treated very well. The coordinators tried to make me feel as though I was right at home in America by providing me with a luxurious room at a Holiday Inn with a stunning view of some huge, ugly buildings (I was later informed by a Florentine that downtown Naples is thick with huge, ugly American-style skyscrapers because the Mafia runs the city and they are a bunch of thugs with no taste who like to pour a lot of concrete).

The Comicon itself was held in a castle. Yup, you read it right, a castle. Well, why not? Comicon…Castle! Get it? They both begin with the letter “C”, dummy! In a castle setting it is only marginally embarrassing to see grown men and women in medieval costume casting spells on one another and plunging cardboard swords through latex bodices. Can’t have a Comicon without those guys showing up. The subdued and tasteful lighting protected the delicate comic books and comic book readers from the natural light they so despise. And as far as I could tell, the infamous thieves of Naples were nowhere in sight due to the immediate presence of real dungeons directly beneath the Comicon.

Upon entering, I was set to do a book signing at a special desk with a beautiful new halogen lamp and swivel chair with the price tag still dangling. Wow! Unfortunately, the room I was to sign in was tucked behind a gallery wall so far off the beaten path that they had to send a rescue team in pith helmets to locate me with bloodhounds when the time was up. Fortunately, I had brought the crossword puzzle. unfortunately, it was in Italian. Actually, one comics fan did stumble upon me, took a quick look at my book (which contains exactly zero superheroes) and asked me if I would draw a picture of the super-character he had made up: Dinosman. My Italian has improved a little since I came here six months ago, but I think that I still missed a lot about the nature of Dinosman as described to me by this kid. As I understood and drew him, Dinosman is half man, half dinosaur, and one of his legs is either a rocket, a bazooka, or a cannoli.

If you do not know this about me already, in addition to making comics I like comics, too, especially old, stupid comics. I bought two old stupid comics at this comicon based on a purchase I had made last fall in Lucca when I bought a digest-sized comic called Gey Carioca featuring the comic adventures of the title character, a shapely gal. These adventures mostly consist of Gey losing her clothes and then trying to find odd objects lying around with which to cover herself.

At the first used-comics stand that I went to at the Napoli Comicon, one of these books just popped into my hands. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to find more issues with almost all of the vendors looking at the cover of this piece of trash I had lovingly clasped to my heart and then shaking their heads grimly saying, wordlessly that no, they had no other issues of Gey Carioca for sale, no, they had never seen Gey Carioca before, and yes, maybe I should seek professional help, the 24 hour on duty Comicon Psychologist was down the castle hall, third moat to the right.

The owner of the very last booth I went to was a grizzly guy who looked at the digest, snapped his fingers, and pulled a tabloid-sized version of Gey Carioca out of the 1 Euro bin. He knew that the artist was Paul Campani and he would be pleased to make this issue a gift with his compliments because he would just as soon be rid of the stupid thing. What I discovered back in the luxury of my luxurious Holiday inn room that night was that the Gey Carioca he had given me was done in 1948 and the digest I had first bought was printed in 1973. Both issues feature the same story but the later edition is completely redrawn panel-by-panel by Paul Campani who updated the hairstyles and cars but had also become a much better (or much worse, depending on one’s taste) artist in the intervening 30 years. I was also to learn from Alfredo Castelli (the great Italian comics historian and another Comicon guest) that Campani was one of the most important designers for early 60’s Italian T.V. animation and that his animation style set the standard for that pivotal era when suddenly every Italian home had a T.V. Thus Italian Baby-boomers recall his work vividly without knowing the guy’s name from the program “Carousel”. I was also told that “Carousel” which was broadcast at night, became the way many children learned to tell time because mothers across Italy told them that they had to go to bed right after “Carousel”: 8:00.

Well, that was more about nothing than I bet you expected to get into. But this is what happens when a comics geek gets his engines revved up. At least I didn’t ask you to draw me a picture of Dinosman.

(Note: In all Gey Carioca drawings above, the example on the left is from 1948 (more Milton "Terry and the Prirates" Caniff style) and on the right, completely redrawn in 1973 (more Bill "Mad" Elder style, but with 1970's hair).

As I made those scans yesterday, I took a closer look at Gey Carioca and now have my doubts whether the 70's version is, indeed, by the same guy, Paul Campani. Here's why: after you get beyond the hairstyle and hardware updates, and the fact that different formats called for different sized panels (and thus different compositions within those panels), the big difference between the two is the rendering. The 70's renderings of the 40's drawings are crisper and loonier (much more to my taste than the sub-standard Caniff rip-off that was so prevelant in the late 40's). But here's the thing: if Paul Campani had become so much better at drawing over 30 years why in the world wouldn't he improve the dumb-ass mistakes he made back in 1948? I now believe that he 1970's artist simply put Campani's drawings on the light table and redrew them with his own "style", changing the shape and compositions to conform to the publishers digest-sized demands, changing the style to conform to modern sensibilities, but did not change the figures to conform to the rules of anatomy or perspective. The earlier version is signed, "Paul", but the latter version is unsigned. Any help here, scholars?

...and pardon me for abruptly shifting gears, but I also believe that you should go read the interview with Ali Shalal Qaissi , the guy standing on the box wearing a hood from the infamous Abu Ghraib photo. While typing the incosequential drivel above, all I have been thinking about is that damn photo. It is important to see that photo again, have a face to put behind the mask, and feel that sick twist in your stomach. By the way, he says he was actually electrically shocked five times while standing on the box. The Specialist who was convicted was acused of only threatening to shock him.


...turns out that Ali Shalai Qaissi is not the man standing on the box in the famous Abu Ghraib photo. He contends that he stood on another box at another time and was electrocuted, as did other prisoners.


This in from comics scholar and author, Alfredo Castelli:

"...concerning the pocket "Gey Carioca"

Ten monthly issues, published by Edizioni Alpe from July 1973 to March 1974. Alpe had published the original series in 1948.

The series was redrawn by Attilio Ortolani ("Attor"), factotum artist at the Alpe publishing house (he did touching-up of pages, titles, filler stories etc). I should have guessed, as I used to know him well, but I didn't because he was specialized in humor drawings (Alpe published several humor comics such as "Cucciolo" and "Tiramolla", which, for a short time, were serious competitors to "Topolino/Mickey Mouse"). "Attor" also drew for a weekly called "Il Monello" new episodes of a short-lived American series, "Tippy Teen", when the original stories finished. Continuing under license discontinued American series was a common practice in Italy. One of them, "Little Eva", originarily published by StJohn, ended in 1952 in the USA; in Italy it lasted - with a new 8-page episode every week - until the late '70s (I myself wrote tons of Eva scripts in the '60s).
I lost contacts with Attilio 30 years ago or so, and I suppose he's retired and on his 70s. If it interests you I think I can find him easily thru colleagues.

For what concerns Paul Campani, see


"PAUL FILM" ANIMATED CARTOONS (Campani's job since 1958)(*)

* He also did many "Popeye" TV Cartoons for KFS under the imprint "Rembrandt Films"

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Rule 16

Can I just stop giving travel advice for a minute and simply give you an order? Good. The next time you are in the neighborhood of the Central Mercato in Florence, for God’s sake go to Nerbone and have a brisket sandwich.

The Mercato is a square block two-story warehouse of food. The downstairs is primarily a meat and cheese market with the random herb and vinegar shop thrown in just to keep the arteries unclogged. Although there are hundreds of different meats available in all forms it is fairly easy for even an American to identify the various cuts. This is because a lot of the meat still has its head attached. Upstairs are the fruits and vegetables. Prior to entering, take out your travel-sized can of WD40 and apply liberally to the neck: guaranteed, your head will spin. In the pursuit of honest and accurate reporting, I decided to carefully count all of the stalls and came up with the exact figure of: a lot. While my daughters do not share my unnatural obsession with aging newsprint, we all do love to cook and eat and a few of us do not even mind doing the dishes. The stalls in the Mercato are run by people who are serious about food, too…serious about selling it. The prices are competitive, the stuff is fresh, and great care is given to the presentation. It looks so good that you want to touch and squeeze everything, but please do not or the vendor may touch and squeeze your throat. I saw one tourist poke a grapefruit and within minutes his left hand was for sale downstairs next to a pig’s head.

The vendors’ day probably begins around 4 AM and by the time it rolls around for a mid morning snack, they head for Nerbone. Tucked in a far corner of the Mercato, Nerbone may as well be the culinary annex to the Duomo; it is that close to heaven. There is not much on the menu, but it is simply prepared and, given its proximity to the freshest food on the planet, it is, of course, fresh.

The other morning I wandered by around 10:00 and there were five guys who had already put in a good day’s work chopping off the hands of tourists all eating plates of pasta with tripe and drinking wine which I noticed was laced with water…after all there was still another full work day in front of them closing up shop. I swung by several times over the next half hour to detect the most popular dishes and also because I could not read the hand written menu tacked up on the wall. I needed to find something that someone else was eating so I could point to it with one hand while waving a fistful of Euros in the other.

On one pass I saw three husky men all attacking the same plate of cooked greens with slices of garlic the size of poker chips. On the next go-‘round I caught a crew of German tourists drinking beer and eating pancake stacks of roast pork slices. I knew I was getting close. Then on third circuit I saw my destiny. A guy, whom I recognized as one of the fish vendors, was tucking into a panino and I could tell I had to have one, too, just by looking at him. For a few seconds he went all fuzzy, as though he had turned to vapor. Hovering at mouth level, however, the panino remained in sharp focus as most of his corpuscles concentrated solely on that roll filled with hot brisket. Lucky for me the Maestro is very good at divining the needs of those of us who are Italian-impaired. I didn’t even have to point. Drool overcomes all language barriers.

He plunged a fork the size of an ox yoke into a steaming vat and withdrew a brisket that had been simmering for some time in what looked like a sea of grease, garlic chunks, and liquid temptation. He sliced open a roll and deftly dunked the bottom half momentarily into the vat. I would gladly have offered to dunk my head in as well, but that service was not offered. With his mighty Norman Bates’ signature knife he trimmed off several steaming slices, arranged them on the roll, momentarily assessed the stack, then added a few more until it was just right by his experienced standards. He then tossed on a little black pepper, a little (well, O.K., a lot) of salt, a dollop of salsa verde (it’s green, so my daily quota of the vegetable food-group could be checked off), a dollop of salsa picante (it’s red so my daily quota of the red food-group could be checked off), dunked the exposed bottom of the top half of the roll in the steaming juice, plunked on the lid, and tucked the whole thing neatly into an open ended plastic bag just made to fit. It is a good thing that it was early in the day because around 1:00 there is no place to sit and if I had not been sitting down I would have fallen to the floor and started to speak in tongues, the level of ecstasy was that high.