Sunday, December 03, 2006

Rapallo Report

(A castle filled with comics)

I was invited to Rapallo by Luca Boschi who is a walking encyclopedia about 20th Century Italian Pop culture specifically comics and animation. He is also a cartoonist and journalist and a member of a society of comics fans who hold an annual feste di comics in Rapallo. He got me on the guest list and, without telling me, got me into a lot more.

Rapallo is a seaside town. Cafes and restaurants line the street fronting the beach. The boardwalk (actually, more of a brickwalk) rings the semicircular beach. A leisurely stroll from one end to the other might take 30 minutes although judging by the median age of most of the Rapallans I saw this walk might take as long as two days. At one end, jutting into the bay, is the regulation boat rental closed for the season. At the other end, jutting out into the bay. is the regulation castle. It is a small castle that got kicked off the hill overlooking Rapallo by the other bigger, meaner castles.

Inside the castle was an exhibit from two schools of comics. As you walk in you see work by students from the comics school of Milan. My gang, the Scuola di Comics Internazional, filled the galleries on the second floor, or what is known in Italy as the first floor. When I arrived with the head of the comics school in Florence, Marco Bianchini, and his sweet wife, Novella, the rest of the school clan (5 or 6 former students and the Assistant Director, Sara Sasi) had only just arrived. We walked to the castle along the water gasping at the stunning beauty of the El Greco sky, the sharp hills rising from the sparkling water, and a sailboat on the horizon thoughtfully placed there for our cameras.

The first person I was introduced to at the castle exhibit was Ivo Milazzo, one of the few mass market Italian cartoonists whose work I can actually identify and admire. The Italians have a penchant for the American Western and on and off for many years Milazzo has drawn a feature called Ken Parker. One of the reasons I like Milazzo’s work is ‘cause it is nice and loose and he is not stingy with the black ink. Another reason is that I can usually follow his stories while still retaining my shamefully minimal abilities to read the Italian language. He is a nice guy and I never met anyone named Ivo before so I said his name as much as possible. He kept his distance for the rest of the night.

Ken Parker is rivaled in popular sales only by another Western character called, of all things, Tex. Tex is the longest running non-humor series in Italy now being drawn by my boss, Marco, along with a rotating stable of 5 or 6 other cartoonists of the “realistic” school of comics.

“Realistic “ is an interesting choice to describe Tex. Of the 300 page story he is working on, Marco told me that he hands in about 20 pages at a time for approval. He got a call about one scene that he had drawn where Tex is beating down a door. Now you can imagine that beating down a door with one’s bare fists takes some exertion, even if you are a beefy chappy like Tex. So Marco drew his face in a grimace indicating masculine exertion. “Uh-uh,” said the editor, “Too much masculine exertion. Change the face.” Tex, it seems, is only allowed to show a minimum of masculine exertion. In fact, I am told, that Tex only has four facial expressions, well, actually five, if you count “affection”, but this is used so rarely that even Tex scholars keep it in the footnote category.

Tex has a sidekick, named, I kid you not, “Pard”, as in “Pardner”. I assume that this is the guy’s full name as he is never called anything other than, “Pard”. “Don’t forget to bring home a quart of milk after your 12:00 showdown with the Dalton gang, Pard,” Mrs. Pard calls from the screen door.

We went to a theatre where a presentation was being made about animation. As the speaker spoke about the process of making an animation the same 35 second loop of animation played behind him on a screen. I saw a guy’s head expand and burst 274 times.

Afterwards we stood around, sipped proseco, nibbled crackers and I caught up with the lives of my students who had graduated last year and whose work was being exhibited. A fellow who spoke English came up to me. He was German and had come to a lecture I had given last year in Erlangen. He is a huge comics enthusiast and had driven all day from Germany to come to Rapallo. Strange? As far as I could tell, the comics festival in Rapallo was not exactly a must-see event. It is organized by fans of comics for fans of comics. There are no tents with sellers booths, no people walking around in costumes. But take it from an insider, anything is possible when it comes to the mad passions of a fan boy. Still I felt that maybe I was missing something. He showed me his most prized possession: a sketchbook filled with sketches by famous artists. He trailed Robert Crumb for a full day finally cornering him coming out of a church in France somewhere. The sketch was very nice, but a little shaky.

The next thing I know we are headed to a restaurant that I had been told was very particular. “Particular” is one of those words Italians use that mean many things depending on how it is pronounced. I can’t begin to pretend that I really understand all of the word’s nuances but when Luca Boschi told me that this restaurant was “particular” he paused for a moment before saying “particular” and looked meaningfully off into the distance as if to see if there might be a better word, but nope “particular” it was, and is.

When we arrive I notice that comics characters had been brightly painted on the side of the restaurant. In fact, you cannot miss them. I was so amazed that while staring at an enormous The Phantom I walked smack into Dagwood and nearly broke my nose. But inside the restaurant the decorations were not merely gaudy wall paintings by a talented Rapallan art student. The walls were covered with framed hand drawn original comic art by…well, by just about everyone. They had to escort me to my seat.

On the way to my table I passed Herriman, Kelly, Gould, Opper, Segar, Caniff. Y’know the usual guys you see hanging around the walls of a restaurant in the middle of figgin’ nowhere. Then I sat down at my seat and my jaw, which I had just scraped off the floor hit my plate with a clank. There at my elbow, woven (not merely printed) into the rose colored linen tablecloth, were my pals Nancy and Sluggo.

Should you want to drop by some time for a plate of pasta with funghi or chicken braised with olives and white wine while admiring a full page Bushmiller Sunday from 1952, the name of this joint is U Giancu which was the name of the original owner and is also the name of the son who now runs it whose name is also Fausto. Confused? Don’t worry, everything at this place is a little askew and the tilt only got more pronounced as the evening fell into full swing and I met U Giancu/Fausto , himself.

He looks like Mr. Clean’s father-in-law. When we met, he knew who I was, poured me a gallon of wine and handed me a mound of pasta the size of Mount Rushmore. I was surprised to find out that many people seemed to know my name and came to shake my hand and pour me some more wine and before long I was having a very jolly time, indeed.

Fausto has a trademark. Every time he goes into the kitchen he comes out with plates of grub in his massive arms and a different knit watch cap on his bald head. How could I tell they were different? When I first met him he there was a miniature golf player on the cap. Every time Fausto moved his head the duffer swung his little plastic putter. Over the course of the evening I saw him in caps featuring a variety of animals, Spiderman, a glass rocket ship, and, I believe, a toilet.

After dinner, Fausto stood on a chair in front of the bar and got the room silent which took a few moments. I figured that something good and weird was about to occur so I snagged a front row seat. He called up an elderly gentleman named Carlos Chendi who has been writing stories for Disney Italia for 40 years and presented him with a box. Oh, great, an awards ceremony. I have sat through many an awards ceremony in Italy since I have been here. At best they are dull.

I am siting there trying to figure out how to sneak out of my seat and get a good look at that Dick Tracy strip across the way when something really weird does, in fact, happen.

Carlos calls my name and I am shoved up to the front and presented with this box containing a plaque with my name on it commemorating this night. I am stunned but now I realize why all these guys knew my name thanks to my pal, Luca Boschi, I am the surprise honored guest, but the surprise is on me. Fortunately, I do not make too big of a fool of myself and remember to say nice things about Italian hospitality and the high quality of the output of Fausto’s kitchen.

(Fausto, Carlos, Paul, Luca)

After they dispense with me they give out some serious awards to cartoonists who have really worked hard this year and deserve recognition. As the ceremony concludes more people shake my hand, but a couple of honest guys ask me, “Just who are you, anyway?” At this point I am able to pull out the brand spanking new copy of “Citta di Vetro” which had just been released as a deluxe newsstand edition that very day. When they see David Mazzucchelli’s name on it, they grin, shake my hand again, and pour me some more wine.

(Milazzo endulges a fan. Note Raymond and Caniff in background)

Soon it is time for dessert and I learn the true purpose of the evening and why that German guy drove all day to get here. Fausto sits me down and, asking me if I would mind drawing some pictures for a few fans, pours me a stiff grappa. I look around and see that these fans from the Society are all scurrying around from table to table to get sketches from all of the artists and the 10 watt bulb in my head flickers to light.

As I continue to draw a miracle occurs along the lines of the loaves and fishes; my grappa glass never appears to be empty and I know for sure that I was tossing those babies back. But that is about all of which I am certain. From that point on the evening gets a bit fuzzy.

When I come to it is the next morning and I am not sure how I got to the hotel. I crawl to the bathroom and look at my sorry face in the mirror. On my head is a knit cap on top of which is bouncing a bobble-headed Topo Gigio grinning ear to ear.