Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Guido Buzzelli's Zil Zelub

OK, so, Matthias Wivel's comments on my Oesterheld vs. Pratt post prompted me to write about Guido Buzzelli. The reason is the above drawing. Guido Buzzelli is one of my all time favorites (I suspect that you guessed it by reading my profile on the upper right corner), but, even so, this drawing made a strong impression on me. Hugo Pratt's doll is a romantic dream: the detached adventurer we all would like to be at a certain age. (And I remember what Dwight MacDonald said about Hemingway: "A feeling that loyalty and bravery are the cardinal virtues and that physical action is the basis of the good life - even when reinforced with the kind of nihilism most of us get over by the age of twenty - these don't add up to a philosophy." - Against the American Grain, Random House, 1962: 171 -; more than the philosophy part, what interests me in this quote is the juvenile nihilism that can also be detected in Hugo Pratt's beloved character.) Like Tintin, a reporter who never wrote a line, Corto Maltese is a sailor who didn't navigate much. We really don't know what he did for a living. We never saw him eating or worrying about where his next meal will come from... In a word, so to speak: he doesn't have much of a normal daily life. Guido Buzzelli's interpretation is an anti-escapist Corto Maltese instead of an homage. This is a true rugged sailor, with his skin burned by a hard life at sea. Its also rather uncommercial... The Terzo Salone dei Comics (third comics convention) occurred from June 30 to July 2, 1967, and took place in Lucca, Italy. The event's catalogue Comics Almanacco published the first graphic novel in the restrict field: La rivolta dei racchi (the revolt of the ugly) by Guido Buzzelli. Many discussions are happening these days because of the expression's semantics. Not being an essentialist I basically agree with Eddie Campbell (for reasons pertaining to publishing politics): "When he [Will Eisner] called that suite of short stories [A Contract With God] a 'graphic novel' he meant to draw attention to this thematic ambition. Neither the form nor the format was the relevant issue." The commercial series was the norm in comics. Here's how I described a series (owing a lot to Umberto Eco: Apocalittici e integrati, Comunicazioni di massa e teorie della cultura di massa, Bompiani, 1964) in the Comics Journal messboard (posted 04-23-99 10:36 AM): "in order to exist the series must: 1 - Have an hero. The hero (be it Tintin or Corto Maltese or John Difool) is not a fully developed character, it's more of a void designed to be filled by the reader with positive things. 2 - A cast of stereotyped characters: the faithful reader knows that this one does this, that one does that. The reader who likes mainstream stuff usually doesn't want to be surprised (Obelix *always* says that he wants to drink the magic potion; Captain Haddock *always* wants to drink scotch; etc...). 3- A set of stereotyped situations. The plot obeys to a few fixed rules. In adventure comics the thing goes more or less like this: the bad guys attack, the bad guys defeat the good guys, the good guys make a come back and win. The End. In comical comics the hero (or antihero) always commits the same errors, etc... 4 - Adventure follows adventure and the hero and his friends never age. It's as if nothing happened from story to story (the few exceptions to this rule are far from being perfect). 5 - Psychological depth, what's that?!" The graphic novel is a strategy to fight the blunt commercialism of the series, it's the anti-series. Calling a collection of children's stories (about superheroes, for instance) a "graphic novel" is a co-optation by the sharks, smelling fresh money. On the other hand it's true that the public acceptance of the "graphic novel" label happened after a commercial campaign led by alternative publishers (Drawn & Quarterly's Chris Oliveros at the front. 

Guido Buzzelli started doing comics to earn a living, for him and his family, in post-WWII's difficult times in Rome, Italy. Being a virtuoso draughtsman commercial comics were easy for him to do. He viewed himself as a painter though. It was at one of his exhibitions that an idea hit him: "My link to comics changed when I made an exhibition in Rome. I thought about the canvases' positions, about the images, about the sensations that I wanted to convey. It seemed to me that the whole thing would be more powerful if I had done a story. Each painting was the figurative embryo that needed development. And that's how I faced art comics." (Interview on French TV, Antenne 2, 1980.) Buzzelli continued to do alimentary work (like the western comics: Nevada Hill - script by J. P. Gourmelen -, 1973; Tex il grande, Tex the great, 1988), but he also did graphic novels for himself: I Labirinti (the labyrinths - Aunoa in France; 1970), Zil Zelub (an obvious anagram; 1972), HP (horse power; 1974), L'Agnone (a mix between "agnelo," "lamb," and "leone," "lion,": an anti-manichaean allegory; 1977). A few short stories also exploit his favorite themes: Mammaaaa! (All'ultimo piano) (moooom!, at the higher storey; 1973); Il mestiere di Mario (Mario's job; 1973); L'Intervista (the interview; 1975). The topic that intersected both worlds seem to have been eroticism. Guido Buzzelli committed the ultimate sin of being a political skeptic during highly utopian times: the sixties and seventies. All his revolutions were flawed because the opressed rapidly became opressors after gaining power. His angels (a recurring symbol of goodness in Buzzelli's oeuvre) being self-righteous and castrating are worst than demons. In Zil Zelub, the main character, a Buzzelli alter ego (Guido Buzzelli was also one of the first, if not the first, serious autobio comics author), feels this dilemma as an internal problem that's literally tearing him up to pieces (his id rebels against his superego). In the end he loses his fight: a crooked politician patches him up. We, the comics readers who are constantly doing what Scott McCloud called "closure," are not only witnesses, we are also accomplices. Everything goes back to normal: business goes on, as usual... 

  Image: Corto Maltese by Guido Buzzelli as it was published in I giorni e le opere (works and days), Comic Art Editrice, May 1999. PS Many thanks to the nice people who publicized The Crib. Matthias Wivel (he has a great essay and a great list of comics here:; Sara Figueiredo Costa, Kerry Dennehy.


Kerry Dennehy said...

Hey, thanks for the mention! That was a big surprise.

I'm really enjoying your blog. I'm learning a lot!

Matthias said...

OK, so I'm obviously going to take issue with a couple of things here. Buzzelli's portrait of Corto Maltese is great, but entirely misses the point. Which is that Corto *is* a romantic figure, not a rugged sailor with issues of bipolarity and alcohol abuse.

Corto is *not* meant to be a realistic character -- he's an engine for our imagination. Pratt's genius in those stories, and I mean right up to the very end -- or at least until the penultimate Corto book, "Elvetiche" (the last, "MU", is coasting a bit) -- is to engage our taste for adventure in unexpected, almost dreamlike ways.

By taking such a consistently original approach to the adventure genre, luring us with his charm and wit, then circumventing our expectations -- both through plot and in his poetic sequences of picture narration -- he achieves a kind of ambiguity of feeling, a slightly melancholy suggestion of those far reaches of our imagination that we can only access in flashes of inspiration, and only rarely if ever on a voluntary basis. With Pratt, adventure and romance are issues of our subconscious, essential embodiments of our aspirations.

Thing is, you make it sound like a bad thing to anchor a work of art in almost anything but naturalism. Your appreciation of the female characters in Corto is an appreciation on this level. To me, that's all well and good, but they are only component qualities of something much more complex.

Going by your logic, if I may put it somewhat bluntly, every fictional character who is not a fully realised psychological study is a stereotype, and thus not worth dealing with. Out goes all the ancient myths, all of Greek theatre, the Illiad and the Odyssey, large parts of medieval literature, all fables, and -- yes -- most of the finest achievements in the art form we call comics.

To dismiss all comics that trade in archetypes and work within certain genre conventions is taking a critical hatchet to an art from that *does* consist mostly of pulp, but is also hugely fascinating for its exceptional, almost demonstrative retainment through modernity of non-naturalist narrative, and therefore calls for a scalpel in the dissection of its cultural and artistic value.

Another aspect of comics that your critique seems to inadvertently ignore is the art. Pratt's art is great because it appeals to our imaginations in a way that other superb, but superficial draughtsmen, such as Alex Toth or Noel Sickles do not. It's an integral part in what makes the best Corto stories masterpieces. Another example is the deeply original, rich take on the world offered by Hergé -- another of your favourite straw men, if I remember correctly :)

By your logic, great works of comics such as Töpffer's comics, Krazy Kat, Tintin, Peanuts, Kirby's best work, large parts of Tezuka's work, large parts of Barks' work, Astérix, Gaston Lagaffe, and many others, would probably disqualify as great art because their surface qualities don't meet a certain set of standards that would have made them lesser works had they aspired to them in the first place.

For reasons of brevity, I won't go into details on why I think these individual works are superior *as art* to almost any 'literary' or 'graphic novel-type', naturalist comic out there (many of which I obviously also love), but for further arguments along these lines see the following:

On high and low in comics:

On Tintin:

PS -- I've always wanted to read some Buzzelli, but have found it rather hard to locate the books. Maybe I've just looked in the wrong places? What to do?

Isabelinho said...

Hey Kerry! It's always great to hear that people are enjoying what one does. Thanks!...

Isabelinho said...

Wow Matthias, what a great piece of metacriticism! I agree with almost all the things that you say. I'm biased, we all are, but I don't see that as a problem. Critics stand on some kind of ground and mine is the one that you describe. It will appeal to some people (just a few because of comics' strange history: its links mostly to children, etc...) and it will repel lots (ditto).
It's true, all those sacred cows don't do much for me, but Naturalism is not exactly the reason (John Porcellino or Chago Armada can't be labeled as such). I just dislike what I would call "escapism" or, in a good mood: "hollow fantasies." I did see and hear Hugo Pratt in his later years saying that he couldn't distinguish fantasy from reality anymore. I won't even comment that one...
I don't think that there are archetypes. To me there are stereotypes and that's it. I even included Jossot's stereotypes in my list. If stereotypes are good or bad (from my critical stand point, of course) that's a matter of what the artist wants to do with them. A brief poem doesn't do the same thing as a novel. Stereotypes in the latter are a lot more difficult for me to swallow (but not impossible), I don't even expect "fully developed characters" in the former, that would be ridiculous...
It's not about the drawing, but have you read Faustino Arbesú's criticism of Hugo Pratt's storytelling "technique"? Supposing that you read Spanish I'll send said essay to you.
As for Buzzelli:
you may search for his books, here:
or, here:
I'm going to enjoy your essays, now :)

Isabelinho said...

I'm back:
I especially liked the Tintin conversation. The Hitchcock reference made me think. I like his films a lot, but if you go to my profile there's no Hitch film in sight in my favorite films list. On the contrary, I'm absolutely incapable of reading a Tintin book (I'm bored to death after 3 pages or so, but that's completely beside the point). I could never put a Tintin book in any best comics list of all time. Godard said that Hitchcock was the greatest creator of forms of the 20 th. century. Hergé was a great formalist too. They both pale in my consideration when I compare them with Mizoguchi or Guido Buzzelli.

Matthias said...

Thanks, glad you liked it! I don't think Hergé's work is just great formalism, and neither are Hitchcock's best movies. If that were the case, they wouldn't be as revered as they are, or provoke as much inquiry. It is true, however, that through his style, and by way of his formal mastery, Hergé was able to express a vision of singular clarity and originality.

There's an idealism in the very fabric of his art that to me speaks volumes about the modern view of the world. An almost Platonic dream of enlightenment in a world of symbols never quite grasped. Ahem* Anyway. I'm not a huge Hitchcock fan, actually and also much prefer Mizoguchi, so at least were in accord there...

Back to the core of the matter: I'm all for questioning the "sacred cows," and I think it's great that you have and do, but my point in this connection is that your very categorically formulated dismissal throws out the wheat with the chaff.

I disagree that humor or "escapism" are problematic in themselves. The genres connected with them can be just as moving or intelligent as any other genre, although I agree that they very often resort to formula. When an "escapist" genre is treated with as much insight and sensitivity as it is by Pratt, it's as great a work of art as a more naturalist or psychologically realistic piece would have had the potential to be. Fantasy and imagination are as much part of what it is to be human, as bringing home the baking.

When it comes down to it, what I'm saying is that some of these "sacred cows" are, in fact, far from hollow, manichean or formulaic. They make use of certain formulae, yes, but as you say it's all about *how* you make use of said formula or convention.

By dismissing these works across the board, I think you're missing out on a lot of the best the art form has to offer. I know you disagree :)

And no, I haven't read Arbesu's essay -- i'd be very interested. Thanks for mentioning it!

Isabelinho said...

There's certainly the danger of throwing out the wheat with the chaff (or the baby - since we're talking about children's comics - with the bath water).
I started writing on the Comics Journal messboard around 98, or so. When 2000 approached a cascade of best of the 20 th. century lists began to appear. They were very strange to me, to say the least (and, I must admit it, they got on my nerves: what art form's canon is composed, in a huge ratio, of children's art?). What's wrong with children's art? Nothing, in principle, but a lot in the end (I don't need to explain myself again on this point). Being comics fans what they are (i. e. fanatics) positions got a little extreme when I criticized the restrict field's (let's call it that instead of "the ghetto's") canon.
Now that the years passed and we all have calmed down, it's obvious that we're dealing here with complex concepts. Saying that things are either black or white is as unsophisticated as manichaean comics. The sacred cows that you implicitly and explicitly mentioned (Töpffer included, in my opinion) are all great draughtsmen, for starters. Some of them are masters of the art form, no doubt (what Kim Thompson calls, a propos Franquin: comics qua comics). My problem is that I find equally good artists in comics who are all that and more. Plus: they're completely ignored because they didn't do children's comics for one of the three industries.
I suppose that we have to disagree on everything else; Töpffer is a good example of Baudelairian satanism :); some of Krazy Kat's pages and comic strips (about loneliness, mostly) are great, so, I'll give you this one; I can't find a good thing to say about Tintin's content; I find the same problem with Charles Schulz that I find with Hugo Pratt: the best of Peanuts is Skippy, by Percy Crosby; Kirby's best work does exist?, where? (please don't answer this question, I'm joking: he had a knack for machines, no doubt about it); as for Tezuka, I'll admit that I haven't read much by him (I tried Phoenix and didn't like it at all; I prefer to say that I have no opinion though); Barks is great sometimes (but I already said that I like him a lot); Astérix: see Töpffer above; Gaston Lagaffe: it's funny, so what?
PS I don't think that you can deny that _North by Northwest_ and _The Blue Lotus_, to name just two, are manichaean.

Rod McKie said...

"...Guido Buzzelli's interpretation is an anti-escapist Corto Maltese instead of an homage. This is a true rugged sailor, with his skin burned by a hard life at sea. Its also rather uncommercial..."

I can't agree; Guido Buzzelli's "interpretation" is just that, an interpretation, and it always will be; whereas Hugo Pratt's drawings "are" Corto Maltese. On on iconic level, just as surely as Schulz's drawings of Charlie Brown "are" Charlie Brown and not representations or interpretations of Charlie Brown, and Herge's drawings of Tintin reveal Tintin - Pratt reveals Corto Maltese to us.

Nice blog, though. There's a lot a do agree with.

I did a piece on Pratt recently:

Isabelinho said...

Hi Rod:
Thanks for your kind words!
I suppose that there's a misunderstanding here because of my use of the word "true." I wrote "true rugged sailor", not "true Corto Maltese." That one, for better or for worse, is Pratt's, of course.
I didn't agree with everything you said (obviously :), but I liked your article. A correction though: Alberto Ongaro is a writer, not a cartoonist.

Matthias said...

I'm totally with you that some of these artists who didn't do children's comics deserve more recognition, although some of them *have* this recognition, just not amongst comics fans, because their work was done in a different cultural context and has thus never been regarded as comics, even though for all intents and purposes it is. Masereel is just one example.

But yes, we will have to disagree on almost everything else. To dismiss laughter as inconsequential is completely absurd to me. Making people laugh, in my view, is one of the noblest of all arts. Yes, some laughter is pretty shallow -- not all comedy is equally great, even if it's funny -- but fundamentally, comedy is hugely important to any culture.

Laughter keeps us sane. Laughter makes us feel less lonely. It affirms community. This is what's so great about Krazy Kat -- it tempers feelings of loneliness and despair with joy and beauty. Peanuts is similar, if utterly different in its way of going about it and ultimately bleaker.

That Baudelaire calls laughter "satanic" isn't so far off the mark, really -- it *is*, in what I guess you could describe as a Miltonian sense, in so far as it is an impulse over which we have no control. There is something anarchic, something liberating about it. Plus, it often also makes us think, reflect and invest emotionally in life around us.

Franquin's comics are not "just" funny -- they express an anarchic worldview, they're a promise of freedom in an ordered society. Töpffer is similar, if more conservative in his values. And Astérix is great social and cultural satire.

As for Kirby, not only is his vision utterly original, his stories are fundamentally about how our ideals are attempts at making sense of a cosmos in which we as individuals are insignificant. In which God has his back turned. And about how despair and rage keeps us from imposing this same order. It's deeply moving, and at the same time intoxicating for its imaginary reach.

Regarding Tezuka's work, I suspect you might actually like it a lot more if you got into it. Here we can really talk about somebody working with pop art formulae, without *ever* becoming manichean. The way he makes us understand, even sympathise, with each and every one of his characters is astonishing, and deeply human. And again, he explores the notion of individuality in a Buddhist cosmos that ultimately transcends it.

This is what I mean: All of these artists make use of certain genre tropes and formulae, but they harness them to create works that make us feel and reflect on some of the fundamental impulses and issues of human life.

Isn't that as good a definition of great art as any?

PS -- Yes, both North by Northwest and The Blue Lotus are pretty manichean when it comes to who's the good guy and who's the bad guy, but those aspects are really incidental to what makes both works great. North by Northwest is a hilariously subversive and surreal journey through a set of genre tropes, while The Blue Lotus is an unforgettably visualised, ideal portrayal of friendship and universality that eventually stretches across most of Hergé's oeuvre, informing it at its core.

Isabelinho said...

This is a great discussion, but this space is becoming short to continue it. Plus, it would need an engagement with the stuff we're discussion on a one by one basis (the problem is that I simply don't want to invest my time in things that I read ages ago and don't want to reread). Let's just say that you have a great way to dismiss obvious flaws (the silliest stories ever created in Kirby's oeuvre, for instance) to underline generalities that are suposedly great. It's as if these are palaces made of straw.
You are commiting a mistake re. laughter though. Neither Baudelaire nor I dismiss it. Baudelaire sees perfectly well that satire exists when we simplify other people's character or other people's doings in order to ridicule them. That's what he means by "satanic." He defends what he calls the grotesque laughter though. As for me, here's what I wrote on this blog:
"Either we laugh for frivolous reasons or we laugh at someone's expenses. I would place satire above the innocent joke (if such a thing exists) no doubt, but a satirical caricature is always a simplification. [...] I must add that, as I put it ages ago in Nemo, a humorist who laughs at his or her (our) own foibles and miseries is not satanic at all. I didn't know it at the time, but that's, more or less, what Giacomo Leopardi also said."

Matthias said...

All right, a fair if somewhat pessimistic point re: satire, but I still don't get what's inherently wrong with 'frivolous.'

And sure, this is probably not the kind of place to have a discussion involving so many moving parts. Just thought I'd point out some qualities in works you have been dismissive of. And then I got carried away. As usual.

But yeah, thanks for your thoughts, and for the platform.

Silly is another man's tonic!

Isabelinho said...

That's a no-no! I'm the one who says a big thank you!
There's nothing wrong with 'frivolous'. That's where I come back, here: "I'm biased, we all are, but I don't see that as a problem. Critics stand on some kind of ground and mine is the one that you describe."
I tend to put the very serious and very deep Sistine Chapel frescoes (another great comic) above Johnny Ryan antics, but that's just me. By the way: you're right re. Masereel, but, since this is Guido Buzzelli's post: how about him? He was always misunderstood. It's more than time to put him where he belongs.
Finally: you won George Herriman, it's not bad... And I think that you defended the cow herd beautifully!

Santiago Fernandez said...

Interesting set of ideas. Personally I dont find Corto Maltese as an escapism route at all; I think Hugo Pratt is one of the few artists who crafted his stories with full poetical understanding (not "license", mind you) even thrusthing them into full hermetical symbolism at times. You need a little more than a particular set of stereotypes and narrative formulas to get something like the first Corto full story, "Una balata del mare salato", where he basicaly achieves literacy with drawings. And, considering Corto himself is often more of a witness than a hero in the action sense, Pratt´s stories are not machinean at all (most of them, anyway: there are a few which may feel forced, like the one with the Red Baron); I find them in the realm of full seduction.

For some time now I seem to relate Hugo Pratt´s work to that of Josef Conrad´s. Maybe it is because in both of their narrations I find that, contrary to your believe, there is a great diference between a stereotype and an archetype. Both Marlowe and Corto delve into adventures that resonate at much deeper psycological levels than those of the formulatic nature; in a non explicit maner (sometimes sybolical but mostly trougth allegory) they reveal sheer human nature in confrontative ways.

It´s trough both Conrad and Pratt that I understand adventure, true adventure, not as escapism, but as a deadly confrontation, usually with yourself. And nobody comes easy or unchanged by confrontation.

Of course, there is pragmatical taste to my argument, since I understand adventure as an open invitation to confrontation wich either you get or you don´t notice.

Beatifull Buzzelli drawing, by the way.

Isabelinho said...

Hi Santiago:
Thanks for your comments.
Matthias gave to Cesar what belonged to Cesar... You, I'm not so sure. Una Balatta is precisely too much of an Oesterheldian story. You don't even mention him. And that was my whole point: most people never do.
As a curio, here's what Faustno Arbesú said about Pratt's influences (besides also saying, showing examples, that he was one of the worst storytellers in comics history): "[Pratt's work is similar], as some essays claim, to that of the writers: Thomas Malory, Shakespeare, Lawrence, Guimarães Rosa, Borges, O'Flaerthy, Sean O'Casey, Hemingway, [...] Conrad, Stevenson, London, Melville, Cervantes, Kipling, Rimbaud; or filmmakers: Von Sternberg, Pontecorbo, John Guillermin, Orson Welles, David Lean, John Ford, Bertolucci, Glauber Rocha, [...] and Damiano Damiani [...]... Too many references for just one author! The question is: When is Hugo Pratt Hugo Pratt?"