Comic portrait – adventure in the head

“Sweet Salgari” is not a classic biography, but an artistically composed comic novel. – © Avant Verlag / Paolo Bacilieri

When the holy waters of the Ganges, that legendary river that has been venerated by the peoples of India since ancient times, crosses the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas, / the rich provinces of Singapore / Delhi, / Uttar, / Bihar / and Bengal / Has . . . “The beginning of the” Secrets of the Black Jungle “reads like a Genesis in fast motion: The river Ganges, symbol of life, which swells up through thousands of tributaries and tributaries, frayed again in front of the ocean into a thousand-fold amphibiously ramified delta network with many Islets and swamps, the so-called Sundarbans. The Italian draftsman Paolo Bacilieri, known in this country for his cleverly arranged crossword puzzle comic “Fun” (2019), has drawn a comic about the writer Emilio Salgari. “Sweet Salgari” is a sentimental memorial to him forgotten author of adventure novels.

World travel on paper

Born in Verona in 1862, Salgari dreamed of an adventurous life on foreign continents as a well-read child. After his attempt to hire a cabin boy had failed miserably, the 20-year-old turned to traveling the world in his head and began to write. He will never cross the real borders of Italy in his life. His books, on the other hand, do.

Salgari, who was not supposed to reach the age of 50, wrote almost 100 adventure novels while being a manic writer. Many of them were adapted as comics or made into films. The fact that the author was labeled as the “Italian Karl May” helped his marketing, especially in German-speaking countries, but overlooked the strengths of his works, which, atypically for his time, take the perspective of locals and create symbolic figures of anti-colonialist rebellion as in “Sandokan” or the ” Black Corsairs “. “Salgari, where the heroes are often colored and the whites evil, must have confused my first approaches to cultural anthropology.” This is what the protagonist in Umberto Eco’s “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” makes, who comes across Salgari’s novels in the attic of his childhood. Growing up at the time of fascism, Eco retrospectively experiences the author, who has been branded a trivial author, as an antidote to the racist-colonialist reading of that era.

The Italian draftsman Paolo Bacilieri comments in "Sweet Salgari" not, but rather relies on the dialogue between text and drawing.  - © Avant Verlag / Paolo Bacilieri
The Italian draftsman Paolo Bacilieri does not comment on “Sweet Salgari”, but rather relies on the dialogue between text and drawing. – © Avant Verlag / Paolo Bacilieri

“Sweet Salgari” focuses on the writer in a different way: Bacilieri does not illustrate his detailed quotations with exotic landscapes and scenes in which they play, but with views of the cities in which their author is located – between Verona, Venice, Genoa and Turin – she devised. Instead of the corridor you can see the Po and the Mole Antonelliana, the symbol of Turin, a pavilion in the oriental style at the time of the World Exhibition in 1898 or a street scene drawn from poverty. Bacilieri does not comment. He relies on the dialogue between text and drawing, the dialogical power through which contradictions turn into productive tension. Woven in full-page drawings are picture boxes with puzzle-like details – hands, feet, looks. The reader must surrender to the power of the imagination. The draftsman contrasts the wild imagination of the story-inventor with a monotonous life. Apart from a few business trips, the writer spends his time at his desk, cigarettes and walks. “Sweet Salgari” is not a classic biography, but an artistically composed comic novel. The reader has to put a lot together. At the beginning there is a broken quill on the desk, a detail that will only be cleared up towards the end of the comic. The end is inscribed in the beginning. It meanders through the rows of pictures like the Ganges.

Contract with the publisher

On April 25, 1911, Salgari committed suicide the Japanese way. On his way to the location of his last production, his life flashes up in fragments. There is a razor and three farewell letters in his coat pockets. He has payment arrears at the grocery store, his wife was recently admitted to a psychiatric institution, and two of his four children – all named after the heroes of his novels – he accompanied to the tram this morning. In 1906 the writer changed publisher: The comic quotes Bemporad’s gag agreement, which forces Salgari to write four manuscripts a year. “You who peeled my skin off to get rich with it,” Salgari charges the publishers.

In addition, Bacilieri depicts the “all-encompassing, cosmic loneliness” of an author who did not appreciate his writing, who himself was unable to appreciate his work, which captivated generations of young people, as art. While the teachers tell the students to stay seated in the classroom, when they hear of the death of their beloved novelist, they resist: together they pour out to do him their honor. Bacilieri does this with a multi-faceted and parable comic portrait.

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