I know I’m committing the sin of generalizing here, but based on my experience, U.S. comics readers pick up very few, if any, comics from Italy. To be fair, some works are on our collective radar: Umberto Eco’s essay on Superman, a handful of auteur series from the 60s that have been translated into English, and short works featured in Heavy Metal. Most recently, thanks to publishers like Fantagraphics and First Second, English-speaking audiences have been introduced to graphic novels and novellas from artists like Gipi and Francesca Ghermandi. Still, translations are relatively few and far between, and a scarcity of English-language scholarship on these comics further reduces exposure. We Anglophones are not only missing out on some fantastic comics but also an opportunity to learn about how comics can function within a broader cultural context (full disclosure: I’ve been a reader and advocate of Italian comics since I began my Masters degree in Italian studies five years ago, so I admit a slight bias).
Simone Castaldi’s Drawn and Dangerous tackles this subject, focusing on the late 70s, a time period that has also largely escaped our attention in the U.S. In an ambitious 140 pages, Castaldi sets out to introduce English-speaking comics readers to the icons of the Italian underground comics scene, which took place roughly a decade after that in the U.S., and he endeavors to reveal the relationships between the Italian adult comics of the 70s and 80s and the socio-political tumult that encircled them. The author also takes care to note artistic and cultural movements that influenced the comics under discussion—from Dadaism to punk rock to U.S underground comix. As he explains early on, his work is not only a study of comics, but one of late twentieth century Italy: “this book intends to bring to light vital cultural connections and…contribute to the reassessment of this lost decade” (9).
Drawn and Dangerous breaks down into three chapters. In the first, Castaldi summarizes the history of Italian comics, from the country’s first newspaper strips for children at the beginning of the twentieth century through the success of early adult comics in the 60s. The author presents the predecessors to the comics of the 70s: the action and intrigue-packed fumetto nero, erotic comics ranging from racy to pornographic, more high brow auteur comics, and cross-generational humor comics. Chapter Two plunges into the counterculture of the late 70s, detailing the socio-political environment and innovations in communication and art that stimulated and influenced the comics of those years. Castaldi traces how the most popular underground comics magazines originated and evolved through the late 70s and into the 80s, when the energy of the counterculture movement began to flag. The third chapter switches gears to encyclopedically detail the most important Italian comics artists of the late 70s and 80s and their essential works. Here, Castaldi presents vivid examples of the trends and styles that he’s spent the past chapters contextualizing.
Castaldi’s context-heavy approach is easily his book’s greatest strength. By touching on many of the factors that shaped the comics of the 60s through the 80s, he gives his readers a deep understanding of what lies at their core. To give an extended example, in his second chapter, the author provides a lengthy description of the means of communication that developed or grew popular over the course of the 70s—independent publishing and the rise of flyers, independent radio, and alternative music production. By scrutinizing them side by side, he discerns commonalities among the many forms of late 70s countercultural production. Strong trends among artists and activists included the production of alternative journalism, the creation of aural, visual, and linguistic collage, and the indefatigable incorporation of intertextuality and cultural and historical references. To show how these components materialized within comics, Castaldi examines several important comics magazines of the late 70s and early 80s. Looking at alternative journalism, he calls attention to the satire publication Il Male that originated the so-called fakes, front covers that looked like genuine newspapers and magazines, but reported false news. Not unlike The Onion or The Daily Show, these popular lampoons often irreverently pointed to truths or implications of mostly political situations about which official media (and even other satirical publications) were silent. As Castaldi continues into Chapter Three, he mentions how specific artists incorporated journalism into their work. For example, the influential Andrea Pazienza innovated “a precise contemporary historical background and a journalistic approach … so that, for the first time, comics became a source of information on current events” (79). By the end of the book, it is clear that late twentieth century Italian comics were an integral part of the culture that created them; in an even broader context, these works share marked similarities with certain subcultures and media trends in the current Western world.
Castaldi’s book succeeds on several others levels, as well. Chapter one especially works as a general introduction to post-World War II Italian comics, identifying key trends, titles, and artists through the 60s. While the author casts this period in a slightly outdated light, the most popular comics from these years remain widely read both in Italy and internationally, and their influence can still be felt. In addition, throughout his analysis, Castaldi makes a point of mentioning the relationships between Italian comics and other domestic and foreign popular art. Fans and scholars of Italian genre film, French adult comics magazines, and American underground comix, among other areas of study, may take an interest in how these relationships play out. Finally, Drawn and Dangerous makes a fascinating historical study of late twentieth century Italy. Castaldi provides concise, but by no means perfunctory, descriptions of the decades he covers, revealing an Italy that differs sharply from its popular American representations. We’re not dealing with Under the Tuscan Sun here.
While the information in Drawn and Dangerous will (I hope) fascinate and push readers to investigate Italian comics and culture further, Castaldi’s composition is at times difficult. Some readers might become bogged down in the dense cataloging of events, publications, and cultural currents; meanwhile, others will wish the author took more time to elaborate on certain items (I recommend keeping Wikipedia close at hand). Castaldi clearly wants to cover as much related information as possible, but he sometimes loses the balance between too many details here and too little elaboration there. This unevenness is at its worst in Chapter Three, where Castaldi spends pages on some artists, while devoting only a paragraph or two to others. Granted, some artists may be considered more important than others, but it’s clear that the author gives preferential treatment. For example, he seems to lose himself in an overly academic analysis of some of Pazienza’s work that might require a background in semiotics to fully understand. Pazienza is easily the foremost comics artist of this period in Italy, and an extended treatment of his work is certainly valid; however, it seems out of place in this text, which aims to introduce a broad range of material, rather than delve deeply into one text or creator’s body of work.
Despite these balance issues, Drawn and Dangerous accomplishes its goals of showcasing Italian comics from the 70s and 80s, and it makes for an engaging read. Because of the scope of its context, Drawn and Dangerous will be of interest to a much broader audience than simply fans of the fumetto or even comics readers and scholars in general. Castaldi’s meticulous attention to context also makes this volume an apology of sorts for the academic study of comics, in that he continuously demonstrates what we can learn about a culture through the examination of its cultural output. Whether a particular comic or style responds to the kidnapping and murder of a well-known politician, a general distrust of news media, a film, or comics from other countries, Castaldi never lets his readers forget that the subject matter at hand existed in massive and interconnected cultural, political and artistic contexts.