A Short History of Italian Comics


Corriere dei Piccoli

Comics were introduced into Italy a few years after their appearance in the United States: from 1908 onwards the weekly paper Corriere dei Piccoli (Children's Courier) published the Sunday pages of Mimmo (Buster Brown), Fortunello (Happy Hooligan), Cirillino (The Newlyweds), Bibi e Bibo (The Katzenjammer Kids), and Bubbi (Little Nemo). The original American drawings were adapted to the style of illustrated children papers of the period: the speech balloons - considered non-educational - were eliminated, and the story was narrated by rhyming captions. In fact many Italians did not realise that in America these characters talked with "little puffs of smoke" or fumetti as they were called. The name came to mean comic (the plural being fumetto). In the same style (no balloons and rhyming captions), Corriere dei Piccoli published the first Italian comic series; some of them (Bonaventura by Sergio Tofano, Sor Pampurio by Carlo Bisi, Quadratino by Antonio Rubino, Bil Bol Bul by Attilio Mussino), were drawn keeping in mind the art movements of those times (Cubism, Dadaism, Modernism), and reached a surprisingly high quality.

Until the 30s, comics were considered a medium aimed exclusively at children; then the first weekly Giornali (literally, Journals) for young adults were issued. There is no corresponding formula of the Giornali in America, although the English were familiar with them; they were weekly tabloid-sized periodicals, and featured articles, games, short stories, and serialized comic series.


Topolino (Mickey Mouse, 1932), L'Avventuroso (The Venturesome, 1934) and many other Giornali introduced into Italy the stories of Mickey Mouse, Silly Symphonies and the great American adventure series (Secret Agent X9, Mandrake, The Phantom, Tim Tyler's Luck, Brick Bradford, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, etc.) in their original form with speech balloons. An Italian School of comic artists came into being, with excellent authors of both realistic and humor series (Albertarelli, Molino, Pedrocchi, Scolari, Moroni Celsi in Milan; Toppi, Scudellari, Fantoni, Vichi, Burattini in Florence). Il Monello (The Kid, 1933-1990) and L'Intrepido (The Intrepid, 1937-1967) specialized in tales that would now be defined as soap operas; the Catholic weekly Il Vittorioso (The Winner, 1937-1967) launched the work of Caesar, Caprioli, De Luca, Landolfi and Benito Jacovitti, a sort of Italian Al Capp who was for many decades the most influencial and beloved author of humor strips in the country.

After having been serialized in the Giornali, the American and Italian stories were reprinted in albi (albums) devoted to a single character. Unlike American comic books, Italian albi were published in many different formats; the most widely diffused was the horizontally-developed formato all'italiana (Italian format: horizonal, stapled on the short side).

Saturno Contro la Terre part of Mondadori's Albi d'Ora series issued between 1946-1952.

Immediately before World War II, the Fascist regime forbade the importation of American films and comics: Mussolini was afraid that readers could be attracted by the "American Way of Life", and ordered that only stories featuring Italian characters be published, with (again!) captions instead of speech balloons. Many new series were created, but readers liked American strips better; so the publishers tried to get round the censure by Italian-ising (or German-ising, in the case of Tarzan, who became Siegfried) the titles of American series. When the supply of original strips ran out, episodes of the most popular characters (with their all new Italian names) were created by local authors: Federico Fellini, the famous film director, wrote some installments of Flash Gordon. All the American material disappeared from the news-stands, not to return until the end of hostilities; the last character to be banned was Mickey Mouse, as the Duce's children especially liked him.

After the war, comics returned along with American films and Jazz. New Giornali like L'Avventura (The Adventure) replaced the old ones, running all the classic characters and some hitherto unknown ones (Dick Tracy, Li'l Abner, Rip Kirby). But the Giornali formula was not as successful as in previous years; readers preferred smaller, comic-book sized magazines, with more pages and complete stories. Hugo Pratt, Mario Faustinelli and Dino Battaglia tried to create a superhero in the style of Batman, l'Asso di Picche (The Ace of Spades, 1945); the experiment did not work. In fact, superhero strips never took root in Italy: up to the late 60s, of the thousands of American costumed heroes, only Nembo Kid (more familiarly known as Superman) and Batman were known in Italy.

In 1949 Topolino cancelled all the non-Disney strips and assumed the current pocket format (the same format as the recent Disney Adventures published in the U.S.). Its success exceeded every expectation; after almost fifty years, Topolino is still the best-selling Disney magazine in the world. Italy is the main world producer of Disney comics, created by fine artists such as Asteriti, Bottaro, Carpi, Cavazzano, Chendi, De Vita, and Scarpa. Topolino's success induced other publishers to adopt its format, which thus spawned lots of humor and funny animal comics aimed at a young audience. Cucciolo (by Caregaro & Rebuffi), Tiramolla, (by Renzi, Rebuffi, Manfrin), Pepito (by Bottaro), Trottolino (by Carpi) were created, soon becoming popular in many European countries.

The ever popular Tex, in strice format.

Because of the shortage of paper, minor publishers were forced to use a very small format known as striscia (strip), the same used in the U.S. for Giveaway comics in the 40s and the 50s. The most lasting strisce featured Western heroes, such as Tex (1947) by Bonelli and Galeppini, Il Piccolo Sceriffo (The Little Sheriff, 1948) by Torelli and Zuffi, Capitan Miki (Captain Miki, 1951) and Il Grande Blek (The Great Blek, 1954) by Esse G Esse. When the paper crisis was over, Tex began to appear in a new formula - the so-called "Bonelli Format" - that, later, became a standard: thick, 96-page monthly books, 6.2 x 8.2 inches, in black and white, six panels per page. Meanwhile, importation of American syndicated strips begun to slow down. Only a few classics, like The Phantom and Mandrake held out.

Original Diabolik art by Beniamino Del Vecchio.

No important changes took place in this genre until the beginning of the 1960s, when in 1962 Diabolik, by Angela and Luciana Giusani, introduced a new genre and a new format (128 pocket-sized pages, two panels per page, with a complete story): for the first time, the hero of a comics series was a villain. Diabolik gave birth to dozens of imitations, the so-called fumetti neri (black comics); Kriminal (1964) and Satanik (1964) by Max Bunker and Magnus - authors of the still popular Alan Ford (1969) - distinguished themselves for their originality, quality and irony.

The Diabolik format was also adopted by hundreds of erotic series; born soft core in the late 60s, by the 80s they had become decidedly hard core.

A press campaign, similar to the one held in the 50s against horror comics in the U.S, broke out against fumetti neri. No wonder: the Catholic Church, critics and educationalists considered comics as an educationally bad and socially dangerous medium. But, in 1965, Linus (taken from Linus of Charles Schulz's Peanuts ) came out; it was the first comic magazine for an adult and cultured public. Linus published the best examples of comics from all over the world; its promoters - Oreste Del Buono, Umberto (In the Name of the Rose) Eco and Elio Vittorini - came from the world of high culture; thanks to Linus, the media began to treat comics with more respect.

Linus issue 1 1965

Linus, Eureka and the other prestige format magazines that were later created, launched the careers of authors and artists of the likes of Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt, Milo Manara, Vittorio Giardino, Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri, Tanino Liberatore and Attilio Micheluzzi; authors of humorous strips such as Bonvi and Silver, political cartoonists like Altan, Chiappori, Pericoli & Pirella. In the 70s, a group of authors (the late Andrea Pazienza, Lorenzo Mattotti, Massimo Mattioli, Carpinteri, Igort, Giuseppe Palumbo and Filippo Scozzari) created a line of innovative comics, many of which were drawn in a peculiar post modernistic style.

Most of the authors of the prestige magazines are widely translated in Europe (especially in France, where their works sell better than in Italy) as well as in the United States; the late Hugo Pratt, creator of Corto Maltese, and Milo Manara are the best internationally-known Italian cartoonists.

In 1965 the first of several fanzines (Comics Club 104) was published, and the first Comics Convention, the Salone Internazionale dei Comics was held in Bordighera (it was transferred to Lucca the following year and is still a biannual event).

Between 1960-70 some vintage papers, such as Corriere dei Piccoli and the Roman Catholic Il Giornalino (The little Journal, founded in 1924 and sold exclusively in churches) took on the format and characteristics that were typical of the French family weeklies (i.e. Tintin, Spirou, Pif): colour magazines printed on slick paper, with complete or serialized stories, articles, and photographic features. The most widely remembered family weekly, Corriere dei Ragazzi (Boys' Courier, 1972-1976) published several French strips (Lucky Luke, Dan Cooper, Michel Vaillant, Comanche, etc.) and many original series by Italian authors (Battaglia, Bonvi, Di Gennaro, Manara, Micheluzzi, Nidasio, Pratt, Tacconi, Toppi, Uggeri) who illustrated stories mostly written by Mino Milani and Alfredo Castelli. Many comic artists from New York have declared that they were inspired by the school of Corriere dei Ragazzi, which, at the time, could be found at the international news-stand in Times Square.

Skorpio and its companion Lanciostory publish the best comics from Europe and South America.

In the 1970s the market was thriving, divided into well-defined lines: prestige magazines such as Linus, Eureka and Il Mago; fumetti neri and erotic comics; soap opera and adventure weeklies such as Intrepido (700,000 copies per week) or Skorpio and Lanciostory; family weeklies and "Bonelli Format" comics. The Marvel line of Super Heroes , brought out by Editoriale Corno, enjoyed for a while an unexpected popularity.

The boom of the 60s and the early years of the 70s was abruptly halted by the sudden coming of the Televisioni Libere (Free TV Stations): between 1976 and 1980, profiting by a flaw in the law that guaranteed to the Government the monopoly of TV broadcasting, hundreds of private TV stations and networks were founded. The comics market was totally disrupted: TV offered programs of all genres, free of charge, 24 hour a day. Comics made for fast consumption disappeared; extremely successful publications such as Intrepido were discontinued. Hard-core video killed the market of erotic comics. Only the publications characterized with high-quality long stories - needing an hour or more to be read - could offer a valid alternative to television.

So, from 1980 onward, the comics issued by publishing giant Sergio Bonelli have boomed; they are genuine 96-page novels in comic form, written and drawn by the best Italian authors; every series is usually scripted by its creator, and illustrated by 10-15 different artists. Besides the already mentioned Tex (1948, by Gian Luigi Bonelli and Aurelio Galleppini), Sergio Bonelli Editore publishes Zagor (1961, by Guido Nolitta and Gallieno Ferri), a costumed-hero story in a Western setting; Mister No (1975, Guido Nolitta), adventures with ecological shades set in the 50's Amazonia; Ken Parker (1977, Berardi & Milazzo), another, more mature and sophisticated Western series; Martin Mystère (1982, Alfredo Castelli), dealing with mysteries in line with Von Daeniken's Chariots of the Gods; the trend-setting cult horror series Dylan Dog (1986, Tiziano Sclavi), an absolute best-seller with over 500,000 copies sold every month; the detective series Nick Raider (1988, Claudio Nizzi); the science-fiction series Nathan Never (1991, Medda, Serra & Vigna). When Martin Mystere and Dylan Dog came out, critics began to abandon the traditional differentiation between prestige and popular publications; these terms have now lost all qualitative connotations and denote simply different formats and sales.

Comic Art

80% of the Italian comics market is shared by Sergio Bonelli Editore (40%) and Walt Disney Company Italia (Topolino and many other Disney magazines, 60%), selling a total of over 100,000,000 copies every year. Linus (30,000 copies monthly) and Comic Art (10.000 copies monthly) are the only surviving representatives of the prestige format; Diabolik, the only surviving representative of black comics, sells around 150,000 copies a month. The weeklies Skorpio and Lanciostory, which publish excellent adventure stories from Argentina, sell approximately 60,000 copies a week; the family weekly Il Giornalino, featuring fine Italian series, sells about 150,000 copies; Lupo Alberto, a funny animal strip created by Silver in 1974, and Cattivik, by the same author, sell a total of 100,000 copies monthly; Comix, featuring humor strips and satirical pieces written by music-hall and TV comedians, sells approximately 15,000 copies a week. The Italian branch of Marvel publishes the bulk of superhero type comics, that are now enjoing a small boom, with combined sales of approximately 6,000,000 copies a year. Manga (Japanese comics) - another small boom of the 90s - sell about 2,500,000 copies a year, although this figure is climbing rapidly.

A few comics are published in book form (among them, the works of the Italian cartoonists Crepax, Manara and Pratt, and the translations of the French albums like Asterix, Lucky Luke, and Tintin) are sold exclusively in bookshops; sales seldom exceed 10,000 copies.

The first of Repubblica's free give-aways - Corto Maltese, 1998.

Italian newspapers publish very few or no comics. As syndication is not possible due to the small number of newspaper in Italy (about one hundred), the cost of a series made for just one newspaper would be too high. On the other hand one newspaper, Repubblica, recently - 1998 - gave away each week with their paper, a book about a different comic character or comic artist. This series ran for over a year and featured strip examples as well as a detailed biography - these books have become collectibles in their own right. This experiment was repeated in Belgium a few years later.

The merchandising inspired by Italian comic characters began to spread in the late 1980s, the leading character is Silver's Lupo Alberto, which ousted Snoopy and Garfield in the market.

The average prices of Italian comics are lower than American ones; a black and white 96-page Bonelli book costs 2 euro, about 3 dollars. 97% of Italian comics are sold at the country's 37,000 news-stands; they are distributed by three national distributors and 175 local distributors (the percentage kept by the distributors ranges from 30% to 50% of the cover price). Italian news-stands offer a great variety of periodicals: besides comics (not less than 250 titles), magazines and newspapers, they display series of video cassettes, DVDs, records and computer software. Only in recent years have comics begun to be sold in bookshops and department stores. There are specialist comic book shops in all the major towns, but they do not constitute, as in the U.S. or U.K., an alternative to national distribution.

In Italy there are no Unions of cartoonists; Italian law doesn't provide for a specific legislation concerning comics, but, for accepted custom, most publishers (with the exception of Disney, which doesn't recognize any right of the authors) stick to the same unwritten rules. The average emolument for the first printing ranges from $ 100 to $ 350 per page (art) and from $ 35 to $ 100 per page (script); original pages remain the property of the artist; net profits of reprints are divided 50%-50% between the publisher and the author(s). In some case the originator of a comic series is granted a royalty on the sales. Licensing rights are divided 50%-50% between the publisher and the author. This situation has led to some Italian artists acquiring representatives or agents to buy up all work that they produced for foreign publishers (i.e. Fleetway) in order to re-sell it in Italy (where prices for Italian artwork is much higher than the U.S. or U.K.), a percentage of the sales fee going to the artist (or his estate).

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