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Sergio Bonelli (1932-2011)

The cover (by Claudio Villa) of a book dedicated to Bonelli's work as Guido Nolitta

Italy’s greatest comics publisher and one of the most acclaimed creators in the country passed away on September 26th. He would have been 79 on December 2nd. Son of the comics writer Giovanni Luigi (creator of the best selling western hero Tex Willer) and the publisher Tea Bertasi Bonelli, he combined the talents of his parents.

Bonelli’s career began has its roots just after WWII. Tea Bertasi Bonelli owned a small publishing house in Milan and had produced many short-lived comics in the years following 1945. These comics were in a very small format called striscia — comparable to American giveaway comics. All of them were written by her former husband, Giovanni Luigi (known as G.L.) Bonelli. In 1948, G.L. Bonelli, with artist Aurelio Galleppini (who went by Galep) created Tex, a Texas Ranger who would also become an Indian chief called Aquila della Notte (Night Eagle). Then, in the late 1950s, the first Tex stories were reprinted in finely produced and highly readable volumes in the so called formato Bonelli (Bonelli format): Softcover, 5-1/4” x 8-3/4”, black & white, 96-plus pages. The format soon became standard, as Italian readers liked having long novel-like comics.

Sergio Bonelli and Tex

Sergio Bonelli (who had just assumed the editorship of his parent’s publishing house) noticed the new format sold more than the usual striscia comics. So new stories were produced for the formato Bonelli: novels in comics form. The Tex serials required more artists to produce 100-plus pages every month, and in came Francesco Gamba, Guglielmo Letteri, Giovanni Ticci, Erio Nicolò, among others, but G.L. continued writing all the stories until the late 1970s (Sergio would become assume control of Tex after his father’s retirement). Tex became the best selling Italian monthly comics series; it now sells more than 300,000 copies a month, and more than a million including the reprint series.

Zagor (art by Gallieno Ferri)

Under the alias of Guido Nolitta (he didn’t wanted to be confused with his already famous father), Sergio Bonelli created two important characters: the fantasy western-tinged Zagor (with artist Gallieno Ferri) in 1961, and the adventurer Mister No in 1975. Nolitta/Bonelli poured all of his influences into Zagor (westerns, SF, horror movies, comics, humor, and novels): The lead encounters outlaws, vampires, ancient celtic druids, aliens (classic bug-eyed monsters from Fifties movies), and his archenemy is Hellingen, a classic mad doctor. The character is still published today. Last June Zagor turned fifty; Ferri is still on the creative team and even though he stopped writing Zagor stories in the early 1980s (fans still liked his Zagor best), Bonelli still read and edited each issues.

Mister No (art by Marco Bianchini)

Mister No (his “real name” is Jerome – Jerry – Drake) is written as a WWII vet living in 1950s Manaus, Brasil near the Amazon forest, far from civilization, which disappointed him. Trouble follows him, of course, but he always says “No”: to civilization, to power, to oppressors. Mister No is a sort of alter ego for Sergio Bonelli; the artist was a great adventurer himself, going to the Amazon several time in the 1960s and to the Sahara. Mister No ended in 2006, with his last saga (more than 1,000 pages) written by Bonelli.

All of the Bonelli characters (art by Claudio Villa).

Other important Bonelli characters include: Martin Mystère (created by Alfredo Castelli in 1982), an archaeologist-scholar dealing with mysteries such as Atlantis, UFOs, and Templar Knights; Nathan Never (created by Antonio Serra, Bepi Vigna and Michele Medda in 1991), a detective in a future Blade Runner-like city; and Dylan Dog (created by Tiziano Sclavi in 1986), a horror investigator who became very popular (second only to Tex in sales). This year saw the release of a Dylan Dog movie directed by Kevin Munroe and starring Brendon Routh, but it was disappointment to the character’s fans.

Bonelli was a typical Italian entrepreneur: more focused on the human factor than the business side. Even as Bonelli become a publishing giant, selling million of comics every month, he really cared for his artists (for example, he gave work to old creators who didn’t have pensions), editors, writers. Bonelli was still, in many ways, a sort of family business. Sergio Bonelli’s death was a surprise — he was in good shape and was still actively editing his line. Moreover, while on a panel last July he expressed continued enthusiasm for this art and business.

The Bonelli funeral, characters in attendance.

All of Italian comicdom turned out for his funeral at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan. Attendees seemed to be mourning the publisher, creator, the man, as well as an era perceived to have ended with his death.

Bonelli is survived by his wife Beatrice, and his son Davide, marketing manager of Sergio Bonelli Editore.

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