By Richard McKenna / August 29, 2016
With a reputation for intractability and a ubiquity afforded him by a decades-long involvement in the Italian equivalent of the pulps, Magnus (not to be confused with his robot-punching namesake) was, until his death in 1996, one of Italy’s most prolific and distinctive comic book artists. Magnus was born Roberto Raviola in the left-wing, north-Italian university city of Bologna in 1939 (a year after fellow Bolognese Pupi Avati, who directed the cult horror films The House with Laughing Windows and Zeder). In 1961 Raviola graduated with a diploma in scenery design from his hometown’s academy of fine arts, and it was the jokey motto of that institution’s students that provided him with his pen name: magnus pictor fecit—“a great painter did it.”
He began working as an illustrator for Bologna publishing house Malipero, for whom he produced a 1963 version of The Wizard of Oz, moving into comics in 1964 when, after answering an ad in the monthly cowboy comic Maschera Nera (Black Mask), he was invited to start working with Milanese writer Max Bunker (the pen-name of one Luciano Secchi) on Satanik and Kriminal, a couple of spooky, sexy, violent monthlies centered around amoral arch-criminals and created to cash in on the craze for fumetti neri—“black,” as in macabre, “comics”—following the success of the Giussani sisters’ Diabolik, first published in 1962.
Diabolik was (and still is, as it inexplicably continues to emerge every month with chilling, Reader’s Digest-like regularity) the story of a mysterious master-criminal clad in a black cat-suit, only his eyes and buzzard-wing eyebrows visible. Legend has it that two things provided the older of the Giussani sisters, who had been involved more or less successfully in the comics world for some years, with the inspiration for Diabolik: first, the realization that an easy-to-read, pocket-sized comic would have a market among the burgeoning commuter class, and second, the discovery of an old Fantômas (the sadistic, sociopathic criminal created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre) novel on a train. Diabolik was a huge popular success, creating a bow-wave of imitators, of which Satanik and Kriminal were two of the most successful, in part because of their delivery of the violence, sexiness, and amorality that were only hinted at in the relatively tame and moralizing Diabolik.
Bunker’s Kriminal told the story of Anthony Logan, a trapeze artist turned pitiless criminal who, clad in a striking skeleton costume, goes hellbent about the business of avenging the murder of his father and sister. The protagonist of Satanik was disfigured chemistry professor Marny Bannister. Sick of the ill-treatment of her beautiful older sisters, Marny resorts to alchemy and a “laser bath” to become the cruel, sensual Satanik, attired in signature funnel skullcap-and-ponytail. In the same period, the two also produced Dennis Cobb – Agente SS018, about the spy of the same name, and the first six volumes of matriarchal space pirate Gesebel, though neither attained anything like the fame enjoyed by the sexy she-devil and the yellow skeleton.
From 1969 on, Bunker and Magnus also began working together on the long-running, much-loved, and (to me, at least) entirely unfunny spy spoof Alan Ford, a dozen of which are usually to be found in every middle-aged Italian man’s ex-bedroom in his parents’ house. Recounting the adventures of the TNT Group, an inept cabal of secret agents operating out of a flower shop in Manhattan, the comic took its name from a young graphic designer (whose appearance was supposedly based on Peter O’Toole) who accidentally becomes a member of the TNT Group and who was initially the principal focus of the stories. Attempts were made to launch Alan Ford in several countries around the world, and for some reason it struck a particularly resonant chord in Serbo-Croatian-speaking former Yugoslavia, where it continues to be popular today: characters can be seen reading it in Emir Kusturica’s film Black Cat, White Cat (1998), and the University of Belgrade’s Electronics Faculty website address contains the word ‘TNT’ in its honor.
Like Maschera Nera, the comic that originally brought them together, all the Magnus and Bunker collaborations were published by Editoriale Corno, the Milanese comics publishing house founded by Bunker with his friend, bank clerk Andrea Corno. The company is famous for, along with its original creations, popularizing Marvel Comics in Italy.
In 1975, Magnus decided to abandon the draining slog of monthly mass production and concentrate on the more sophisticated, experimental material that was closer to his heart, which he would often script as well as illustrate. These efforts included Lo Sconosciuto (The Unknown, 1975), a strip about the adventures of a disenchanted ex-mercenary called “Unknow” (a character created, bizarrely, with his friend Francesco Guccini, a famed and totally humorless Italian political singer-songwriter), and La Compagnia della Forca (The Company of the Gallows, 1977), a sort of historical fantasy-comedy about a ragtag group of medieval adventurers. In later years he also produced 1981’s Necron (perhaps the comic for which he’s best-known internationally), the story of mad, nymphomaniac professor Frieda Boher and her titular sex-slave, a cannibalistic, super-endowed monstrosity stitched together from corpses. There was also Milady 3000 (1980), a space opera that drew obvious inspiration from Magnus’ love of Asian culture, as well as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, also debuting in 1980.
One of Magnus’ final jobs was illustrating La Valle del Terrore (The Valley of Terror, 1989), a volume of the usually dull but worthy Tex Willer, a supposedly Gary Cooper-esque cowboy comic that is one of Italy’s longest-running and best-loved. Magnus famously spent seven years obsessively and reclusively producing thousands of detailed preparatory drawings of every detail, from furnishings to vegetation, to ensure that the Old West was rendered as accurately as possible in the book, which became known in its homeland as the Texone—the ‘big Tex‘.
During his lifetime, his work was published in the most respected, cutting-edge, adult-oriented comics magazines of the day, including Heavy Metal, Totem, and Frigidaire, and he never stopped pushing forward the limits of his own art and what he thought comics should and could be. 1982’s Socrates’ Count Down is a good example of his innovative approach: a beautifully rendered black and white comic strip depicting the last moments of the philosopher’s life as he awaits the hemlock to take effect; an LCD countdown ticks away the seconds in the corner of each frame.
Magnus apparently enjoyed something of a reputation for being terrifically hard to work with—Renzo Barbieri, the Milanese founder of Edifumetto, a comics publisher well-known from the ’70s to the ’90s for its pocket porno-horrors, said of him, “Magnus was a great artist, but he was a maverick. There was no talking to him. Discussion was impossible, because in the end he just did what he wanted anyway.” Magnus looked the part, too: a robust, imposing bald chap with an impressive mustache. (He looked enough like John McCoy, erstwhile bassist of Gillan and Mammoth, for me to wonder for a brief period of pre-internet time if they were actually the same person.)
In old interviews Magnus comes across as both forthright and elusive, a thoughtful type who seems a little uncomfortable speaking in public—a man given to expressing himself gnomically, and who claimed that his love for Asian countries, which he saw as being much more civilized, was basically the flip side of a hatred for the West. In an interview from 1984, he explained his reluctance to remain chained to one style: “I hope to keep renewing my way of doing comics, not out of ambition, but because it feels like an obligation to my readers: as long as new opportunities present themselves, it’s my responsibility to accept them. As far as I’m concerned, I think I keep fairly up to date, or at least in step with my times. I have to stay on my own track, so I have to look to myself and not at what’s going on around me.”
Magnus is still a constant visual presence in Italy. Prestigious literary publisher Einaudi released a volume of Lo Sconosciuto as part of its “experimental” Stile Libero line, for example, and any comic shop worth its salt will have a volume of Necron or Milady. In the popular imagination he remains unfairly shackled to and defined by his work with Bunker, and, since his death, his graphic influence has been surprisingly feeble, leaving him somewhat in the shadow of his closest peers, Milo Manara, Tanino Liberatore, and Andrea Pazienza, all of whom enjoy a reputation for being more “adult” and/or politicized: Pazienza had the youth, the playfulness, the god-given-gift with a felt-tip pen and the easily-mimicked style; Liberatore seemed to have been beamed in from some nightmare parallel Italy; and Manara had the beautiful nouveau lines, the undertone of literary sophistication, and the perfectly-rendered tushes bared in every few frames.
It’s also true that the growing influence of Manga and the deadening “professionalization” imposed by a burgeoning comic school industry seem to have imposed a certain homogeneity on Italian comics over the last couple of decades, as the illuminated journeymen illustrators or outsiders who were once given the opportunity to enjoy and develop their very personal visions have largely given way to successors either immersed in the visual languages of Japan and the U.S. or completely in thrall to their illustrious forebears, leaving alternative comics to take a much more whimsical, intelligentsia-friendly route.
At its most crank-’em-out (like a lot of his work on Alan Ford), Magnus’ art can be so lifeless and rote that it is actually annoying, while at other times (Alan Ford again) it’s cloyingly cartoony and mannered (see the constant cheekbones). But in the best of his comics, the weird interplay of the beautiful solidity and depth of his chiaroscuro, his occasional bursts of byzantine decoration and the effortlessly airy ligne claire curves he adopted late in his career compliment and contrast with one another in a way that’s unique and great—reminiscent, perhaps, of a very relaxed Wally Wood crossed with Jaime Hernandez or Charles Burns, although the comparison barely does Magnus justice. Sometimes it’s only one frame in a page, but the visual impact he’s capable of making when he hits his stride, the boldness with which he simultaneously and masterfully highlights and exploits both the two- and the three-dimensionality of what he’s drawing—and this is true throughout his career—is, in my experience, completely unique to him, as is his ability to make what he does at once “comicy” in the sense of a 1940s newspaper and “comixy” in a way that fits right in with Richard Corben, Berni Wrightson, and Mœbius—in a way that never approaches pastiche. His beginnings in scenery design are evident in both his understanding of the importance of space as part of the narrative and the way he’s capable of creating instantly understandable stages for his action, which he can illustrate with only a few simple blocks of color or with obsessively rendered detail.
There’s a weirdness about his work that makes it incredibly compelling, probably a result of Magnus’ grumpy refusal to submit to any one specific vision of who he was and what he was about, a quality that makes him a more slippery proposition for posthumous adoration than others of his generation. Much of his work on Kriminal, Satanik, Milady, and Necron has a mesmeric power and a graphic weight that is totally without equal, and to my mind he’s at his best when he plays with the tension between page-a-day-man rote perfection and experimental oddball. (And, ye gods, could the man render drapery when he was in the mood.) For proof, take a look at his fantastic little zombie tale Vendetta Macumba (1979), which contains one of the world’s all-time-best rotting zombies. What better proof of the genuinely great artist could there be?
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being one day rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.