Doodling with Altan (2). In the beginning it was Trino di Francesco Memo

In the beginning it was Trino.

That’s where it all started: not only Altan’s long career but also, in the proper sense, the origin of the world. In fact, these ingenious strips tell the relationship between a little god who is a little clumsy, engaged in creation, and his superior, or more precisely his client, who presses him constantly asking for information on the progress of the work (the duo will be added then Hippo, the client’s sharp-eyed spy hippopotamus). Released in 1974, Trino is a small pearl of irony and hilarious situations, which all comic lovers should know.

The narrative pretext recalls a surreal tale by Primo Levi, included in Natural Stories if I am not mistaken, where Levi imagines the disputes between some gods bored and competitive, as only work colleagues can be, in discussing the new creation project called Man; but the thing in Altan takes on the contours and the comedy of the best Woody Allen.

This is how Oreste del Buono describes it, who was well versed in comics, and to whom we owe, among other things, the merit of having brought Altan to the pages of Linus, precisely with Trino.

“A hairless nose said to a smaller, candidly bearded nose: ‘Make the creation of the world.’ ‘Today?’ the bearded man asked. “I’ll give you six days” said the Client, very Milanese commendatorizio. “It will be a hard job,” muttered the person in charge. zippo and said to the other dumbfounded: ‘On the seventh day he will rest.’ But then the person in charge decided to ask for explanations about the command. ‘How does this world want it?’ he asked, clearly disturbing the Client, who lit his cigarette, had begun to read and said distracted and impatient: ‘Put some galaxies, planets …’.

The person in charge was exaggerating in the request for information: ‘Can I put volcanoes, scorpions, bacilli and poop in it?’. ‘Put what it takes, she’ll manage it anyway’ was the answer. ‘So can I start?’ the officer asked hesitantly. ‘Go, go and put on your hat’ was the command and encouragement. The bearded white man wore the great radiant and signaling triangle on his head. “Hasta la vista” he said, but evidently did not do much because, during the next relationship, to the boss: ‘So, how is creation going ?, he replied’ Evil ‘.’ But how! Look, I’m spending money! ‘ was the furious reaction of the Client. The person in charge chirped under his triangle: “But it’s dark, you can’t see a pipe.” protested the client. ‘What do you think is Italian?’ In turn, the person in charge protested. “

It is impossible not to start from Trino to talk about Altan, because it is the work that in my opinion holds together the three souls of our beloved designer only apparently split: the candid soul of Pimpa and of many stories for children, the disenchanted soul of his comic novels, steeped to the marrow of ruthlessness and cynicism, the diviner soul of the unique and inimitable cartoonist and joke, who with his editorials drawn, for over forty years comments and often anticipates the equally unique and alas inimitable Italian reality.

Satire, as we know, ages quickly, the daughter of actuality remains encapsulated in time and in the place where it was born, quickly becoming good material for historians. It is like the newspaper on which it comes out: the next day is good for wrapping fish. With Altan, on the other hand, the reverse law applies, that of good wine: his work, starting from the daily cartoons, over time becomes even more intense. Not only because politicians and public figures hardly ever appear there, but because the unique and almost divinatory nature of Altan’s satire is adherent not to the spirit of the times but to the profound character of Italians (a bit like Leopardi, we might say). In fact, with Altan it can happen, and it often happens in the many facebook groups that randomly reproduce his cartoons, to read jokes from decades ago thinking that they have just been drawn.

Introducing the hardcover edition of the ruthless portraits dedicated by the Treviso cartoonist to some extraordinary Italians, Luca Raffaelli asks himself: “But how do you make two so different conceptions of the world coexist in one person? In a single coherence? How do you say on the one hand that the world is horrible because everyone wants badly and they are empty, they think only of themselves, and on the other hand to say [nella Pimpa e nei racconti per l’infanzia ndr] that the world is beautiful because each one needs the fullness of the other? “. In my opinion, the answer lies in Trino, which by holding together the apparently opposite vertices of lightness and depth can be read with equal amusement by both adults and children (my little one, for example, from the height of her nine years literally devoured him).

Altan’s comic novels, on the other hand, let’s face it, I wouldn’t leave them absent-mindedly on a child’s bedside table. Not for censoring intentions, but because one must be an adult and vaccinated (if this expression is still used in a pandemic era) to appreciate the ruthless representation of reality that is made up of Altan’s long stories.

We refer to the triptych made in the seventies and composed by Friz Melone – hallucinated variation of Mr Magoo, where blindness leads the protagonist to confuse, among other things, a slimy mortadella for an abandoned baby – the shaking and morbid Colombo – which without neither art nor part is fixed that he has to discover America – and finally to the beautiful and cynical Ada, lost in the African jungle between vile Englishmen and improbable Nazis. To these three fundamental works should also be added Cuori Pazzi, a hallucinatory parody of the atmospheres and family dramas of Swedish cinema a la Bergmann.

The set of stories draws a world so corrupt, feral and Hobbessian as to be tragically comic, with the same effects that in those same years another immense creative chameleon, Ettore Scola, adopted in one of his most unusual and unsettling films: Ugly dirty and bad.

“I had the idea of ​​creating a trilogy: the Navigator, the Saint and the Poet, the typical characters of the so-called tradition of the Italian character” says Altan in the interview book edited by Roberto Moisio. “I started with the Navigator, because I had read a passage from the diary of Columbus’s first voyage where it is said that, as soon as they left Palos, the pirate crew that the queen forced to make one or two trips a year in exchange for freedom, wanted to go back. at the end of the day, they had traveled three nautical miles, when in reality they had traveled thirty, to avoid them being frightened by asking to return to Spain at once.

He said they went very slowly to keep his brave sailors at bay; the story I had found beautiful. The story opens in the Americas, among the Indians unaware of the gloomy future that awaits them, with the birth of a child. At the same time Cristoforo was born in Genoa. The two destinies will cross at the moment of discovery, October 12, 1492. It is a story full of flashbacks and digressions: I had a rough lineup, but I discovered many developments in the course of construction. It was the first long story: ten chapters of ten to twelve pages each. I took great pleasure in doing this job; I drew until five in the morning, without feeling fatigue. “

The graphic style in these stories is what we know well from Altan’s cartoons: thick lines that make up simple and expressive characters. With the difference that we have here, almost in every glimpse, a multitude of outline details, not hyperbolic as in Jacovitti but always adhering to reality, to represent the perennial decay of the world: swarming insects (cockroaches, lice, fleas), waste and pieces of rotten meat, bones and bones, and then vomited matter that you can never hold back.

Male characters with nose and drooping eyelids, tortoise faces that come to life suddenly, are counterbalanced by the beautiful women of Altan, prominent breasts and prosperous hips, free, proud and irrepressible. Ada of course, but also Columbus’s mother and Queen Isabella, or tragic supporting actors who can’t get rid of the petty blackmail of men, like Ulla who waits in vain for Puddu, the Sardinian cook, to fall back into Lars’s arms.

Black and white is the master, with contrasts that recall the expressionism of Muñoz and Sampayo, but with less nervousness, rather with a softness that makes the horror more disturbing.

Colombo begins, however, with beautiful color plates, gaudy and felt-like, on the indios Gino, which cannot fail to make us think of Kamillo Kromo, the story of the little chameleon unable to transform himself but able to color the world, in a riot of shades and chromatic whims that never cease to enchant young and old. Therefore, a luxuriant nature also peeps out in contrast to the decadence of the city, the African jungle or the Amazon rainforest, with animals of all kinds that tear each other apart and wise and disenchanted natives, who break the whipped pattern of the good savage. and which are certainly the result of direct experiences of ours in Brazil but perhaps also indirect ones deriving from the family environment, for example from the stories of his father, a great cultural anthropologist.

An original graphic element unites these stories: a sort of subtitles that find a place in the white stripe under the cartoons. A double register that breaks the fourth wall of the white space, the one in which the reader’s imagination creeps in to recreate the fluidity of the sequence from the fixity of the single vignettes. With this expedient Altan behaves as if the cartoon he presents to us were projected on the screen of a parish cinema, in front of a shrewd and never quiet audience, which commented directly on every entrance and every joke from the audience.

As Carlos Sampayo noted on the occasion of Friz Melone’s first collection, “there are two levels of malice in the work of this artist: that of his characters, hypocrites without ransom, and his own, which at the foot of each cartoon reveals the mechanisms of that hypocrisy that he himself helped to create ”. Thus ironic comments on the actions of the characters find a place in this strip at the foot of the cartoons, their names followed by sarcastic adjectives, onomatopoeias, translations, but also improbable musical references (among the best, T. Mann & his enchanted mountaneers), up to with simple exclamation points with an arrow pointing upwards to emphasize a detail of the design.

It is these graphic-verbal elements that dramatically multiply the points of view and that would delight the semioticians of comics or the self-styled ideologues of the graphic novel. But to us, who are neither academics nor theorists, it seems to us only the umpteenth confirmation of Altan’s genius, for which we are perennially grateful.


The Scarabocchi Festival it will open with Francesco Tullio Altan in dialogue with Michele Serra, 6 pm at the Coccia Theater. On Saturday 17 September at 11.30 at the Cortile del Broletto Altan meets readers, young and old, signing copies of his works.

Doodling with Altan (2). In the beginning it was Trino di Francesco Memo