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Diabolik Sisters: The True Story of Diabolik’s Mums

Giuseppe Palumbo, artist-illustrator of Diabolik recounts new visions of terror

Just over fifty years after the official release of the first issue of Diabolik, the King of Terror, published in Italy in 1962, the memory of the two creators, Angela and Luciana Giussani, continues to stay alive and to arouse curiosity about the two ‘wicked sisters’ who contributed to a veritable socio-cultural revolution in a country which was still dormant and which is now dedicated to the frantic pursuit of status and the mid bourgeois model of the New Consumerist society with its relentless and absolute rythms.

Angela and Luciana Giussani, well brought up girls from Milan’s entrepreneurial period, belonged to a generation of a women who, instead of choosing comfort and the impassable borderline between wealth and status imposed by society at the time, decided to go beyond any permitted limit into a  much more imaginative sphere, bringing into the world the  most awkward and outrageous creation: Diabolik, the King of Terror; an anti-hero born from their dark creativity and, perhaps, precisely, as a result of social fatigue and of the obligations of their flat and boring, lifestyle.

Born initially as an experiment to entertain the thousands of commuters waiting for direct connections to their work places, scattered between the different stations of the hinterland of Lombardy, Diabolik will become, in the course of half a century, an authentic, dark pop icon which has greatly inspired filmmakers, designers, writers and artists who still celebrate the rebellious and contrarian alter-ego of two sisters.

Angela Giussani, was born in Milan in 1922 and after a long career in modelling, advertising, publishing, and as a writer, died in 1987. Luciana Giussani was born six years after her sister and following her studies in Germany, became involved with Angela for the first 13 numbers, in order to contribute to the creation of the character's more unusual activities which caused it to be seized by the Italian censors of the time. There were, in fact, quite a few attempts to arrest (that really is the case) the publication of Diabolik, King of public outrage and offense (only for the mentality of the time) but, through their determination and the enormous success of Diabolik, the Sisters managed to increase the distribution and popularity of their anti-hero, which was translated into seven different languages, and to extend the reach of this in International imaginary character which is still today, decisively present.

Following the death of her sister Angela, Luciana Giussani continued to hold the reins of the Astorina publishing house and the circulation of copies of the series until her death in 2001, giving in 1999, the role of Directorate-General of the publishing house to Mario Gomboli, head of technical and commercial staff of the editorial brand, which doesn't seem to have had too many negative repercussions  and which has led a success that is hard to scratch or dent.

This phenomenon is confirmed by the authors of the stories and by the designers and artists in pencils and inks, such as Tito Faraci among early illustrators, who decided to continue to give faces and images to the creations of Angela and Luciana Giussani.

After Enzo Facciolo and Edgardo Dell’Acqua, there followed Flavio Bozzoli, Glauco Coretti, Lino Jeva, Armando Bonato, Brenno Fiumali (inks) and, in ’70, Alarico Gattia, Sergio Zaniboni, Giorgio Montorio and Franco Paludetti. Diabolik continues to make his mark on every crime and murder possible, thanks to one of his dedicated contemporary designers and illustrators: Giuseppe Palumbo, artist of outrages and the avant-garde and of characters which are ‘outside the box’ has managed today to make Diabolik a brand.

Because of the distinctive mark and style of the publication, Diabolik-the King of Terror is still recognized as an iconic character, celebrated not only in Italy but also in other European countries, as tangible evidence of the genius of the Diabolik Sisters, Angela and Luciana Giussani, who bucked the prevailing trends of the time and produced  and gave to us  a mythology both imaginative and urban. Actually, the myth splits in two, even three; why is it that a character that is so negative and penetrating, perhaps one of the earliest urban legends created at that time, has, in the end, amplified and catalyzed greater interest and focus on the lives of the Giussani sisters, basic figures of the break with the past in the cultural history of the Italian avant-garde.

Giuseppe Palumbo, spokesman for Diabolik's illustrators, came to prominence as the creator and designer of "Ramarro" – The first masochistic Super Hero, superstar of the characters of the prestigious magazine" Frigidaire", founded by Vincenzo Sparagna, Filippo Scozzari and Stefano Tamburini that involved some of leading names of Italian Visual art such as: Andrea Pazienza, Tanino Liberatore, Francesca Ghermandi, Lorenzo Mattotti, Igort, just to name a few.

The mark and style of Diabolik signed by Giuseppe Palumbo, are considered by many readers and fans of the artist from Matera as one more characteristic and recognizable than many of the faces of criminals whose features have become glamorous and stylish. In fact, the first Special Edition issue, finely bound with a hologram, revealing the very first cover and the official debut of Giuseppe Palumbo in remake, has become among the most sought-after cult objects and is collected by popular visual arts enthusiasts of all generations. With the complicity of the terrible sisters, a super villain, disturbing and elusive even today and the source of many urban legends, was ready to thwart any possible bigoted reaction and that healthy provincial respectability, very often even more corrupt and disgusting than the character himself or those of his creators.

However, many questions still unanswered and never openly addressed, reinforce the mystery about the many reasons why a character so negative became almost a manifesto against any possible moral law. This icon was, in the end, formed by the contradictory (some would cry "twisted") creativity and irreverence of the two respectable sisters; because, in response to the conception of a character so perverse, immoral, irreverent and totally illegal, the Giussani sisters have also supported social campaigns against drug use and speeding, even now, two of the most worrying phenomena in Italian territory. What is it that keeps alive over time, in these times, an urban legend so strong and immortal as Diabolik-the King of Terror? Some of these questions, without blemish and without fear, were addressed to Joseph Palumbo, the highly respected illustrator, for Tablet 2.0.

 

1) It is nice to meet you, Giuseppe. Of course, our Big Team, already knows everything or most about you. Since the early 1980s, your creative abilities, from Ramarro, Tosca, la Mosca, up to other characters, almost always on the edge, had already classified your as an artist who was well known outside Italy. Then Diabolik-The King of Terror launched you as a messenger of challenge: giving him a refreshed sign and style. Did this feel like a great responsibility and a privilege not to be missed?

G.P. The pleasure is absolutely understood and reciprocated. When, nearly 15 years ago, I accepted an invitation to design the remake of the first issue of Diabolik, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of its first release, I already had 15 years of work behind me. My official debut was in the mid eighties and my luck as an author was to get a shot at a hero as extreme, awkward and disturbing as Ramarro, the first superhero masochist; but I was also one of the illustrators on the staff of one of the most popular series of the publishing house of Sergio Bonelli, Martin Mystére, created by Alfredo Castelli. Diabolik has given me the chance to be at the same time, a dynamic artist, violent and harsh as I had been with Ramarro and also the designer of much loved and popular serials with very precise rules of storytelling, as I had been for Martin Mystére. In addition, although I hadn't ever been a great reader of Diabolik, I recognized in the series a number of graphic possibilities that, from year to year, one piece at a time, I have tried to accomplish. And then I immediately felt a responsibility to have a real brush with a pop icon of Italian visual culture: I couldn't allow a chance like that to escape!

2) Angela and Luciana Giussani: modern witches or misunderstood geniuses? How would you describe them?

G.P. I think that you have two modern geniuses! Neither witches nor misunderstood! They knew how to interpret the taste of a huge audience and their publishing house has done this now for over 50 years. My greatest regret is not having known them, but I hope to be continuing along the furrow that they began to dig in 1962.

3) We are focused on the figures of the creators of Diabolik, because according to you, the Giussani sisters risked so much socially at that moment? Why were they driven in this way? And why did a country, at a time of socio-cultural expansion as was happening in Italy, react so strongly against those who, at the end of the day, had created something utterly imaginary? In summary: what were the Giussanis trying to say about Italy and why did Italy have so much fear from two respectable girls?

G.P. They were two ladies of the Milanese upper class at a time of an economic boom and on the threshold of a profound sociological and anthropological change. From their privileged position they were able to find a formula with narrative simplicity and concreteness, with rawness but without cynicism, retaining a set of moral values shared by every social strata and could tell of a world of great wealth and decadent nobility (think of films such as La Dolce Vita, from the same period) and simple people animated by a great desire for economic and social redemption, often seduced by the speed of crime.

In this world, Diabolik and his beloved Eva Kant become the catalyst of situations that ignite or take advantage of the ongoing clash. And they do this by realising, the hidden desire of everyone to satisfy their obsessions, to love and be loved completely, in a bigoted Italy, righteous and run by the clergy, the same country in which figures such as  Pasolini are censured, or even Fellini with La Dolce Vita. Diabolik was another enemy to fight, precisely because he brought to light the dark side that is there in us and in the ways of bourgeois Catholic life, on the right as well as on the left, that we want to remain hidden and repressed.

If we read today the first stories of Diabolik, we remain baffled by the naïve simplicity of the dashed social relations of the characters who enliven those stories, but which at the time were terribly real and awkward to accept. The world of the 1960s, especially in Italy was clamoring for change and Diabolik played his part in this, but without excess, without ever becoming splatter or projecting excessive cynicism. This came out of the class to which belonged two great ladies who were the Giussani sisters.

4) As you might imagine, many visual artists are striving to be, or at least to become excellent writers and, vice versa, many authors want to be or become unforgettable illustrators. In a second life, if you had the choice, in which of the two roles would you like to be reincarnated and, in the end, why?

G.P. In reality, despite the fact that I was considered more a designer than a complete author, I have always been and continue to be an author. Several of my books are ongoing projects (even the one with Ramarro as protagonist, back in action!), waiting to be completed, waiting for the time to be ripe in their editorial life. I write and design, in short, all the time and I can say that I am always satisfied with both of my obsessions.

5) If they are both still here among us, what would you ask the two absolutely real legends, the Giussani sisters, with the utmost honesty and sincerity?

G.P. I would ask them to write a story, cruel and gentle, fast and thoughtful, as only they knew how to do. And then I would ask them permission to allow me maximum freedom to reinterpret it masterfully with my style. Nothing more.

6) Diabolik was born in a particular socio-economic moment of the Italian scene, perhaps international; do you think the character may have further relevance in today's scenario? And why?

G.P. The present moment, in my opinion, requires new inconvenient characters. And perhaps in a scenario like this which is always willing to accept extreme characters even if they are vulgar and superficial, Diabolik, might still be uncomfortable; a character who loves only one woman, who does not kill for the sake of it, who brings to our attention an ethical dimension (not a trivial moralism!) that is now a rare commodity. A globalised world is made uniform by the mass market, a world of reality shows which trivializes and annuls the more extreme forms of expression and devalues the subversive, Diabolik seems more real and meaningful than ever. This is a challenge for those who must always think up new stories and for those who, like me, who have to draw them.

7) If you were reincarnated as one of the three leading characters in Diabolik (Diabolik, Eva Kant, Inspector Ginko), which of these would you choose and why?

G.P. In each of them there is something that attracts me. But basically, I like all three. In my life I follow my obsessions (drawing and storytelling) and I love each character the same. It seems a stretch, but I assure you that it isn't. Because it is that same ethical choice I was talking about before: I feel that only in this way can you find some semblance of meaning in the general chaotic flow of life.

8) Yours is a sign that you change the story or concept to be illustrated. From the "Diary of a madman" by  Xen-Lu, and  "Ramarro", up to your latest character: "Eternal Artemisia", this characteristic is clearly expressed  in your work as an artist. In Diabolik, however, despite stylistic and expressive differences, the key characters of the series, and the locations, although more detailed and rich, continue to maintain more or less to remind us of your predecessors. Is this an emotional or editorial choice or, perhaps, a strategic and cautious decision so as not to disorient the readers? How do you explain this?

G.P. Clearly it is a choice to respect my readers and publishing house; to try to keep the main characters perfectly recognizable. But my books of Diabolik always remain special numbers, almost out of range, or rather they are separate series, because as far as I try to respect the graphic history of the series, my work continues to be authorial, or if you prefer, an interpretation by artist and it could not be otherwise. I believe that this is precisely what the Publisher requires and expects from me.

9) Let us talk about Eternal Artemisia? Who is she, and why has she been born? What do you see of yourself in her? Do you think the audience will love as has happened with Aeonflux, Elektra, Black Widow, Barbarella and many others?

G.P. Eternal Artemisia was born as a communication project on behalf of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence on the occasion of the exhibition "women in power" dedicated to two Queens of France, Maria and Catherine de ' Medici and especially to a tapestry cycle dedicated to them that adorned their rooms, and celebrated them through the narrative of the myth of Artemisia. James Bradburne, at the time the Director of the Fondazione  Strozzi, imagined the two Queens, going to bed at night, watching those tapestries as one might read comic books: this gave him the idea of commissioning a comic that renewed the myth of Artemisia. I was chosen as an author and took the opportunity to develop one of the many stories that I have in the drawer: now it was the turn of Eternal Artemisia and the Great Mother.

I was and am a great reader in archaeology and mythology and, to give structure to my idea, I allowed myself to be directed by the theories and research of Maria Gimbutas, Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves and others. The idea was to renew the myth of Artemisia, giving it a narrative along a virtually infinite time projection. The story tale place in prehistory, at the dawn of what Gimbutas has defined as the first monotheistic worship, worship of the great mother, and moves into a possible future, where Artemisia, a woman bullied by a sexist and reactionary society, finds the strength to rebel. This shift is made possible by Chimera, a priestess of the cult of the great mother, the cult of which Artemisia will become the new incarnation.

She is a character who is delicate, fragile in many ways, but who gradually found the strength to take the load of a strong change.
Myself, what  do I see in her? Perhaps this ambivalence between strength and weakness in continuous conflict, in the context of a personal renewal.

The audience appreciated this book and the subsequent spin-off "Aleametron" released in 2013, again thanks to Fondazione Strozzi at another exhibition, "Money and Beauty", but the female characters that are mentioned in that production are of a completely different caliber; I think Eternal Artemisia, Chimera or not, could be converted to a serial production only after a careful rewriting and revision of the characters themselves. The two books that have been published so far have been too complex to have a truly mass appeal. But who knows ...

10) History and myth, albeit in a decidedly pop or postmodern form, continue to alternate in many of your characters. How much does this affect, compared to what we are or, affect we try to be, today?

G.P. I was born in a town that is timeless yet is always a mirror of the times, Matera. An example. Between the fifties and sixties, Matera was a symbol of socio-anthropological change mentioned earlier (Pasolini in 1964 immortalized in "The Gospel According to Matthew"): from city farming, as "national shame" to quote a politician of the time, to a city with new districts, a new model of urbanism; an experiment which largely failed because it was based more on an agricultural social model which could no longer exist in an increasingly industrialized world, dedicated more and more to the service sector. And now, today, Matera will be the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

My studies have always been directed towards history and myth, but now I have seen in those readings, beyond the specific contingencies of historical fact, the archetypal component, the recurring immutable data I would say eternal. The spiral of time for me takes away the value of linear time as we usually think of it (yesterday-today-tomorrow). The narrative dimension informs today continually and increasingly creates it. Today, between new and old myths, old and new stories, we constantly create the story of our world. And the comic, as a form of visual narrative, in a world of images, is of enormous value ...

11) Giuseppe Palumbo, you are a professor of visual arts at the ISIA and in other institutions. In your career as a mentor and teacher we are certain that more than a few new talents have appeared among your students. What is your very first reaction in recognizing one or maybe more of them? Jealousies are always at the doors of anyone. Do you help them to emerge without fear of competition?

G.P. The first course on comics I held in 1990 in Bari ... Since then I have had hundreds of students, many of whom have shared with me and participated in my projects and work in progress. When I go to the newsstand and see their names in newspapers or Bonelli or Marvel, I am very happy for them and I'm satisfied with what I invested. No jealousy, no particular pride: I did what I could, they made their way, and so on.

Lately I've proposed to Astorina, a new illustrator, my pupil and collaborator, Matteo Buffagni, the designer for the French and American series. He is now the official cover artist for Diabolik and soon will draw the covers of DK, the reboot of Diabolik, created by me: I can't wait. I'll feel even more at home.

12) Like Angela and Luciana Giussani, everyone, without exception, imagine that their dreams could become an incredible reality. Would you describe a more or less recent dream that could absolutely become a reality?

 

G.P. In recent years, while I am known by the general public as the drawer of Diabolik, I have chosen to focus my work as an author on more complex comics or towards more realistic comic types such as "The Helmet and The Revolt", written and designed by Luciano Curreri, Professor of Italian language and literature at the University of Liège, a real essay in cultural history, a comic but "not for dummies".

Or comics as a live performance, that for years I carried around between festivals and social centres with the Action30 collective, of which I am a founding member, a multiform collective bringing together philosophers and artists of various languages

around a research into the traces of new forms of racism and fascism. Or I am dedicated to research and to the creation of a series of stories that speak of my still relatively unknown territory of Lucania,  with books such as "A Distraction at the Crossroads", adapted from the homonymous novel by Rocco Scotellaro, or "The Bran of Manzu", in collaboration with Jules Jordan and Giuseppe Appeals, books published by a small publisher lucano, Lavieri. Or again, the blog Athens Minor, which allows me to talk about the Athens that I have seen change in the transition from the drachma to the euro before the Olympic frenzy, and the Athens today, crushed by the weight of a crisis which is the responsibility of many people, where sometimes I seem to see the project of a tremendous social experiment.

My dreams are in the form of comic strips and, as I said, I can only wait for their transformation from desire, from obsession to paper or digital form. I don't know for how many people these dreams became reality, they could be an unrealisable reality for them; for me they are reality.

 

About Gugliemo Greco Piccolo

Art director, corporate reviewer and cultural connector, for a number of years working in the field of corporate image, brand design and cultural communication events; cultural informer and visual art reviewer, particularly expert in the movements and the evolution of comic books as an art form with a strong social impact, over the last 30 years, in Europe and throughout the world; possesses an impressive private collection of regular series, graphic novels, special issues and cutting-edge comic magazines and American International. For Tablet 2.0 he is technical coordinator for the UK.

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