Forgotten at home, Italian comic strip enjoys cult status in ex-Yugoslavia

·3-min read
Serbian novelist and musician Marko Selic browses "Alan Ford" comic books, in a comics shop in Belgrade.

Alan Ford, a 1960s Italian comic strip following hapless secret agents as they battle a bizarre cast of villains, including one who steals from the poor and gives to the rich, was intended as satire.

But for fans throughout what was then Yugoslavia, the black comedy and rogue characters from the series felt like an accurate description of their everyday reality.

Created half a century ago by Italian comic artists Lucianno Secchi and Roberto Raviola, known by their pen names Max Bunker and Magnus, the comic still enjoys a cult status in the Balkan countries that emerged from socialist Yugoslavia's bloody collapse in the 1990s.

Based in New York, the series offers, according to various fan interpretations, criticism of aspects of American society like capitalism or racism.

Yet the books were never translated into English and failed to reach a global audience.

And while the comic's popularity has faded in its native Italy over the years, in Yugoslavia it was an instant hit whose influence has seeped across pop culture, remaining a reference in music and film decades later.

The comic books themselves have also stood the test of time, with new editions still regularly printed in the region.

In Belgrade, an exhibit at the Museum of History of Yugoslavia dedicated to the series features original drawings and rare editions of the comic.

It is "very rare" for a foreign cultural product to become "an inseparable part of the cultural heritage of the recipient country," Lazar Dzamic, who wrote a book on Alan Ford's success in Yugoslavia, said at the exhibit's opening.

- Antiheroes -

The comic features a band of misfit secret agents, including the titular Alan Ford, who operate from a flower shop.

Led by a nameless, ageless, wheelchair-bound character known as Number One, the gang of antiheroes includes the kleptomaniac British nobleman Sir Oliver, a hypochondriac known as Jeremiah, and the short-tempered, short-statured Bob Rock.

Dzamic, whose book is titled "Flower Shop in the House of Flowers", argues that Alan Ford's sensibility resonated in the Balkans where surrealism is "not an art form, but rather a way of life".

Readers facing soul-crushing bureaucracy and widespread corruption recognised parts of their society in Alan Ford's satire, he told AFP.

"Latin America gave the world magical realism, while our gift to the world is documentary surrealism. For us, it is a natural form of social organisation".

Serbian novelist and musician Marko Selic cites the comic book as major inspiration for his work, especially when it comes to social criticism.

"It is a catalogue of characters from our real world. We are more inclined to recognise our reality somewhere and laugh at it, than to sit and mourn," Selic told AFP.

- Erasing swastikas -

A key factor behind Alan Ford's success in the Balkans is the nimble work of translators Nenad and Davor Brixy, a father and son who managed to transpose the distinct Milanese humour to the local language, creating a new form of slang.

According to Davor Brixy, Yugoslavia's communist authorities forced them to alter some of the satirical drawings to remove sensitive political references.

"We had to take off the swastikas but we could leave the Nazi uniforms. The American soldiers had to lose their insignia, and the Russians their stars," Brixy told AFP.

"Text-wise, we didn't need more 'interventions', because the author's style of insulting the politicians, army or the police was subtle", he added.

Max Bunker, one of the creators of the comic, declined to speak to AFP but has previously acknowledged the fame he enjoys in this corner of Europe.

"I have to say that people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, the whole of the former Yugoslavia, are very intelligent because they very quickly understood my sense of humour and accepted it," he told Al Jazeera in 2014.