"I can read the Bible, Homer or Dylan Dog for days on end." - Umberto Eco.
I had always wanted to read Dylan Dog.
I first heard about the Indagatore dell'Incubo back in 1994. I was working in Frascati, and my only contact with the English-speaking world was a weekly paper called The European (which sank as fast as its owner, the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell). One week I read a review of an Italian movie called Dellamorte Dellamore. In truth, the movie didn't sound all that great. What sounded more interesting was the source material, a comic strip (un fumetto) called Dylan Dog. A London-based private investigator who deals in the stuff of nightmares. A clarinet-playing, model galleon-building don Giovanni (the spitting image of Rupert Everett circa 1987), who works with the Robert Morley-lookalike Inspector Bloch; and an assistant who may or may not be Groucho Marx.
Oh yes, this was something I wanted to read. Comic strips are actually a very good way of learning a language : they're told almost entirely in dialogue, the pictures give context to unfamiliar language, and they're very good for idiomatic expressions (I can still remember the German for "My Spider-Sense is tingling" even if - regrettably - I've not yet had occasion to use it). But I didn't need any excuses. I just wanted to read about "The Nightmare Investigator".
Then, wonderfully, La Repubblica announced that they were reprinting the first 150 stories in 50 volumes. Beautifully presented and bound, in full colour, and with scholarly explanatory notes.
Dylan was created by the writer Tiziano Sclavi. Sclavi has a forensic knowledge of horror, and - more importantly - of its tropes. He loves to play intertextual games with the reader, and he did so long before Wes Craven's Scream. Just as one thinks that a particular episode is just a bit too close to David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone for comfort, he has a character break the fourth wall and say exactly the same thing. His scripts are full of references to music, art, literature and popular culture.
Sclavi and Dylan eventually became victims of their own success. The early episodes, whilst brilliant in many ways, have an absolutely staggering level of gore and violence (inevitable, perhaps, given the source material - the horror movies of George A Romero, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). Kids - I thought, at the end of the first volume - should really, really not be reading this. Of course, they were, and in great numbers. Questions were asked, Sclavi was told to turn the gore down, and the nature of the strip changed. Possibly for the better. What had been lost in terms of sheer visceral impact was more than made up for in terms of characterisation, humour, and intelligence
The Italians love their fumetti, from the cowboy Tex Willer to master criminal Diabolik. But Dylan was different. For the first time, here was a comic strip hero (to be honest, a slightly rubbish hero - he rarely demonstrates much deductive ability) who had the respect of the intelligentsia. The philosopher Giulio Giorello's La filosofia di Dylan Dog can be found on Youtube; whilst the great semiologist Umberto Eco made an appearance in the series as the thinly disguised "Humbert Coe".
Dylan, Groucho and Bloch occupy a slightly never-never London. In the early strips, Dylan even drove his VW Beetle on the wrong side of the road, until the mistake was pointed out. In Sclavi's world, Scotland is a fantastic Dunsany-inspired neverland, albeit one with an unhealthy number of zombies; whilst Wales...ah, Wales...
Sclavi's Wales is one influenced more, perhaps, by HP Lovecraft than Arthur Machen. In his hands, yr hen wlad is akin to Lovercraft's Miskatonic County; whilst Harlech becomes an equivalent of Arkham. Jokes are made about everybody being called Jones, and the seemingly endless stream of placenames beginning with Llan. Dylan, of course, takes his name from Dylan Thomas. One episode is even loosely based around The Mabinogion, spoilt, slightly, by the fact that the Welsh language used is actually Irish.
Sclavi also tried to deal with politics. Animal rights, the environment, press freedom, nationalism, violence against women. He didn't always get the contexts right - Britiain hasn't had a Communist MP since the 1950s, and the the notorious H-block was not in the south of England - but his heart was in the right place.
The reprints came to an end after fifty editions. Never more would Groucho shout Capo, la pistola! before throwing Dylan said weapon with unerring inaccuracy. I could, I suppose, read the continuing monthly strip but the cramped, black and white nature of the regular edition doesn't do justice to the artwork (much of which - from the quasi-cinematic realism of Montanari and Grassani, to the stunning noir-ish work of Corrado Roi - is fantastic). More importantly, there'd be a huge gap in my collection, which doesn't appeal to the completist in me. Oh well, maybe Repubblica will carry on with another 50 volumes at some point.
In the meantime, they are all now lovingly filed away on the shelves. "Are you actually going to read them again?", asked Caroline; to whom my weekly journey to the edicola to buy a comic book was best explained away as being part of my quirky, boyish charm.
Giuda Ballerino! Of course I'm going to read them again!