Doodling with Altan (1). Morality Does Not Exist by Pietro Scarnera

Two characters on a white background, a line to represent the earth, and a very brief exchange of words: “It could have been even worse”. “No”. It is one of Altan’s most famous cartoons, published in the aftermath of the 2008 political elections: its perfect synthesis, however, makes it suitable for many of the unpleasant occasions that arise in Italian political and social life.

This synthesis, in the drawing and above all in the text, is certainly the trademark of the Altan cartoonist, capable of photographing the mood of the Italians (or at least of a good part of the Italians) in the space of a small square and of striking readers with the speed of a flash.

Somewhere Altan himself was explaining that everything, in these cartoons, must happen in five seconds, and that already eight would be too many. But the cartoons are only one of the faces of the production of Francesco Tullio Altan, undoubtedly one of the masters of Italian comics. So let’s try to discover others, waiting to meet Altan at the inauguration of the fifth edition of Doodling Festival, in Novara from 16 to 18 September. The cartoonist will open the festival on Friday 16 September talking with Michele Serra, while on the morning of Saturday 17 he will meet large and small readers to sign copies of his works.

In Altan’s work there are naturally the very popular stories of La Pimpa, the polka dot dog created in 1975 on the pages of Corriere dei Piccoli. But perhaps the lesser known side of his production goes in the opposite direction from the essentiality of his cartoons and the innocence of La Pimpa.

These are the comic stories published between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s in magazines such as Linus and Corto Maltese, which Coconino Press is now collecting in large volumes: the first two, Men but extraordinary And Ada and other jungles, are already available and a third is in the pipeline. In addition to the best-known stories of that period, such as Colombo And Ada in the junglethese books also collect comics never collected in volume like Zago Oliva And Ben, the fourth son of Noah. In short, it is an “integral Altan”, which for those wishing to get to know this author better is paired with the documentary My name is Altan and I make cartoonsshot by Stefano Consiglio in 2019 (where among other things an exceptional cast composed of Stefania Sandrelli, Paolo Rossi and Angela Finocchiaro plays some of the cartoonist’s most famous cartoons).


The first thing that catches the eye, browsing through the two volumes published by Coconino, is the extraordinary density of these comics: a quantity of characters, dialogues and situations that fill the cartoons almost overflowing from the edges. Even in these works, however, Altan’s drawing remains unmistakable, a thin and very ferocious nib line, and the irreverent vein typical of his cartoons is even more accentuated.

Because in these early stories Altan systematically devoted himself to demolishing the biographies of illustrious personalities: “extraordinary men” like Christopher Columbus or St. Francis of Assisi, who in Altan’s hands become rather “lousy men” like those of David Foster Wallace. The Altan Columbus, for example, is old, fat and almost perpetually drunk, and even smoked after arriving in the “Indies”. St. Francis, on the other hand, is a man possessed, who chooses monastic life as the shortest way to glory and world fame. Even a fictional character like Sandokan, in Altan’s version, becomes a violent psychopath who leads his battle against the British only for the money, and it’s CIA money! All these stories were born in a period in which the designers were discovering that with the comics you could really do everything: in the American underground, in the French and Italian magazines, a new generation of authors was establishing itself, overturning all the previous canons.


The first of the illustrious men on which Altan puts his hands, in June 1976, is Giacomo Casanova, and in reality in this case he does not even have to invent too much, because the character moves in a corrupt and decadent Venice, where a Permanent Carnival. Colombo, on the other hand, is a few months later, December 1976 – November 1977.

In these first two works, all in black and white, the density we mentioned is evident. Especially in the ensemble scenes – Queen Isabella of Spain leading the attack against the Moors in Granada, or an overview of Casanova’s Venice at night, or Columbus’s caravel bridge – each of these vignettes contains two or three stories that they move in parallel, some in the foreground and others in the background.

Altan explained that at the time he felt almost compelled to “fill in” the tables so much, and that one page of those would now be equivalent to 5-6 graphic novel tables – the rhythms in the narrative over the years have expanded much more and rarefied. This abundance, however, is also the daughter of the context for which these stories were conceived, i.e. episodes of eight to ten tables that were published every month in Linus or other magazines: it was necessary that each episode had its own narrative development at least somewhat autonomous. . In these comics there is also a small invention that is all by Altan.


The white space under the cartoons, which is usually just white, here becomes a sort of counterbalance to what happens in the story: onomatopoeias (noises, sounds, exclamations of the characters) can end up here, indications on the music that ideally accompanies a scene, but also normal captions and all kinds of comments: sometimes these texts are addressed to the readers, but often they resemble notes that Altan makes to himself, like indications on a theater script. Generally they serve to desecrate even more: not even the author should be taken too seriously.

Nobody is saved in Altan’s stories. Morality does not exist. And even if there is a hint of class struggle, of conflict between the great characters and their supporting actors – the crew of Columbus, Friar Caputo who assists St. Francis – it is not that the subordinates are much better: they simply do not have dreams of glory and face everything with disenchantment and cynicism. Sometimes, in these stories, Altan decisively presses on the pedal of the grotesque: characters who vomit on themselves – as if it were an inevitable reaction to the world – or are attacked by cockroaches and other insects of all kinds. Altan is ruthless, very bad.


After ridiculing his subjects he dedicates extensive flashbacks to their childhood and youth, so we discover that if they have become so filthy and filthy now, the fault is not entirely theirs. That’s the way the world is. Columbus’s mother, for example, is a prostitute, the religious of the college where she studies are atheists and gut cats, even the scholars of Salamanca are just pot-bellied bureaucrats who take money under the table.

Only the “savages”, the Native Americans of Colombo and the blacks of unidentified Africa’s Ada in the jungle, seem to be saved, endowed with exceptional wisdom, unknown to rich whites. “Can you grow cassava? Can he play tambourine? Can he be happy? No! If you don’t like me, go away “, says the wise JK Bumbo to his English interlocutor who has just landed in his country, in one of the tables of Ada in the jungle. The problem is that the whites don’t leave, and the locals just have to observe their useless intrigue and conspiracy. And then there are the women, starting with Ada Frowz (or Frooz), star of Ada in the jungle And Macau.

Not a real character, in this case, but a figment of Altan’s imagination. At the beginning of her adventures – we are in 1939 – Ada lives in the “filthy and selective” college of Sbeef, but already on the second page she inherits £ 50,000 from an old uncle and begins to travel around the world. First in the African jungle, then in the Far East, in Macau. Here, the men designed by Altan are always horrible, disgusting, ridiculous and very deformed, the women instead can be beautiful, certainly they are often prosperous and sensual … then Ada shares the black helmet of Valentina by Guido Crepax (Altan he also drew them together for the documentary by Giancarlo Soldi Looking for Valentina).


In Ada’s stories, Altan takes some archetypes of the adventure novel, from Robinson Crusoe to Tarzan, to have fun parodying, disassembling and reassembling them. Also in this case the cartoonist explained the way in which he approached these stories at the time: a script for the first two-three episodes and then build the story as the story was published. Thus the characters that populate Ada’s world all play double, triple and even quadruple play, in a plot that abounds with twists.

Here too, however, extraordinary men appear, even if only for short scenes: in Ada in the jungle we find an adolf Hitler nothing doing, who leads the war locked inside a small house in Berlin, always in a dressing gown and in front of the TV. In Macau – we are in 1963 – instead there is an increasingly discouraged John Kennedy: “There isn’t a day that doesn’t collapse a value”, he says at a certain point in history. In 1988, in France, the film was also made from Ada’s stories Ada dans la jungledirected by Gérard Zingg (here is the trailer). For the occasion Altan had made a short story, Ada is looking for a producerwhich until now had remained unpublished in Italy and we now find again in the volume Ada and other jungles.

Among all the illustrious men told by Altan, Ada is certainly the character for whom the cartoonist still feels a little nostalgia: so in the story Thing of the pastwhich Altan created in 2019 for the Comics in Museums project, set at Sirmion Castle, the protagonist who wanders among the towers is called Ida, and is the granddaughter of Ada Frooz, “an old and dear acquaintance of mine from other times and other comics “.

Doodling with Altan (1). Morality Does Not Exist by Pietro Scarnera