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BilBOlbul Festival 2008:

Fumetti Bolognese

Italians affectionately call their comics fumetti, or ‘little smokes’, after the puffs of dialogue rising from speakers’ mouths. To clarify, while this term has somehow come to mean mainly photo-strips elsewhere, like Britain’s old Jackie and My Guy girls’ romances parodied in Viz, in Italy it covers comics of all types.

After spending last weekend (7 to 9 March, 2008) enjoying the BilBOlbul Festival Internazionale di Fumetto in Bologna, this week I thought I’d share some of my discoveries and experiences there. I was puzzled where the odd name for this festival originates, until I remembered that Bilbolbul is actually a vintage fumetti character. He was created by Attilio Mussino a century ago this December 27th in the first issue of Il Corriere dei piccoli (‘the newspaper of the little ones’), a weekly children’s supplement of Il Corriere della sera. Not exactly politically correct today, he was a little black African boy wandering through an imaginary metaphorical landscape. You can see how Francesca Ghermandi discreetly acknowledges him in her abstract cartoon logo for the festival.

by Attilio Mussino

Our hero Bilbolbul would undergo bizarre transformations including changing colour according to his emotions, turning white with fear or yellow with jealousy, or transforming physically, for example his eyes popping out on stalks. In the style of the period, there were no speech balloons, and all the text was printed beneath the panels in rhyme. As it happens, his name also contains the ‘bol’ of Bologna, and the BO of its area code, as well as the ‘bil’ of bild, German and Swedish for picture, and the ‘bul’ of bulle, a French term for speech balloon. Kids loved Bilbolbul but their parents and teachers were not so keen. After around fifty episodes over several years, pressures from adult readers brought an end to his adventures, a step not unrelated to Italy’s expansionist annexations in Africa at the time. Briefly revived after the Second World War, Bilbolbul languished in obscurity until the Seventies, when Italian critics re-evaluated him as one of the classic early fumetti. He is sure to feature in the big plans to commemorate the centenary of fumetti later this year and into 2009.

BilBOlbul Festival Poster 2008
by Gabriella Giandelli

For many years Bologna has been quite a centre for fumetti, home to major Sixties innovators Magnus and Bonvi, post-1977 rebels Pazienza and Scozzari, Eighties experimentalists Mattotti, Igort and the Valvoline movement, and modern maestros Giardino, Ghermandi and Baldazzini, as well as the headquarters for big players like Marvel’s European arm Panini, quality graphic novel companies like Coconino Press and Black Velvet, and indie collectives Kappa Boys and Canicola. Considering this was only the Festival’s second year, the organisers, a cultural association known as Hamelin (as in ‘Pied Piper of…’), staged an impressive roster of eighteen exhibitions and events across the city, gathering guests and artworks from far and wide as well as spotlighting creators from the vibrant local scene.

Getting lost in rainy Bologna on my first night, I luckily met up with Stefano Ricci and David B., who has now moved here, and joined them for the opening of Stefano’s gallery show. The walls were adorned with several enormous single artworks, their black and white paint, ink and wax so thick and encrusted onto the patchwork of papers that they became three-dimensional, threatening to burst out at you. His expressively caricatured animals reminded me of the 19th century American T.S. Sullivant’s glorious menagerie. The bigger surprise was seeing dozens and dozens of Ricci’s latest drawings, each with their number left in a circle on them, pinned or taped up in horizontal rows, floor to ceiling. He had produced these suites during an intense period of making a number of short animated films, screening in the gallery. These images too had a fin-de-siecle oddity to them, recalling Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, mixed with the unease of David Lynch and the impact of William Kentridge.

The sequence here shows a man putting a veil over a chimpanzee, who proceeds to pout and pucker up as if to kiss him, but when the man slips the veil off again, it takes the monkey’s face with it, leaving a void. Ricci has published a 40-page A5 catalogue, Radio Ricci, through his new publishing house Mami Verlag in Hamburg, where he now lives with Anke Feuchtenberger. Among his other projects is a collaboration with a Brussels ballet group creating a backdrop of enlarged projections of the shadows of some wind-up toy birds and animals he had just bought.

Later that evening, I joined a group to go see a live performance at the city’s ARCI arts centre . On stage was the fiery solo chanteuse and guitarist Roberta Carrieri, belting out Bolivian songs, accompanied by fumetti artist David Toffolo drawing with equal passion and panache, his images and words projected on a big screen behind them.

Roberta Carrieri, belting out Bolivian songs,
accompanied by fumetti artist David Toffolo

This reminded me of the Brigitte Fontaine and Blutch concert at last year’s Angoulême, except that these two seemed much more close, playing and drawing in perfect psychic sync. Toffolo then took up the guitar and sang himself - he’s a powerhouse performer in the band Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti, or ‘Three Happy Dead Boys’, - inviting some comics students to try some live drawing. Toffolo and Carrieri based their double-act on his fascinating 2007 book Très from Coconino Press, which on the left-hand pages compiles his notes, sketches and roughs made in Buenos Aires, while the right-hand pages present the finished three pieces conceived for the theatre. Toffolo is hardly known in English, but he has had considerable success in Italy, notably for his biographic novel about Pier Paolo Pasolini. Upcoming is a life story of his grande maestro Magnus, alias Roberto Raviola, famed for Kriminal, Alan Ford, Necron and more.

by David Toffolo

First thing Saturday morning gave me just enough time to catch the exhibition of Flemish genius Olivier Schrauwen, much of it drawn onto browned, faded paper to add an antique aura. A few unfamiliar pieces apparently set in Japan had the scribbly energy of underground Garo/Ax manga. Staying in the Palazzo d’Accursio, I studied the nearby show of American guests Paul Hornschmeier, Kevin Huizenga and Anders Nilsen, a trio of especially gifted young storytellers. Their originals were all very much hand-drawn, hand-lettered, high-touch works on paper, Hornschmeier using a lot of blue pencil to refine his layouts down to one chosen clear line. Later that morning, I interviewed all three of them at the Fine Art Academy about their roots in self-publishing, their passion for exploring what this medium can do and how they had arrived at being able to work pretty much full-time on their comics, supported with some other illustration gigs. Anders was the only one to have come from a fine art background. In fact, he took five years to gradually switch from his job as a chef to working as an artist. Interesting to learn that Paul and Anders will join Jeffrey Brown in June 2008 for a Paris show at the Anne Barrault Gallery.

Just time before lunch to catch another private view at the Academy itself called Ich/I/Je/Io. The Academy runs its own fumetti course, headed by Enrico Fornaroli, and this show presented their students’ drawings, alongside those from the HAW Hamburg Department of Design and the ESA St. Luc in Brussels (perhaps a future project could involve students from a UK college or course?). Here were the fruits of an international workshop on drawn stories about dreams, work and animals, several adapted into short animations, which was taught by Ricci and Feuchtenberger and guest tutors David B., Renee French,

Gipi and Rutu Modan. That’s quite a line-up and the results are impressive.

Textless dream narrative
by Judith Mall

Nearly five hundred pages, all in English, are collected into a handsome book from Mami Verlag, with two DVDs, one of animations, the other of a documentary film on the workshop by Wassily Zittel. These two pages comes from a 44-page textless dream narrative by Judith Mall.

In the afternoon, I joined Matteo Stefanelli to host a discussion with Olivier Schrauwen and two of the most original voices from the Hong Kong manhua scene, Chihoi Lee and Hok Tak Yeung. These two guys will be in London this coming week and talking about their work and techniques at the London College of Communication on Wednesday March 19th 2008, between 5pm and 7.30pm. In Bologna, the setting was much more imposing, intimidating even, the vast, high-ceilinged Capella Farnese, its walls covered in gigantic religious frescoes. Not exactly an intimate space to chat about your ‘little smokes’. Born in Bruges, Schrauwen confided to me that his father had been a comic artist himself and so had immersed his son from an early age in the early eccentric comics of Willy Vandersteen, a prime influence. Lee and Yeung were witty and revealing, Lee discussing Il Treno (The Train), which had just been published in Italian by Canicola, with English subtitles.

Il Treno
by Chihoi Lee

The pages here show the bizarre setting on board of a long, long train whose carriages are endlessly changing to provide every amenity, such as a library, karaoke, sauna, cinema. Lee uses soft, subtle pencilling to illustrate this tale inspired by The Carousel by Hong Kong poet, Hung Hung. Hok Tak Yeung’s diverse output includes his multi-coloured digital-art graphic novel How Blue Was My Valley  translated last year by Actes Sud into French, Qu’ Elle Était Bleue Ma Vallée.
Afterwards, with Kristiina Kolehmeinen from the Comics Library in Stockholm’s Culture House, I took in the Hong Kong artists’ exhibit before relaxing over a rich, thick hot chocolate in the Piazza Nettuno. Outdoors on the square we looked at some sturdy metallic stands showing repros of the colour two-page graphic journalism strips made by Italian and international comic artists for the weekly magazine Internazionale. Gipi also has a regular vertical column in these pages.

Comic panels by Marijpol

One more launch before dinner, at the RAM Hotel, a design studio which regularly mounts art exhibits. I’d never heard of Marijpol before, a Berlin-born, Hamburg-based artist, but seeing her wild and weird imaginings I feel sure we will hear much more of her.

Sunday was the day to spend time at some of the other amazing exhibitions, in the good company of comics expert Matteo Stefanelli and his friend Sergio. The big, big show, after last year’s Magnus retrospective, was on Gianni De Luca (1927-91). Lavishly designed and presented in the marble-floored Civic Archeological Museum, Il Disegno Pensiero (Thinking Drawing) is a stunning survey of his life’s work from his beginnings in the Forties to his breakthrough page and panel compositions on Il Commissario Spada and adapting The Tempest, Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet in the Seventies.

by De Luca

I contributed a comparative essay on his theatrical techniques for the massive catalogue published by Black Velvet, which will be reprised in English in the first issue of European Comic Art, a new journal forthcoming from the International Bande Dessinée Society and Liverpool University Press. English readers will finally get a taste of De Luca in my forthcoming anthology with Peter Stanbury, The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, which includes a Spada case, as far as I know the first time he has ever been published in English. It’s long overdue.

Virtually unknown abroad, De Luca has only recently started to be reappreciated more deeply in his home country. His marginalisation is caused in part by being published mainly in Il Giornalino, ‘the little daily’, a weekly children’s comic published since 1924 (so 13 years older than The Dandy!) by Catholic Edizioni San Paolo di Alba and still going strong today, yet only available from Catholic churches and organisations. The latest issue I picked up includes a new serial drawn by the great Sergio Toppi and a revival of Jacovitti’s crazy cowboy Cocco Bill drawn by Luca Salvagno, shown here.

Sandokan: Battle on the Sea
written by G.C. Nizzi with art by Sergio Toppi

Cocco Bill
by Luca Salvagno

After a coffee, Matteo, Sergio and I strolled to the Poggi Palace Museum, an amazing archive of naval and cartography history. In a stroke of genius, the framed originals by Frenchman Christophe Blain from Isaac the Pirate (translated by NBM Publishing) were shown alongside elaborate antique maps, globes, fortification maquettes in wood and large glass cabinets housing meticulous models of galleons. In a brilliant move, the simple wooden frames were hung on clear wires outside the vitrines, hanging from a simple wooden support across the top. What a splendid setting and context for these pages. What a brilliant way of injecting a breath of fresh air into this exquisite but probably rather neglected collection. An inspiration.

by Gabriella Giandelli

Equally clever and compelling was the location of Gabriella Giandelli‘s exhibit - an ordinary first floor apartment, used as an artist’s residence and low-key gallery. Ring the bell downstairs and you are buzzed inside. The low-lit rooms, furnishings, atmosphere, all mirror the intense, sometimes claustrophobic intimacy in Giandelli’s oeuvre, as seen in her Ignatz series Interiorae from Fantagraphics. I managed to catch two other shows, one of silkscreens and prints from the French black-and-white animated movie Fear(s) of the Dark where I had a nice chat with Lorenzo Mattotti (I hope Comica can preview this film in the UK soon), the other of pages from a 16 fumetti pros, each drawing two pages of a new Nosferatu vampire yarn.
I spent the rest of the Sunday afternoon at the former stock exchange, now a public space, where artists were signing and publishers were selling their wares. Two new graphic novels caught my eye. Cronachette (Coconino Press) is Giacomo Nanni‘s second book, a 360-page meditation on the life of the author’s little black cat and how he sees, experiences and interprets our everyday life. Cumulatively, it grows into an enormously playful and philosophical piece, its title, as explained in these pages, formed from a mixture of cronaca or chronicle and the word for cat crunchies.

by Giacomo Nanni

As for Matteo e Enrico (Kappa Edizioni), I’d been aware of these young guys created by Massimiliano De Giovanni and Andrea Accardi but was pleased to find their whole story collected into one 216-page volume.

Matteo e Enrico
by Massimiliano De Giovanni & Andrea Accardi

As you can see it is set mostly in Bologna, and it’s a sort of Italian variation on Love & Rockets. Except that instead of two crazy locas, it spotlights two young men at its heart, friends, perhaps lovers, coming to terms with their desire and love for each other in a refreshingly natural way.


Last but not the least, the importance of being Ernest - or more accurately Ernest, - that’s Ernest comma or Ernest virgola. I missed this new group’s exhibit but caught the first 64-page anthology, much of it tough, unsentimental, with strong language and feeling, surprising and promising. Francesco Cattani stood out, for one, shown here with a page from Barcazza 2, and Vincenzo Filosa & Norman Lai’s manga-inspired L’appostamento (Stalking). Like Canicola, they put handy English subtitles on every page. They’ve also published a lovely New York sketchbook by Toffolo which I picked up at his concert. You can check them out online at


So there you go, a big hearty plateful of fumetti bolognese, piping hot, nutritious and richly Italian. Many of the BilBOlbul exhibition runs throughout March, some into April, so do check them out if you get the chance to go to Bologna. It’s a beautiful city, made even more so by this wide-ranging, intelligent festival curated by Liliana, Edo and all the Hamelin crew. In only two years, it’s established itself as one of the comics culture highspots in Europe. Bravissimo!

The 2nd BilBOlbul Festival was held in Bologna, Italy, between 5 to 9 March, 2008.

Posted: March 16, 2008


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Featured Books

by David Toffolo
(Coconino Press)

My Boy
by Olivier Schrauwen

Isaac The Pirate
by Christophe Blain
(NBM Publishing)

Il Treno
by Chihoi Lee

Qu’ Elle Était
Bleue Ma Vallée

by Hok Tak Yeung
(Actes Sud BD)

by Gabriella Giandelli
(Coconino Press/
Fantagraphics Books) 

by Giacomo Nanni
(Coconino Press)

Matteo e Enrico
by Massimiliano De Giovanni
& Andrea Accardi
(Kappa Edizioni)