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Inside the Illustrated World of Italian Comic Artist Roberto Zaghi

In Italy, comic strips, or "i fumetti" are more than just a diverting literary past-time, it is an art. Look around in Italian trains, bus stops and cafés are saturated with people absorbed into their beloved comic series, showing just how deeply they pervade Italian culture. The work of Milan-based illustrator and cartoonist Roberto Zaghi, shows us that i fumetti are more than just cartoons. A graduate of the University of Ferrara, Roberto Zaghi was a passionate comic enthusiast since he was a kid when he first immersed himself into the world of marvel comics. Along with American superhero cartoons, a pivotal influence in Roberto Zaghi's comic illustration came from the Japanese cartoons of the seventies. After working on a fantasy and sci-fi series for Italian publisher Sergio Bonelli Editore, Zaghi was brought on as an illustrator on his career-defining comic series, Julia, a detective story featuring Audrey Hepburn as the muse for the female lead and written by Giancarlo Berardi. Roberto Zaghi was also the hand behind the illustrations for Lorenzo Calza's noir novel La commedia è finita, and is most recently illustrating the story lines of the French comic series Thomas Silane, written by Buendia and Chanoinat for the French publisher Bamboo.

Roberto Zaghi's distinct style recalls the black and white shadowing and mystery of film noir cinema. His earlier influences by American Marvel comics is retained in his work and style which emphasizes the "dark line," or the contrast between dark and white spaces to enhance the drama of the story and guide the reader through the plot. His drawings are ripe with narrative imagery yet retain a feel of minimalism, while bringing the drama and atmosphere of the stories to life. To tell a story is a challenge in its own right, but to translate the words of another Creative into imagery that carries the weight of the narrative's emotion, tension and pace, requires a creative faculty of an entirely different level, one which Roberto masters with impressive style, insight and flare.


"In popular comics the best results come from working with people with whom you have a deep symbiosis. When this happens, the readers usually feel like they are reading a story done by a single person."–Roberto Zaghi

CM: How does one become a comic artist?
I am not an entirely self-taught artist as I had a science education rather than an artistic one. At a certain point I discovered that I did better behind a drawing board than in a chemistry lab, and I quit university when I was right on the path to graduation. I attended a brief but excellent comic illustration course in my hometown, which was led by two masters and which quickly led me to the professional world. Drawing has always been my biggest passion. I remember drawing at every age, regardless of the kind of studies I did. On the other hand, I think that having a scientific base can be a good thing for an artist for a number of reasons.

CM: Which other comic book artists and creatives inspire you?
I mostly find inspiration in the classics, especially in movies, illustrations and of course comics. I am always interested in expanding my knowledge of the masters of the past, whose revolutionary energy remains in most cases unparallele . To name a few: Welles, Hitchcock, Allen, Caniff, Toth, and Moebius. Timeless cinema classics offer an endless tank of ideas. The language of comics that I love shares a lot of these aspects.

CM: Do you have a say in the story when commissioned to illustrate a comic book?
It is very rare that I am allowed to have a say in the script. My goal is to be hired by the best writers in the field, so I shouldn't have better ideas than they do! The challenge for a comic artist is to tell a story from panel to panel, which involves a lot of challenges and–hopefully–satisfaction. If the game is played as it should be, it’s extremely rewarding, so I tend to do my best in my area and don’t cross the border.

Having a productive relationship with the writers is extremely important. In popular comics the best results come from working with people with whom you have a deep symbiosis. When this happens, the readers usually feel like they are reading a story done by a single person. I dare to say that is the case of some work I have done over the years, especially on Julia.

CM: What is your signature style? How challenging is it to preserve your style with different stories and writers?
Each comic story has its own unique requirements for the artist, and I naturally tend to second them. But every line I trace or black I spot, the interpretation of the script–as precise and detailed it can be–is the consequence of my thoughts and skills, and that's recognizable regardless of what series I’m working on. At least that’s what I hope! Some recognize in my style a good balance of black and white and a certain ability to draw complex perspectives.


"At a certain point I discovered that I did better behind a drawing board than in a chemistry lab, and I quit university when I was right on the path to graduation."–Roberto Zaghi

CM: Do you ever write your own stories and then illustrate them?
No, I’m a drawer, that’s enough.

CM: Who decides on the number of drawings required per chapter? Do you have to amend your work often for clients?
Deciding on the number of panels and the pace of each page is part of the writer's work. In certain cases, however, if I notice that a panel is either redundant or lacking, I speak to the writer or to the editor and we make a decision.
I don’t complain much about the corrections I have been asked to do in my career. All in all there have not been that many and they were for the good of the story. But when I don't agree I just say it and see what happens.

CM: How challenging is it to create with tight deadlines? Do you ever experience creative blocks?
Deadline adrenaline is the comic artist’s natural environment! If we're speaking about the kind of creative block that keep you in bed all day, then no. The mortgage is good medicine for that. But every now and then I pass through stages of high self-criticism that runs underneath, and which affects my output like a computer running too many applications.

CM: What materials do you favour for your drawings?
When I draw on paper my technique is ultra-classic: permanent ink on semi-ruvid sheets 40cm tall.
I switched to 100% digital media one year ago and this brought a refreshing energy to my work. Technique changes are welcome; the first enemy to defeat is boredom!

CM: Tell us more about your comic book illustrations for Julia and La commedia è finita.
Julia, the lady criminologist created by Giancarlo Berardi about 15 years ago, has a slim and naturally elegant figure, short dark hair, and not the classical beauty often seen in comics. Audrey Hepburn might be a nice muse for her, keeping in mind the peculiar requirements of the series, like Julia's psychological profile, her strength and her weaknesses, her intelligence and most importantly her female intuition. Before being hired for Julia I did some fantasy and sci-fi albums for the same publisher, Sergio Bonelli Editore (one of Italy's biggest).
La commedia è finita is a noir novel written by Lorenzo Calza, one of the co-writers of Julia. The main character is an Italian retired war reporter who finds himself investigating a chain of murders of a family of chechen immigrants. At the same time he has to deal with the death of his son, a reporter himself.

CM: Do you work on independent projects or as a freelancer?
I am working for the french series Thomas Silane by writers Buendia and Chanoinat for the French publisher Bamboo. The main character is a photo-reporter and the storyline is based on actual events but with a peculiar fantasy touch that makes it even more interesting to draw. It’s not exactly an independent project, though.

CM: How would you describe the comic book market in Europe compared to the US and other countries?
Italy and France are the biggest comics producers in Europe. The two markets are very different from each other and from the US market. In Italy comics books (called fumetti) have always been a very popular media, mostly sold in newspaper kiosks.
In France, comics (called bande dessinée) are deeply ingrained in culture, and they are generally considered a form of art on par with the others. I wouldn't mind trying doing something for the US market in the future.

CM: What are you working on now?
I am working on two cool stories, one for Italy and one for France. I can’t say anything more at the moment, but they will both come out next year!

Photography copyright: © Roberto Zaghi, Julia © SBE, Thomas Silane © Bamboo. All rights reserved 2014.
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