Monday, April 19, 2010

Franco Caprioli: Introducing The Argonauts

(* The following piece was originally written as an introduction to an Italian reprint of "The Legend of Beowulf" in October 2007 and was translated into Italian as "Caprioli in Inghilterra".)

I am sure that, for many of you, this will be the first time you have had a chance to see 'The Legend of Beowulf' as adapted by Franco Caprioli in the pages of the British educational magazine Look and Learn. Whilst Caprioli has inspired many articles in the Italian comics' press and a full-length book by Fulvia Caprioli and Gianni Brunoro, there are still many areas of his work that have yet to be explored. His work for the British publisher Fleetway Publications has only been examined in any depth recently, notably by Fulvia Caprioli, the artists' daughter, in Fumetto no.62 (March 2007).

In introducing this strip, it is not my intention simply to heap praise upon the artists' work since the quality of Caprioli's drawing is instantly obvious. Instead, I will try to briefly discuss the magazines which Caprioli contributed to in the United Kingdom and try to explain how an Italian artist would come to draw Greek legends for a British magazine.

In Britain, Caprioli's finest work appeared in the magazines Ranger and Look and Learn. Both magazines were the creation of Leonard Matthews, although the inspiration for Look and Learn came from Italy where Matthews had discovered the popular educational magazines Conoscere and La Vita Meravigliosa. Matthews believed that a similar magazine would do well in the UK but his ideas were turned down by the directors of Fleetway Publications.

Two years later, Purnell launched Knowledge, a British edition of Conoscere published by Fratelli Fabbri Editori in Milan, and Matthews rethought his approach and brought the idea for Look and Learn to Fleetway's directors. This time it was accepted and the new paper, full of educational articles and some of the finest artwork to be found in a British magazine, was launched in January 1962.

That Matthews had good tastes in artwork is beyond any doubt. He had grown up reading the adventurous tales of Dick Turpin and Robin Hood and tales of exploration and pirates in the pages of Chums. In Chums, one of the most popular of British boys' magazines, he was exposed to some very fine artists, chief amongst them Paul Hardy, Thomas Somerfield, T. H. Robinson and Savile Lumley whose illustrations often graced the serial stories. Other artists—amongst them H. M. Brock, Eric R. Parker, D. C. Eyles and Roland Davies—would become regulars in the pages of Knockout, which Matthews went on to edit in the 1940s.

Matthews rose from the ranks of the editorial staff to become managing editor over all the Fleetway Publications juvenile titles in 1957 and Director of juvenile publications in 1961. Matthews was a very active manager, planning and launching dozens of new titles, including Top Spot, Harold Hare's Own Paper, Princess, Buster, and the educational magazine Look and Learn between 1958 and 1962 as well as a slew of picture libraries (War Picture Library, Air Ace Picture Library, Battle Picture Library) and taking on board already established titles like The Eagle, Girl, Swift and Robin.

To satisfy this expansion, many new artists had to be found and, since the mid-1950s, many of them had come to work for Fleetway through agencies in Spain and Italy. For many years, the main supplier of artwork had been Creazioni D'Ami, run by Rinaldo and Piero D'Ami, whose artists were responsible for hundreds of pages of British comics each month, introducing British readers—although they did not know it because signing artwork was not encouraged—to such superb Italian artists as Gino D'Antonio, Ferdinando Tacconi, Sergio Tarquinio, Renzo Calegari, Nevio Zeccara and many, many others. Piero D'Ami was supplying artwork to most of the pocket library titles, romances as well as the weekly comics. In the early 1960s, with more titles appearing, Leonard Matthews needed more artists and he and other representatives from Fleetway Publications would make trips to visit agencies in Spain and Italy to find new artists for new titles. The agencies would also send representatives to London to show samples of their latest artists' work.

By one means or another, Leonard Matthews discovered the work of Franco Caprioli. In 1964 he was preparing two new launches, a weekly comic to be called Hurricane and the larger, magazine-style comic, Ranger. These new titles would need new artists and Matthews found many of them through the Rome-based agency of Alberto Giolitti. Set up in 1960, Giolitti introduced a number of new artists to the British comics market, amongst them Annibale Casabianca, Antonio Sciotti and Salvatore Stizza. When Fleetway launched a new weekly title, Hurricane, in 1964, Giolitti himself was present, alongside Giovanni Ticci, drawing 'Sword For Hire'.

Caprioli's work had not been widely seen in the UK before Ranger arrived on the market. His story 'I Fanti di Picche' had appeared in Topolino in 1947 with two further stories ('Nel mar cinese del Sud' and 'La tigre di Sumatra') appearing in 1948. This last story, under the title 'The Tiger of Talu' was reprinted in Tit-Bits, a popular weekly miscellany of news stories, features, stories, pin-ups, cartoons and sports, in 1956. It is unlikely that Caprioli was even aware that the story had been reprinted.

Caprioli, a busy artist for Il Vittorioso in the early 1960s, did not need to take advantage of the expanding British market and, prior to his work in Ranger, only one original story had appeared, an 8-page complete tale featuring Olac the Gladiator in Tiger Annual 1962 (published in 1961).

In 1964, Caprioli began producing illustrations and covers for Il Giornalino, but the twin spectres of family responsibility and economic necessity led him to taking on work through Studio Giolitti where he was discovered by Leonard Matthews.

Caprioli's work for Ranger—which was launched in September 1965—began with a series of stylistically executed illustrations for a series of articles written by Captain W. E. Johns, the creator of Biggles. His series on treasure seekers reprinted chapters from The Biggles Book of Treasure Hunting, published by Max Parrish in 1962. Caprioli's new illustrations fitted perfectly these tales of lost wealth and gave him a surprising wide range of historical settings to illustrate, from 17th century Haiti and the wild west of Colorado to stories of the Spanish Main and ancient El Dorado.

For most readers this was the first time they had seen Caprioli's work, in which he built up shadows and details using pointillism, a style most famously used by Frank Bellamy but which was rarely seen in children's magazines because they were often poorly printed on newsprint which meant that dots and fine lines often blurred. Ranger was printed by the photogravure presses of Eric Bemrose, Liverpool, which meant that the illustrations reproduced far better (Bemrose also printed Eagle where Frank Bellamy's most famous strip work appeared).

In the issue for 27 November 1965, a new series by Captain W. E. Johns was launched, 'Champion of the Spanish Main', a story of buccaneers on the 17th century Caribbean high seas in which a young sailor named Mark Lawson tracks down Rochelle the Butcher, a pirate who, in league with the villainous Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, murdered Mark's father and mother.

At the same time, Caprioli drew his first strip for Ranger, The 'Globe' Mutiny, based on the true story of Samuel Comstock, who murdered the captain and officers of the whaling ship and commandeered the ship, only to have some surviving captives retake the ship and strand the mutineers on a tropical island.

Although the strip only ran for 6 weeks, Caprioli had proven himself a fine illustrator of sea-faring sagas and was immediately offered another, adapting 'Moby Dick' from the novel by Herman Melville. This, too, ran for 6 episodes but it showed Caprioli at his best, especially in the final scenes where Captain Ahab finally confronts the whale that has haunted him.

Caprioli was next to be found in Lion, the popular weekly comic that had been running since 1952, where he produced 21 episodes of the series 'Bravest of the Brave'. He also drew a story for girls, 'Dawn of the Islands' in Tina (soon to change its name to Princess Tina) and a number of one-off strips for annuals.

Caprioli then appeared in Look and Learn where, over a period of nine months, he drew 'The Argonauts' and 'The Legend of Beowulf'. One aspect of education that Look and Learn was keen to explore was the classics—even in 1970, many grammar and private schools still taught Latin as part of the curriculum and Look and Learn reflected this with features on ancient Rome and Greece. Legends and myths were a useful way to bring visually exciting comic strips whilst, at the same time, sticking to its educational remit.

As a young boy in England—and I am sure this is true of Italian children—I found reading classic literature as a comic strip far easier than trying to read the original books; the poetry of the language which I can appreciate now was, to me at the time, dense and difficult to understand. The comic strips—where "a picture paints a thousand words"—introduced many youngsters to classic tales, none more classical than Homer's The Odyssey, which recounted the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, and the epic Anglo-Saxon poem which tells the story of Beowulf and the Grendel.

These were brought gloriously to life by Franco Caprioli and it is regretful that they were to be his last comic strips drawn for British magazines; by 1970, the pound (sterling) had been devalued and exchange rates were less favourable for European artists working for the British market. Caprioli's workload for Il Giornalino increased and, sadly, he was lost to Look and Learn.

It is only in the past few years that British fans have begun to truly appreciate the talents of the Italian and other European artists who entertained them as they were growing up. Because of the anonymity of British comics, very few names have been known: Hugo Pratt, Gino D'Antonio, Ferdinando Tacconi all had a following in the UK… but the list is not long. I'm very pleased to say that Caprioli's name has been added to the list in recent years. Fans here in the UK now know the name of the man behind all those little dots. And for fans in Italy, I'm pleased you will now have a chance to see one of the strips that we enjoyed all those years ago.

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