By Graziano Frediani
ACCORDING TO AN OLD SAYING, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW SOMEBODY, YOU SHOULD TAKE A LOOK TO THE BOOKS THEY KEEP WITH THEM. Easy, for the majority of us; harder, though, if the person we’re talking about is, or was, like Sergio Bonelli, an indefatigable reader and, above all, an even more tireless collector of printed “stuff”.
The cover of one of Sergio Bonelli’s more beloved
books: an overview of the most memorable
"bad guys" in the history of Western movies.
On the tables of his study, of the editorial office and of his private house (even on the nightstands of his bedroom), you could see towering piles, either larger or smaller but always growing, formed by newspapers, current news magazines, Italian and international specialist magazines where he marked with a yellow sticker the features, the commentaries and the news that could become an idea for an article, a trip or a new story of his comic-book alter ego, Mister No.
But that wasn’t enough; Sergio was always looking for books, that he ceaselessly uncovered and bought everywhere he was—at a flea market in Milan, a bookstall on Paris’ "Rive Gauche", a kiosk in Madrid, a small store in Porto Alegre or Havana, or in a London or New York bookstore. He didn’t care much for the precious first editions, the uncut volumes, the limited-edition tomes that can send the hard-core bibliophiles into raptures. Even a battered booklet, that came from who knows where and had been crumpled by who knows who, could become a not-to-be-missed object of Sergio’s desire; it was enough that it aroused his curiosity, either by regarding, albeit marginally, one of his many spheres of interest, or by making him remember the satisfaction he had felt when he’d bought a couple of copies of the volume a few years before, somewhere else in the world... then, that title had to be his, joining in full pomp the Great Paper Sea that he loved to swim in.
"OH MY, HOW MANY ARE THEY?" THAT’S THE QUESTION THAT EVERYONE ASKED HIM, IN FRONT OF THE BOOKSHELVES that cover the walls almost in their entirety, in every room here, at the first floor of via Buonarroti. Not to mention the times when a visitor had the privilege to stare at the shelves, higher and even more crammed with books, that tower inside Sergio’s house... I won’t deny it: everyone of us who worked with him often wondered how many books Sergio Bonelli had collected and kept with loving (and stern) attention and care. We never came to a definitive conclusion, though; after a couple of minutes, every time we tried to count them, we ended up finding a volume we couldn’t resist—we paused, poring over some books that we’d have liked to own (e.g., an illustrated biography of Amedeo Nazzari or Budd Boetticher, the complete collection of "Little Nemo"’s pages or "Jungle Jim"’s strips, or an essay about the myth of the American Frontier, published by Il Mulino at the beginning of the 1960s, and so on...). And finally we asked Sergio to let us read it, maybe as a reference for an article to be included in our Collana Almanacchi (though, as we knew all too well, if he eventually decided to lend it to us, he wouldn’t relax until we’d gave it back).
So, we never managed to reach our goal of summing all the volumes up: we shared, and we still share, the deep pleasure of floundering in that Great Paper Sea. And that’s what I’m doing right now, while I’m trying to tell you “live” about my little journey through Sergio Bonelli’s most beloved books; just like, in their respective sections, other two of his friends and collaborators, Maurizio Colombo and Stefano Marzorati, will try to create a hit-parade of Sergio’s favorite albums and movies. And, please, don’t ask us how many of those did Sergio collect. You can go adrift in the Great Vinyl and Film Seas, too!
The cover of the most popular adventure of Tim Tyler's luck
(Cino e Franco in the Italian version).
HERE WE ARE NOW, IN FRONT OF THE LEGENDARY BLB (BONELLI’S LIBRARY OF BABEL). Beside two or three thousand swaying volumes, under the label “Miscellaneous”, you’d see entire continents: these are the areas about the Winning of the American West and the wars that left a mark on History (absolutely not limited only to WWI and WWII!); Amazonas; Hollywood cinema; bullfights; the Cangaceiros; the Foreign Legion; and finally, about crocodiles/alligators/caimans. A separate section – and a huge one, of course – is reserved to the comic books, where the stories that aroused Sergio Bonelli’s passion when he was a child stand out.
The place of honor goes to “Virus, il mago della foresta morta”, a tale in several episodes by Federico Pedrocchi (writer) and Walter Molino (artist), published on l'Audace in 1939; the albums shocked its young reader, Sergio, with the story of a crazed scientist who can awake the Egyptian mummies in all the museums in the world. "That scene", Sergio used to acknowledge, "still is one of the most exciting moments of my ‘career’ as a reader: once I became a writer, I chose to pay homage to it in one of my Zagor stories. Even nowadays, if I step into an Egyptian museum, I almost think that I can see the mummies quiver under their bandages!".
Then we have “La banda aerea”, a 1936-37 episode from Lee Falk & Ray Moore’s The Phantom (L’uomo mascherato, in the Italian version), who faces the "air pirate women", a group of sexy and ruthless ladies led by the icy Baroness; and “La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana”, an episode of Tim Tyler's luck (Cino e Franco, in Italian), written and illustrated by Lyman Young in 1933-34, where the two young explorers meet the beautiful and cruel Loana, an immortal descendant of the Atlantis people, who was modeled after the just as beautiful, cruel and immortal heroine of two masterpieces of the adventure-themed literature, both by Henry Rider Haggard: She and Ayesha: The Return of She.
The mummies’ awakening in Virus, il mago della foresta morta.
Finally, among Sergio Bonelli’s "livres de chevet" – the books you keep handy on your nightstand, to be read time and again – we find the classic Mickey Mouse stories by Floyd Gottfredson: Editor-in-Grief, The Bat Bandit of Inferno Gulch, Mickey Mouse Joins the Foreign Legion, Race for Riches, and the story where a bold Mickey Mouse magically ends inside an illustrated book that sends him back to the times of Robin Hood. The legendary Sherwood Bowman was one of the heroes that Bonelli adored: "Among all the adventurous companions of my childhood”, he used to say, "Robin was one of the loyalest. I hung around with him at the movies, in novels and comics, and I have always felt an endless fascination for his cheerfulness, his boldness, his rebel spirit, and the freedom of his life in the woods".