CHRIS WESTON'S WORLD OF COMICS 2: SERGIO TOPPIBY CHRIS WESTON
Welcome to the latest in my series of interviews with international comic-strip creators whom I feel deserve to be brought to wider recognition. Prepare yourself to meet the greatest living comic strip artist of all time: SERGIO TOPPI
. If this is the first time you've encountered the work of this Milanese Master, then you are in for a life-changing moment ... I guarantee your very lives will be improved by the knowledge of Toppi and his beautiful, expressive comic strip illustration.
Born in Milan, Italy 1932, Sergio Toppi
has consistently produced artwork for the most important Italian publications and publishers. His style is simultaneously intricate and bold; his compositions have an abstract quality but the content is realistic and truthful. He's probably one of the few comic-strip creators who deserve the title ‘Artist’ with a Capital ‘A’, and it wouldn't surprise me if we'll one day see his work hanging in galleries alongside the likes of Lautrec
. His closest US comparison would be Bill Sienkiewicz
and it wouldn't surprise me if Toppi was a big influence on Bill's work.
I had the honour of meeting Toppi in person at an Italian Comic Convention
last March. He was there to pick up a lifetime achievement award. Despite the insurmountable language barrier I found him charming and modest, and it was a delight to watch him sketching and signing for his many fans. THE PULSE: Hi, Sergio. First of all, congratulations on receiving your award at Milan’s Cartoomics Expo. That doesn't mean you can retire now, though! You are a native of Milan, Italy, born in 1932, so your memories of World War Two are probably still quite distinctive. Did these years have an effect on your life or influence your artwork in any way?
Certainly they affected my life. I was around during the bombings, and was evacuated, with my family, to a remote village where nobody thought anything could happen. Instead, a lot of things happened! It was at the center of an area where the Resistance was really active. So I saw a lot of things: the birth of Resistance, its crucial phase, the repression of nazi-fascists, and the arrival of the Allies. At the end I don't know how much these memories have influenced my work. Apart from a few exceptional cases, I can’t say they influenced me in any particular way. THE PULSE: In a previous interview you said that you don’t find it easy to talk about your experiences of the War…
It is not that I won't talk willingly about it; it was a really important period of my life. Those years of evacuation passed in a small mountain village in Piedmont were, in a certain sense, formative for me (a city boy … and a rather frail one at that). Even beyond the matter related to my drawing style, those years had a great affect on me because they forced me to confront aspects of life, such as the animals and unpleasant situations like coming to blows with the local boys. I can say I learned a lot of things that boys today don't know anymore. Nowadays, people don't appreciate the comforts and conveniences that surround us; they seem so banal and taken for granted. On the contrary, even now they have a special value for me, because I lived in a hard and difficult time. All those experiences could have contributed to the "memory banks" which I draw upon for my artwork; I can't exclude that.THE PULSE: What made you choose a career in commercial art as opposed to fine art?
A good answer could be that “I like the money”! I find it's a big satisfaction to be paid to do work, so commercial art seems, in certain cases, to guarantee greater security. I don't know, I have never actively tried to become a famous painter. If we classified comics and illustration as "commercial art", they have always interested me… maybe mostly illustration; ‘comics’ came later. Even as a boy I drew for my own passion… I never thought that one day I would be doing it professionally.
This is a question to which I can't find an answer. Maybe I never tried to be a fine artist because I wasn’t capable of it; perhaps it needed some qualities I didn't have. THE PULSE: Do you even think artists should be categorised as "fine" or "commercial"?
Again, I don’t know how appropriate the word ‘commercial’ is. If we are referring to the work of someone like us who does comics and illustration under commission, then it’s ok: none of us draws a comics merely to lock it away in drawer, at least not usually. Obviously we can dedicate a part of our time to creating things uniquely for our own pleasure. THE PULSE: Can art be taught or is it something that is instinctive or inherent?
I think that techniques can be taught. As for the rest, I don’t think so. If you have nothing personal to ‘say’, tuition from even the greatest of masters will prove fruitless.
The answer to this question is linked to something that is difficult to define. It’s something that can be basically applied to all human activities: why does one person choose to be a doctor and another one a lawyer? These are ‘things’ one feels internally and, eventually, they will reveal themselves, one way or another.THE PULSE: We all have our own ‘vocation’, perhaps? Some of us are lucky enough to find it sooner than later. In the fifties, Italy enjoyed something of a populist art renaissance typified by Fellini's "La Dolce Vita". Were you aware of this movement or was this trend restricted to Rome?
In the 50s I wasn’t at all focused on “La Dolce Vita”. I went to see the movie - I always went to the cinema - but I had other problems to think about. That was a period that may be difficult to understand today… if you hadn’t lived through it yourself. Maybe it was a difficult period, because we were still suffering the effects of the War, but we could all feel that there was a positive, progressive change in the air. Maybe my contemporaries understood that after those dark days, something was happening … and we were all trying to work out what our roles would be during this phase when conditions were generally beginning to improve. What was happening, culturally, in Rome was something quite distant to our eyes. Furthermore, I have to say I have never been a Fellini fanatic.THE PULSE: Your work reminds me of a terrific American artist called Bob Peak. Was he an influence?
I am flattered that my drawings remind you of Peak’s art because he was a fantastic illustrator. As a matter of fact, during the ‘50s and ‘60s we had the opportunity to see some American publications that contained some really great artists. I remember I used to borrow books from the American Library with the intention of casually dipping into them, and I became so absorbed that I literally ended up falling asleep over them. They were full of beautiful illustrations and Peak’s work was among the best. Rockwell himself, whose extraordinary work bordered on photographic perfection, was less interesting and innovative than Peak (in my opinion). I can’t say that any of them were artists I tried to imitate but they all stimulated my stylistic approach: they utilised peculiar techniques and materials (like acrylics) and came up with exotic combinations that presented a fresh approach to illustration. THE PULSE: Who were your influences and are there any current artists that you admire?
Among the current artists, I really like Angelo Stano, Nicola Mari, Lorenzo Mattotti, Daniel Zezelj, Sergio Zaniboni… Mind you, they aren’t exactly young any more, either. There are so many who deserve mention that it would be difficult to list them all. Unfortunately I can’t list many from the newer wave of artists because, basically, I don’t really know them. Alternately, I have listed artists of my own generation so many times that it would be pointless to repeat them and I would probably run the risk of missing some out. I would just say that I find Nicola Mari particularly good.THE PULSE: I agree, Nicola Mari’s art is amazing… and I’m hoping he’ll be the subject of one of my future interviews. Are you aware of Bill Sienkiewicz's work? He seems to be extremely aware of yours!
I know Sienkiewicz , though not personally, and I am really pleased to hear he likes my work. I am really grateful to him for this.THE PULSE: In your work, you seem to enjoy using patterns and textures that have an “ethnic” quality. Do you have an interest in the indigenous art of foreign cultures?
Yes. I think it’s a pretty ‘fashionable’ trend to prefer the unfinished, the uncompleted rather than the classic, aesthetic ideal of a form’s perfection. The ethnic arts are fascinated with the interpreted, the exaggerated… It’s an art that offers a lot of graphic ideas.THE PULSE: Can you tell me something about the character you draw with the bowler hat and the handlebar moustache, The Collector? He's great!
Thanks. It’s really difficult to explain the birth of a character. I find that the traditional depiction of The Hero, the ‘righter of wrongs’, is a little banal and stereotyped: with the blonde forelock, strong jaw, the good guy… I wanted to create an anti-hero, substantially a bastard, a bad guy, ironic, with no display of biceps or pectorals. And also, this is a thing I always like to reveal, I wanted to create him with long legs as a sort of personal revenge against my own height… [laughs] However I am not like him! I am neither merciless nor elegant…THE PULSE: What work of yours are you the most proud of.
A pretty elusive answer could be “the next one”. As a matter of fact I can say I like my The Collector stories and Sharaz-De but also some stories which are less known such as Thanka.THE PULSE: I believe you also write your own stories. What is the main theme running through your work (if any)?
Maybe, there is no real recurrent theme apart from diversity. I created few recurring characters because, if I can, I try to do something new every time. I can say the recurrent theme is maybe the continuous variation of themes. There are certain character traits that I usually give my lead characters, such as the loser figure… but if you consider The Collector you couldn’t say he is a loser at all. He always obtains whatever he wants. Generally losers are more human and interesting from a narrative point of view.
Other recurrent themes in my stories are: almost every time, the absence of a happy end… a sort of “magic realism”, a disquieting note. I prefer not to portray violence too explicitly… I prefer wicked actions to be implied or alluded to.THE PULSE: Okay, here are a couple of technical questions. How long does it take you to produce a typical page of black and white artwork?
I don’t know, it depends. In some cases the page turns out well at the first attempt, in other cases more time is needed, but I really don’t know to make a good estimation… THE PULSE: What percentage of that time is spent on research?
Enough. Before starting a new story I spend several days compiling reference material some of which may not always be available at home. Then, it’s necessary to go to bookstores or newsagents. Sometimes I also use a videotape recorder and freeze images. Finally, it’s important to have a good photographic memory. Today, there may be computers that could be of great help – I wouldn’t know because I haven’t got one. Something I started to do later in my career (and I’d recommend it to be done from the beginning) is methodically building an archive of images; in our work this is essential because one day you might have to draw a piece of Liberty-style furniture, another day a Second World War tank, and another one again a pair of 19th century scissors… An artist must be able to get inspiration from everything he sees during the day…THE PULSE: Do you use photographic reference, or do you prefer drawing from life?
“Drawing from life” can also mean walking in the street or taking the tram: even from those common activities you can get images. Each person has his own way of walking. If you look at a person’s back while he is walking and you suddenly close your eyes, then for few seconds you get a sort of ‘snapshot’… one that captures an attitude or stance different to the standard ones commonly used to represent movement. There are those who really love to “copy from life” but even a common walk can inspire you.THE PULSE: Lastly, any ambitions yet to be fulfilled?
I must say that I have already received many acknowledgments, so my vanity has been satisfied. I hope I’ll be able to produce some other exceptional piece of work. Inevitably, as the years go by, I’ll be subject to the labours of time, like any machine. Just so the machine doesn’t smash: that would be a good ambition, I’d say. THE PULSE: Thank you, Mister Toppi for agreeing to answer these annoying questions. I'm a huge fan of your work and wish you continued good health and success!
They were not annoying at all. And I thank you for the attention to my work which is a really gratifying thing. I hope you will maintain this good opinion of me.THE PULSE: There’s no doubt about that! You can find out more about Sergio Toppi at:
Plus, Walt Simonson talks about Toppi at:––
Interview realised with the assistance of Fabrizio Lo Bianco.
Preliminary translation from Italian by smoky man.
You can read the first WESTON WORLD OF COMICS here: http://www.comicon.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=next_topic&f=36&t=002629&go=newer