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Thursday, May 7, 2015

TEX in Rome: an American Western Icon Still Sells

The comic character Tex has been part of our Rome experience since 1993.  It's remarkable to us that Tex is still around.  He showed up on the side of our local newsstand (edicola), along with the reminder that here you can get more money on your prepaid phone (RICARICHE on the side here).

Clearly Tex is still a publishing hit, because a poster for a new collection of Tex comics showed up a few days later on a nearby electrical pole, the one the newsstand regularly uses to draw in customers from nearby via Gallia.

We tried to figure out the source of this current interest in American Westerns.  Tex goes back to 1948, when the character was created by Gianluigi Bonelli.  The Bonelli publishing house is now big business, part of it built on Tex's back.  They have characters of more modern currency, such as Dylan Dog and Dr. No (the latter a kind of anti-hero, and not Ian Fleming's Dr. No).  But Tex takes the prize as the longest running comic character in Italy.  What was being advertised at our newsstand is one of several new compilations, this one "Tex Gold."

The May 2015 Tex, a reprint of 1985.
The front and back covers are in color, but
the panels are black and white - still.
Gianluigi Bonelli's family continued Tex. The kingmaker of the publishing house, Gianluigi's son, Sergio, took over the writing of Tex, and the May 2015 (really 1985) issue I just bought was written by yet another Bonelli, Mauro. But Gianluigi clearly formed the character in the late 1940s and 1950s.  The backstory is that Tex was a Texas Ranger, but quit that and "now" operates for them on some special assignments--often working outside the law to hunt down the really bad guys, who are sometimes themselves "lawmen."

The story in my hands is "Il Pueblo Sacro" - The Sacred Pueblo.  Like most Tex stories, it is set in the American Southwest.  Tex ("Night Eagle" is his Indian name) is accompanied, as he often is, by Kit Carson ("Silver Hair"), his "pard" (the same word in Italian and English).

Tex can be seen as a reflection of many different values.  First is the love of all things American in post-WWII Italy; what could be more American than cowboys and Indians?  Our Roman friends tell us they played "cowboys and Indians" - as did we.  Though by the 1960s, one told us, she would play only an Indian, not a cowboy.  In our day, the cowboys were the good guys and the Indians the bad guys.  Bonelli was ahead of most people here too.

The wise old Zuni:  "But if young Juanito [the young Zuni]
has brought you here...
It isn't for a meager supper of  millet bread and pemmican..."
Starting in the late 1940s, Bonelli reinterpreted the traditional "cowboys and Indians" narrative by having the Indians (we would now say Native Americans) be wise men - although Tex looks like the wisest of them all, since - through marriage to an Indian princess - he is "now" chief of the Navajo tribe.

The bad guys:  Ricky, the Mexican, and the Sheriff
Il Pueblo Sacro has all of these characteristics.  Tex, with grumpy and skeptical Kit, asks his young Indian companion - the "young Zuni" - to take him to the tribe's "sciamano" ("shaman" - or we would say "medicine man") to interpret a valuable diadem.

In the meantime, an upstanding rancher's (Thomas Harrison) not-so-upstanding son (Ricky) and the sheriff ("lo sceriffo") of the town - Rio Lobo - team up with a Mexican (Mexicans don't come off too well in Tex) to try to get a trove of gold that can be found via the secret of the diadem.

The medicine man knows how to interpret the diadem, but the gold is corn, the secret space beneath the pueblo is full of poisonous spiders, and the bad guys end up dead.

The poisonous spiders

In the last line of the episode, Tex says: "Even though we weren't elected, Kit and I keep order at Rio Lobo."

Some have suggested that Italians continue to love Tex because he represents the fight against corruption, and corruption often is IN the system itself.   No doubt this characterization is part of Tex's appeal, but it still doesn't explain to me Tex's almost 70-year endurance.  Yes, Tex doesn't sell as it once did (from 700,000 copies per month at its peak to 220,000 in 2010), but then what print publications do?

One of our Roman friends, who knows a lot about Italian culture and sociology, suggested that it's not young people who buy Tex.  Rather it's their parents, engaging in nostalgia, especially when one considers the many reprint series.

Bonelli's comics also tell us something about censorship in Italy.  He had to lower skirts, cover up cleavage (not that there are many women in these stories) and change Tex's name right before publication from Tex Killer to Tex Willer.


The last panel, where Tex says:
"Even though we weren't elected, Kit and I keep order at Rio Lobo."

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