Alan Ford: Big in the Balkans

In Toronto, a few years ago, I met Peter Birkmoe, one of the owners of The Beguiling, which is among the finest (and most respected) comic shops in Canada. When I mentioned the large immigrant population that came from Ex-Yugoslav countries to Canada, after the war broke out in the 90s, he said that he was often approached with strange requests by these people. "Can you guess which two comics they asked for most frequently, and I had to explain over and over that they weren't even published in North America"?

Of course, I knew the answer: It was Alan Ford. Peter said that the other title was Corto Maltese. Most of the young Yugos obviously weren't even aware of the fact that Hugo Pratt and his Corto Maltese comics were too European for the American taste, or that Alan Ford has made a success basically in just two countries: Italy and Yugoslavia. This is obvious when you search for Alan Ford web sites through the internet; most of them are constructed by enthusiasts from either Italy or the ex-Yugoslav Republics.

The anonymity of Alan Ford in the rest of the world is usually a bit of a shock to the ordinary reader in Yugoslavia, because this comic was so influential, and so much loved past three decades.

Speaking of the rest of the world, there was an attempt in France, where total of 13 books was published between 1975 and 1976, before the title was cancelled. And that's about it.

Magnus and Bunker originated this comic in 1969, with Milano's Editrice Corno as a publisher, and the venture gradually became a real success in Italy. In 1972 , the translations of Alan Ford books came out in what was then called Yugoslavia, published by a solid and (of course!) state-owned concern Vjesnik, which was also putting out the most important Croatian daily paper ( called Vjesnik, just as well). The black-humoured stories about confused and poor secret agents, led by a senile old man, whose base was in a rotten old flower shop in New York, was quite different from the usual heroic stuff found in adventure comic books anywhere, Yugoslavia included. So very soon these comics, published in an edition called (bombastically, according to the times) Super Strip, became quite popular in this country.

Many people agree that the success of Alan Ford in Yugoslavia was connected with the inspired and imaginative translations by Nenad Brixy, a writer from Zagreb, who has himself written a few humorous novellas about the clumsy detective character called Timothy Tacher ( a feature film based on his novellas was released in another now non-existent country, Czechoslovakia). Brixy's witty adaptations of the Italian text were noticed by readers in all parts of former Yugoslavia, and many Alan Ford fans in Serbia, for example, have associated the strip mainly with its original edition, published in Croatian variation of this (in fact the same) South-Slavic language. When, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, original Alan Ford episodes were reprinted in Serbia, they were criticized because the translation was adopted to the Serbian variation of the language. Even the new generation of readers in Serbia were familiar with the Brixy's original Croatian translation, thanks to the second-hand copies of Alan Ford books from the 70s and 80s, which were still available in the considerable amounts at the local flea markets, private collections, etc ( first 75 episodes, which were drawn by Roberto Raviola alias Magnus, were considered "classic", and were reprinted in few re-run cycles over the years). Another reason is because some of the lines and situations from the strip became part of the slang and sort of a legend among the urban population (fine example is the catchphrase "Hello Bing, how's your brother?" by Sir Oliver, who is both secret agent, and a corny old thief constantly involved in black market transactions).

A musician/performer from Belgrade , true Yugoslav celebrity known as Rambo Amadeus (born in 1963), told us: " My whole generation grew up on reading Alan Ford. The influence of this comic is so big, that I considered its characters to be archetypes which helped me to truly understand the world around me".

A comedy based on Alan Ford was produced in a theatre in a South-Serbian town of Nis, and you can even find non-authorised cards and CD ROMS on the streets in this country . It's important to say that one of the cult-movies released in the early 80s - " Marathon Racers on Their Honourable Run" ,by the Serbian director Slobodan Sijan, was also heavily inspired by the humour of Alan Ford comics , and this was often pointed out by the director himself.

The popularity of the strip in the ex-Yugoslav countries is illustrated by the fact that it was the only comic which was reprinted in all of the Republics after the country fell apart in the 90s =96 Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Monte Negro. Many of the people who were forced to leave their country and settle in more secure places like Western Europe and North America, have very nostalgic feelings about the Alan Ford comics, especially because (as I said earlier) they weren't able to find reprints in their adopted countries. One of the fans from Bosnia, now living in Germany, has posted these lines on his web site: " In a house where I lived in Bosanski Samac I left a collection of more then 400 Alan Ford comic books. Each issue was special to me- I was able to recall if it was bought on the newsstand or traded for some other comic. I read each issue for maybe ten times, and was overwhelmed by it each time again and again".

Finally, it's really hard to explain why this comic was so big in Yugoslavia - one of the factors could be its ironic approach, as both the authorities and the representatives of the law were presented as corrupt and far from perfect. Or maybe it was connected with fairly good distribution of the books, in a market which was at least not THAT overwhelmed by comic books like some other places. Anyway, Alan Ford is one of the pop icons in this part of the Balkans.

Saša Rakezić aka Aleksandar Zograf, nepoznati izvor