2012 marks the 50th anniversary of one of Italy’s longest running and most influential comics (or fumetti) – Diabolik, the adventures of a masked criminal anti-hero who commits ingenious crimes aided by his beautiful partner (in love and in crime) Eva Kant, a fumetti icon in her own right.  In case you were wondering, this is a very big deal.  Outside Italy (and to a lesser extent, France), the big D is probably best known (if at all) as incarnated by John Philip Law in Mario Bava’s incomparably magnificent Diabolik aka Danger: Diabolik! (Italy/France 1967), to my mind the greatest comic book movie ever made.[1]  In Italy, not knowing who Diabolik is would be like not knowing who Batman or Spiderman are. He inspires cult devotion, but he’s also a mainstream reference point – in advertising and in TV comedy sketches. I don’t think any franchise in the world produces classier or more beautiful merchandise – if I could find a way of getting that Diabolik sofa into the country, trust me I would.  To get a sense of the scale of the Diabolik franchise, check out the official website http://www.diabolik.it/

Three editions of Diabolik are published every month – Diabolik Inedito features new stories, while classic tales are reprinted in Diabolik R and Diabolik Swiisss! (the sound his dagger makes when it flies through the air.) The bi-annual Il Grande Diabolik features slightly more ambitious stories than the relatively formulaic monthly ones and sometimes more exciting artwork (if Giuseppe Palumbo was Diabolik’s regular artist, it would be a very different book.)  I must confess that it took me a while to work out that only one of the monthly editions featured new stories – the comic has changed comparatively little over the years (it even seems to deliberately avoid depicting technology that will date it.)  Since his transformation (fairly early on) from outright sadistic villain to a more noble anti-hero, Diabolik has never undergone the kind of upheavals that an American comic book hero like Batman has.  There’s a case to be made that Diabolik suffers from a certain conservatism and timidity on the part of publishers Astorina and that it would benefit from an overhaul by the Italian equivalent of an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison. And yet it may be his very unchangeability that helps make him such an enduring icon.  Apart from his love for Eva, Diabolik is psychologically ‘flat’ – when he finally got an origin story (‘Diabolik, Chi Sei?’ no. 107, 1968) it didn’t even provide him with a real name, let alone any greater depth.  Raised on an island by a criminal mastermind called King, Diabolik was named after a panther that terrorised the island and was slain by King.  There’s some Oedipal potential in that set-up – Diabolik kills King and takes over his empire when he reaches adulthood – but our (anti-)hero remains as much of an enigma as ever.

It would be difficult to make a case for Diabolik being a ‘great comic’.  It’s initially derivative of Fantomas, the mysterious evil genius who haunted Paris (and enchanted the Surrealists) in the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, and countless films (starting with Louis Feuillade’s classic silent serial.)  Of the fumetti neri (dark comics) inspired by Diabolik, one of them is actually superior to it – writer Max Bunker (Lucianno Secchi) and artist Magnus’ (Roberto Raviola) Kriminal (1964-1974.)  Kriminal would be a more psychologically rounded character – motivated by the death of his parents to become ‘Il Re del Delitto’ (King of Crime), he was a kind of inverted Batman.  Bunker and Magnus also incorporated the kind of sado-eroticism that made Diabolik seem comparatively take – check out issue 5 ‘Omicidio Al Riformatorio’ (1964)  and imagine if Bava had filmed that.  But somehow Diabolik transcends his derivative, formulaic surroundings to be one of the great comic book characters – that it’s hard to say exactly how or why is part of his fascination.  He’s been celebrated as a pop art icon at the Rome exhibition ‘A Life Less Ordinary: Diabolik and Eva Kant’ (2009) http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/4452/1/a-life-less-ordinary-diabolik-and-eva-kant, while Eva was the inspiration for a shoe collection by fashion designer Ruthie Davis http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/1789/1/between-pop-art-and-diabolik-ruthie-davis.

Diabolik was created by two Milanese sisters, Angela and Lucianna Giussani, in 1962.  The story goes that they found a copy of a Fantomas novel on a train, which gave them both the inspiration for the character and the idea of a format that commuters could carry in their pocket.  Rather disappointingly, I’ve never seen anyone reading Diabolik on public transport in Italy, but I make a point of doing so when visiting – thus betraying myself as not only a tourist but a tourist who’s about 50 years behind a popular trend.  The first issue of Diabolik ‘Il Re del Terrore’ shows the debt to Fantomas – a ruthless thief and killer, a master of disguise, pursued by a redoubtable police inspector (Juve in the case of Fantomas, Ginko in case of Diabolik.)  The Giussani sisters initially intended the setting to be France so that they could deploy the guillotine as a method of execution – they later established the geographically non-specific Clerville as Diabolik’s equivalent to Gotham City. Like his Parisian predecessor, Diabolik could be anyone – we learn about halfway through the first story that one of the characters has been the King of Terror from the start.  In the most memorable scene, Inspector Ginko pursues Diabolik into a field of scarecrows – as he leaves, one of the scarecrows opens its eyes (guess who.) In issue 3 ‘L’Arresto di Diabolik’, he borrows his method of escape from the climax of the first Fantomas novel – he drugs and disguises an innocent man to be guillotined in his place.

‘L’Arresto di Diabolik’ is important for another reason. Diabolik’s escape is aided by a beautiful young widow (and murderer of her late husband) – Lady Eva Kant.  Eva ostensibly derives from another Fantomas character, Lady Beltham, but in some ways she is Diabolik’s greatest claim to originality.  Lady Beltham may be Fantomas’ lover, but she is a conflicted character, tormented by the crimes she participates in but too infatuated to break free.  Eva, on the other hand, is a bad girl from the off – she’s closer to the slinky, cat-suited anti-heroine Irma Vep from Feuillade’s Les Vampires.  It’s become popular to suggest in recent years that Eva is a kind of popular Italian feminist icon, a harbinger of independence and modernity.  Such claims might require some qualification – she doesn’t quite achieve the equal status to Diabolik that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel do with Steed in The Avengers.  Nevertheless, she predates Emma Peel and was created the same year as Cathy Gale (1963) – she shares much with them, from the black jump suit to her widowed status.  Eva is an increasingly active and independent heroine, more recently having solo adventures (one of which retcons her murdering of her husband, now a villain responsible for destroying her family.)  She would also play a key role in the rehabilitation of Diabolik – in ‘Lotta Disperata’ (no. 15, 1964), she intervenes to prevent him from killing some hapless victims.  The King of Terror is furious – he’s referring to himself in the third person as he rants, which is a Level 3 Rage Alert with masked supervillains.  He actually starts to throttle her, before it dawns on him that he can’t kill the woman he now realises he loves.  Her conscience proves infectious and his journey towards anti-hero status begins.  In Bava’s film, Eva is played by the stunning Marisa Mell with enormous charm, and I wouldn’t want to change anything about her performance. But she isn’t really the Eva of the comics – she’s more like a Bond girl, scantily dressed, in need of periodic rescues and sexually available to the hero. Bava began shooting the film with Catherine Deneuve, but couldn’t get on with her – it sounds like she thought she was too good for the film.  But Deneuve would have been the perfect Eva (albeit perhaps in a different film with a different Diabolik – as Tim Lucas suggests, she would have overshadowed John Philip Law.)  Eva was, after all, conceived after Grace Kelly’s character in To Catch a Thief – the icy beauty turned on by crime.

Bava’s Diabolik is different in a number of ways from the fumetti version, an opulent colourful pop art film fashioned from a monochrome, hardboiled source. But it also gets to the essential fantasy at the heart of Diabolik in a way that the original never quite manages – two glamorous people who commit outrageous crimes and are so turned on by it that they can’t keep their hands off each other.  Their revolving bed exploits amidst mounds of cash are in contrast with their comic book counterparts, who we’re more likely to see reading the newspapers or watching TV.  I once saw the film on a triple-bill (at the much-missed Scala cinema in London) with the Adam West Batman movie (1966) and Barbarella (1967), a shrewd combo if ever there was one.  Tongue-in-cheek was the default approach to comic book heroes in 60s film and TV – Fantomas had returned in comic gadget-filled vehicles that depicted Juve as a buffoon, while Batman openly mocked its hero as a cowled stuffed shirt and showed the villains having all the fun (Catwoman, too, has much in common with Eva.)  Diabolik may share some of Batman’s campiness and love of gadgetry, and the underground hideout is more like the Batcave than the rather less flamboyant basement that he has in the original fumetti.  But while Batman is amused by the morally upright sexual abstinence of its hero,  Diabolik puts sex back into the mix, thus pushing it closer to the ‘adult comic’ world of Barbarella (these two Dino de Laurentiis productions also have John Philip Law in common.)  Most interesting of all is the film’s decision to relocate Diabolik to a kind of police state, corrupt and repressive, so that he becomes a counter-cultural hero, at one point destroying the city’s financial institutions.  A hero who strikes terror into the hearts of those who control and misuse the economy – hm, why might that still be such an appealing idea?

So join me in wishing the King of Terror a Happy Birthday – technically, he doesn’t blow out the candles until November but there’ll be celebrations of gli anni del terrore throughout the year.  Meanwhile, you have plenty of time to save up for a present.  Do remember that he has expensive tastes and remember, too, that he has excellent aim when throwing that dagger – Swiisss!!!!


An iBook version of the first issue of Diabolik ‘Il Re del Terrore’ is available at iTunes http://itunes.apple.com/it/book/diabolik-1/id491335603?mt=11&ign-mpt=uo=4

[1]Worst case scenario: they might have experienced Diabolik only via the perma-smirk snarkfest that is Mystery Science Theatre, in which case there is little hope for them.