Comic panel by Federico Fellini
From: Rolling Stone Magazine

Federico Fellini was one of Italy's best-known film directors and screenwriters. He is considered one of the most influential directors of the 20th century. His highly autobiographical work often borders to the sensational and surreal. Recurring themes are Rome, the Catholic Church, the circus and clowns, huge women, love for the cinema, scenes of decadence and people with unusual physical appearances. His very recognizable and eccentric style inspired the eponym "Fellinesque".

Fellini was born in Rimini in 1920. As a child he loved going to the cinema, praising Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Walt Disney and the Marx Brothers as much as Luis Buñuel, Roberto Rossellini and Sergei Eisenstein. He also lost himself in visits to the circus and reading novels, fairy tales and comics. His favorite magazine was Il Corriere dei Piccoli, which published both local "fumetti" as well as translations of U.S. titles. He was particularly mezmerized by Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo in Slumberland', Floyd Gottfredson's 'Mickey Mouse', George McManus' 'Bringing Up Father', Frederick Burr Opper's 'Happy Hooligan', Lyman Young's 'Tim Tyler's Luck', Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon' and Lee Falk's 'Mandrake the Magician' and 'The Phantom'. All these forms of entertainment inspired his own outlook on life, which often mixed realism with fantasy.

Showing a talent for drawing and caricaturing Fellini started his career as a cartoonist and portrait painter. Between 1938 and 1942 he contributed to weeklies like the Florentine magazine 420 and wrote for the bi-weekly humor magazine Marc'Aurelio. When Mussolini banned the import of all U.S. comics, such as 'Flash Gordon', Giove Toppi continued the series by imitating Alex Raymond's graphic style, while Fellini wrote new stories. However, fumetti expert Leonardo Gori has cast doubt over this often-repeated story, claiming that the Italian versions of 'Flash Gordon' weren't drawn by Toppi - who passed away in 1942 - but by Guido Fantoni. In his opinion, the scripts lack Fellini's characteristic style and it's a known fact that the director often twisted personal anecdotes into more fantastic stories. What is certain is that Fellini contributed to the comics series 'Giacomino' and 'Cico e Pallina', both published in Marc'Aurelio. He also personally drew the strip 'Geppi La Bimba Atomica'.

Comic by Federico Fellini
Geppi La Bimba Atomica (1940)

After the war, Fellini abandoned comics in favor of directing films. He worked as a screenwriter and assistant director for Roberto Rossellini before making his own films in the 1950s. In the decades that followed he directed such classics as 'I Vitelloni' (1953), 'La Strada' (1954), 'La Dolce Vita' (1959), '8½' (1963), 'Fellini: Satyricon' (1969), 'Roma' (1972), 'Amarcord' (1973), 'Il Casanova di Fellini' (1976), 'Prova d'Orchestra' (1978) and 'E La Nave Va' (1983). Fellini still holds the record for winning the most Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, namely four. He received them for 'La Strada', 'La Notti di Cabiria', '8½' and 'Amarcord'. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Festival of Venice in 1985 and at the Academy Awards in 1993. In 1990 the Japanese prince Hitachi handed him a Praemium Imperale award for his contributions to the world of art.

Fellini is praised for his magical-realistic style and visual inventiveness. At the same time he was also controversial because of his satirical depictions of Italian society, particularly the Roman-Catholic Church. His trademark are disturbing scenes of decadence, accompanied by the dreamy and frenetic soundtracks of his home composer Nino Rota. From '8½' on his films got increasingly more extravagant and surreal. He often cast people with odd personal appearances and gave them prosthetics and make-up to make their faces even more unusual. Soon his pictures were filled with dwarfs, giants, hermaphrodites, hunchbacks, androgyns, obese people, big-breasted women... Critics accused him of depicting people als walking caricatures and comics characters. Terry Gilliam defended the often heard accusation that Fellini's characters were too grotesque, odd and bizarre: "Fellini was a cartoonist, I was a cartoonist. We both came from the same background. Which means you look at the world and you stretch it, you pull it, you distort it."

Artwork by Federico Fellini

Whatever may be, Fellini could never really hide his love for comics. His second film, 'Lo Sceicco Bianco' ('The White Sheik'), was a satire of popular photo comics aimed at female readers. The character of Gesolmina in 'La Strada' (played by his wife Giulietta Masina) was inspired by the hobo character 'Happy Hooligan' by Frederick Burr Opper. He even claimed that Charlie Chaplin had inspired his Tramp character on Opper's creation too. In preparation for his nostalgic film 'Amarcord' (1973) Fellini studied the visual look of several 1930s comics. Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo' was a direct influence on 'La Città Delle Donne' (1980), where a man walks around in a dream-like world where he encounters all kinds of women. In 'Intervista' (1986) Marcello Mastroianni plays the comic strip character Mandrake the Magician. Film producer Dino De Laurentiis considered Fellini as his first choice for directing a movie version of 'Flash Gordon' (1980), but the job eventually went to Mike Hodges, because the maestro wasn't a fan of literal comic book adaptations. As he once said: "Comics and the ghostly fascination of those paper people, paralysed in time, marionets without strings, unmoving, cannot be transposed to film, whose allure is motion, rhythm, dynamic. It is a radically different means of addressing the eye, a different mode of expression."

As an adult Fellini often praised comics artists during interviews, like Guy Peellaert's 'Les Aventures de Jodelle', which he called "literature of intelligence, fantasy and romanticism." The cineast also considered Moebius more important than Gustave Doré: "(...) He's a unique talent endowed with an extraordinary visionary imagination that's constantly renewed and never vulgar. Moebius disturbs and consoles. He has the ability to transport us into unknown worlds where we encounter unsettling characters. My admiration for him is total. I consider him a great artist, as great as Picasso and Matisse." While in California during the 1963 Oscar ceremony Fellini visited Disneyland in the presence of Walt Disney. Years later he also met Stan Lee personally to tell him how much he adored his work.

Fellini and Manara
Sketches by Fellini and Manara for 'Il Viaggio di G. Mastorna'

Fellini collaborated with some iconic comics artists too. He hired Roland Topor to draw the illustrations for the magic lantern scene in his film 'Il Casanova Di Fellini' (1976). Milo Manara, whose comic strip, 'HP et Giuseppe Bergman' was directly inspired by Fellini's films, drew a comic strip called 'Untitled' (1983) , which was a complete homage to the maestro's works, down to Marcello Mastroianni being used as a main character. Fellini read 'Untitled' and was flattered. The two men met and worked together on two graphic novels 'Viaggio a Tulun' (1989) and 'Il viaggio di G. Mastorna' (1992). 'Viaggio a Tulun' was originally meant as an adaptation of the works of cult novelist Carlos Castaneda, but the project fell through and was published as a comic strip in Corriere della Sera instead. 'Il viaggio di G. Mastorna' was another life long project of Fellini that never came to be, because a magician had warned him that if he ever filmed it he would die soon afterwards. So Fellini and Manara made it a comic book instead, published in Il Griffo. In 2011 the collaboration between the two iconic Italian artists inspired Laura Maggiore's book, 'Fellini e Manara', as well as Tiahoga Ruge's film 'Soñando con Tulum' (2012), based on Fellini and Castaneda's preparations for 'Viaggio a Tulun'.

Drawing by Federico Fellini
Drawing by Fellini from 1991, depicting himself and his wife, actress Giulietta Masina

Even though he was more preoccupied with film making, Fellini never left his crayons, pencils and water paint alone for long. He often sketched his own film posters, before handing them to more professional artists. Two of the more notable were Jacques Tardi, who designed the poster of Fellini's 'E La Nave Va' (1983), and Milo Manara who designed the posters for 'Intervista' (1987) and 'La Voce della Luna' (1990). Fellini also sketched out the kind of characters and actors he needed for each project. His wife, Giulietta Masina, said that whenever he drew a small figure with a round, oval head she knew that he was going to cast her. Following the advice of a psychiatrist, Fellini made many drawings of his dreams, some in comic book form. A two-page story was published in Rolling Stone in the 1970s and collected and published posthumously in 'The Book of Dreams' in 2008. In 1982 sixty-three of his drawings were exhibited in Paris, New York and Brussels. He also published 350 more under the title 'I disegni di Fellini'.

Fellini inspired fellow film makers Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Marco Ferreri, Lina Wertmüller, Ettore Scola, Juan Antonio Bardem, Emir Kusturica, Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam. After watching Fellini's film 'Giulietta degli Spiriti' ('Juliet of the Spirits', 1965) on LSD, S. Clay Wilson came up with his character 'The Checkered Demon' (1968). The Roman orgy scene in the 'Astérix' story 'Astérix chez les Helvètes' (1970) by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo is a direct reference to a similar scene in 'Fellini: Satyricon' (1969). Sylvain Chomet (of 'Belleville Rendez-vous' fame) plans a film, 'The Thousand Miles', based on Fellini's unpublished drawings and writings. Other celebrity fans are Georges Simenon, Lana del Rey, Matt Groening and Madonna.

Federico Fellini
Federico Fellini at his drawing board

Articla about Fellini and comics at www.comicom.it

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