Squeak the Mouse by Massimo Mattioli

Massimo Mattioli was one of the foremost comic humorists from Italy, and perhaps the most widely recognized abroad, next to Benito Jacovitti. Many of his comics, both for children and for adults, share their dynamics and atmosphere with classic animated shorts of the 1940s and 1950s, but also breathe an underground comix flair. While the photo-journalist bunny 'Pinky' (1973-2014) was his longest running series and served as the mascot of the Italian children's magazine Il Giornalino, his most notorious creation was 'Squeak the Mouse' (1982-1992). This 'Tom & Jerry' parody mixed the classic cat-and-mouse theme with pornography, gore and meta humor, and caused quite a stir in the States, where the local importer was sued for distributing obscenity and pornography. 'Squeak' first saw the light in the Italian comics review Frigidaire, which also ran Mattioli's surreal space opera 'Joe Galaxy' (1979-1993). As part the "new wave" of avantgardistic Italian comic authors in the 1980s, he published his idiosyncratic and experimental comics in several European comic magazines for a mature audience, such as Cannibale, Blue, El Víbora and L'Écho des Savanes.

Mattioli was born in Rome in 1942. Not much information is available about his formative years, except that he devoured tons of comics as a child. The man obviously had a keen interest in American animated shorts, especially those by Tex Avery. His later comic strips also reveal influences of George Herriman's graphic playfulness in 'Krazy Kat', the humor of Johnny Hart's 'B.C.' and the urban funny animal settings of Carl Barks' 'Donald Duck' stories.

'Vermetto Sigh'.

Early career
Mattioli began his long and varied career with humorous strips in the weekly magazine La Tribuna Illustrata in 1965. In the following year he made cartoons and the comic strip 'Brividik' (1966) for the satirical magazine Il Nuovo Travaso, while creating the strip about the spider 'Il Ragnetto Gigi' for the monthly Hobby (using the pen name Max). Around the same time, he was present in the Catholic comic magazine Il Vittorioso with humorous comic strips like 'Il Gatto Califfo' (1965), 'Cucù', 'Segnaletica', 'Il Ragno', 'Ipo, Rita e Pino' and 'Elefanti'. A notable creation from this period was 'Vermetto Sigh' (1967-1968), an earthworm who appeared in a series of absurd strips, first in Gulp!, then in Dopodomani and finally in Il Vittorioso's new incarnation Vitt. These early strips already showcased the author's experimental nature. The graphics are reduced to the bare essentials, while the talking animal characters reveal a poetic and surreal sense of humor. In the first improvised strips, crudely drawn directly on the paper, Sigh introduces himself to the readers with "Hi, guys! Forgive me if I show up naked, but I'm a worm" and "My name is Sigh, sorry if I don't shake your hand. The fact is... I don't have any!" While the early episodes consisted of ten borderless panels, the later ones were collections of six self-enclosed strips. The publishing house A.V.E. issued two book collections with unpublished material in 1968 and 1971. It took until 2006 before the French publisher L'Association released a French edition.

M le Magicien by Massimo Mattioli
'M le Magicien'.

M le Magicien
By 1968, Mattioli went abroad. He spent some time in London, where he contributed graphic humor to the adult-oriented men's magazine Mayfair. Attracted by the revolutionary spirit of the May 1968 student protests, he moved to Paris, France, later that year. He contributed his first work to Plexus, and also presented his work to the editors of Hara-Kiri and Pilote. The latter's editor René Goscinny however directed him to Vaillant, the communist comic magazine which would continue its run as Pif Gadget from 1969 on. Mattioli's offbeat humor and experimental art was a welcome addition to the otherwise classical magazine, which had already taken a more modern direction with other playful and nonsensical strips like Nikita Mandryka's 'Le Concombre Masqué' and Gotlib's 'Gai-Luron'. Vaillant/Pif offered Mattioli a weekly humor page in color, which debuted in Vaillant issue #1227 of December 1968.

'M le Magicien'.

'M le Magicien' (1968-1973) was created in the same vein as Mattioli's previous work for Vitt. The page consisted of six independent gag strips, which were populated by a variety of strange creatures. Besides the title character, a magician with his magic wand, we encounter one or two chameleons, two Martians and their flying saucer, an insect and talking flowers and mushrooms. The setting is often a simple line on the ground suggesting the horizon, a tree branch or a castle with three towers. Since Mattioli didn't fully master the French language, he relied heavily on visual humor. Besides the general absurdism, the characters are fully self-aware, which results in much meta-humor. Mattioli's creations freely cross the pages, eat the backgrounds, kick the artist's signature or modify the panels themselves. The later installments were full page gags, strongly echoing the atmosphere of Herriman's 'Krazy Kat'. 'M le Magicien' was Mattioli's first series with a certain durability, about 232 pages appeared in Pif Gadget until 1973, the year of the author's return to Italy. Decades later, in 2003, the comic was finally compiled in book format by L'Association.

Lo Zoo Pazzo
In 1973, Massimo Mattioli began a collaboration with 'Diabolik' scriptwriter Mario Gomboli for the animal cartoon series 'Lo Zoo Pazzo' (literally: "The Crazy Zoo"). The cartoons were originally created in 1967 by Gomboli himself for the back-up puzzle pages of the 'Diabolik' comic books. Production was transferred to France, where Pif Gadget implemented them on the game page 'Journal des Jeux', and assigned Mattioli to illustrate them. Each cartoon offered a funny animal drawing accompanied by a knowledge question for the reader. Still untitled by then, the feature got its title 'Lo Zoo Pazzo' from Alfredo Castelli, who published the cartoons in the 'TILT' section of the Italian magazine Corriere dei Ragazzi in 1973-1974. By 1974 there was already enough material for two book collections by Bompiani under the title 'Animalie'. The funny animals continued to appear for over twenty years in a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Lupo Alberto and Dodo. The publisher Fabbri dedicated an installment of its children's collection I Delfini to 'Lo Zoo Pazzo' in 2000. In England the series was published in a series of children's picture books under the title 'Animalisms' by Child's Play International Ltd. in London during the mid-1970s.

Return to Italy
Shortly before leaving France, Mattioli occasionally contributed to the short-lived magazine Le Canard Sauvage. He returned to Rome in 1973, where he not only continued 'Lo Zoo Pazzo', but also created the newspaper strip 'Pasquino' (1973-1975) for Paese Sera between 28 December 1973 and 8 March 1975. This black-and-white strip presented the adventures of a street sweeper and his inseparable broom. On the streets, called the "theater of life" by the protagonist, Pasquino encounters a crazy dauber, a little girl with pigtails, street vendors, an alley cat, fleas and clouds of dust, while the enormous piles of garbage often seem alive... 'Pasquino' was continued in the Milanese daily Il Giorno from 1975 on. At that point, Massimo Mattioli was however already one of the staples for a children's magazine with a similar name, Il Giornalino.

'Pinky', from Il Giornalino #15, 1978.

In 1973 Massimo Mattioli had simultaneously begun his collaboration with Il Giornalino, a Catholic children's comic magazine published by Edizioni San Paolo in Milan. He created what would become his most enduring character, the bunny 'Pinky' (1973-2014), inspired by a plush rabbit the author saw in a toy shop. A photographer/journalist for the newspaper La Notizia, Pinky is at an everlasting quest for sensational news. In fact, his red camera is the only garment he wears, and he is known as "the fastest click in the world" ("Il clik più veloce del mondo"). Pinky's search should not be difficult, considering his surreal surroundings and the absurd things that happen to him. Mattioli's funny animal world is furthermore inhabited by Pinky's cigar-chomping elephant boss Perry Pachiderma, Petulia, another pink bunny and Pinky's love interest, and his best friend and colleague Giorgione, an obese bear. Pinky's nemesis is Joe Cornacchia, a ruthless journalist from the competing newspaper. Later on, new characters are introduced, such as the mad crocodile scientist Crocodylus and the big cockroach Scarrafone, who is an expert in road dustbins.

'Pinky', with guest appearance from Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy' (1978).

With its influences rooted in the popular American funny animal tradition (Donald Duck, Looney Tunes, Krazy Kat), completed with Italian temperament, Pinky quickly became one of the most beloved characters in Il Giornalino. It remained a regular feature until late 2014. Besides independent stories, Mattioli introduced many story cycles, such as the noirish 'Blues' chronicles in which Pinky narrates his thriller adventures, and episodes revolving around time travel and parallel universes. The latter stories have Pinky transported to another universe after a strong sneeze. Each episode has a number indicating how many layers the pink reporter is separated from his regular universe. Long cycles were 'Senza Orecchie' ("Without ears") and 'Senza Naso' ("Without a nose"), which both lasted 20 episodes. Several one-page gags are subtitled with either 'UFO', 'Fantasy' or 'Microfilms'. Other stories have direct pop culture references, like the early 'Dimension X' episodes which saw guest appearances of Harold Gray's 'Little Orphan Annie' and Walt Disney's 'Mickey Mouse', Siegel & Shuster's 'Superman' and Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy'. Two 1975 stories were tributes to Jack Arnold's fantasy film 'The Creature from the Black Lagoon' and its sequels. In the following year, Mattioli referenced King Kong, Moebius' Arzach, Charles M. Schulz' Charlie Brown and Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland.

In France, 'Pinky' was published on an irregular base in Pif Gadget between 1975 and 1989. The Italian publisher Mondadori released two book collections, in 2006 and 2009.

'Pinky', UFO-19.

Cannibale & Frigidaire
Desiring to fully express himself without the limitations of a children's magazine, Massimo Mattioli took his surreal graphic experimentations to an adult audience in the second half of the 1970s. Together with Stefano Tamburini, he launched the underground comix  magazine Cannibale, of which nine issues appeared between 1977 and 1979. For the occasion, they established the publishing label Primo Carnera, named after a heavy-weight boxer of the 1930s. The two artists were quickly joined by Andrea Pazienza, Filippo Scozzari and Tanino Liberatore, who also published in the magazine. The final issues were created with financial support from the satirical magazine Il Male, but the publication eventually proved to be not financially viable. The adventure was re-attempted with the monthly Frigidaire, which became the foremost Italian avantgardistic cultural magazine of the 1980s, bringing a certain sophistication to the rebellious underground movement of the previous decade. With intervals and variations in its publication rhythm, 213 issues of Frigidaire were published between 1980 and 2008. With Tamburini as art director and Il Male's Vincenzo Sparagna as editor, the original Cannibale authors were among the early contributors. Mattioli's final work in the magazine appeared in 1987.

'Il Famoso Caso del Ciclamino' (Cannibale #6), featuring cameos by E.C. Segar's Popeye and Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat. The dog playing guitar quotes from Kraftwerk's song 'Trans-Europe Express'. 

"Nuovo Fumetto Italiano"
Mattioli was also briefly associated with the Valvoline art group from Bologna, which consisted of Lorenzo Mattotti, Igort, Daniele Brolli, Marcello Jori, Jerry Kramsky and the American Charles Burns. The group drew its inspiration from pop culture, expressionism and futurism. Mattioli and Burns represented the trashy American comic books in this movement. Valvoline had its origins in a special insert of the magazine Alter Alter, and later established its own art school. Mattioli's involvement began with a special 'Valvorama' issue of Frigidaire (#48) in November 1984. The new wave of Italian adult-oriented comic authors (the "Nuovo Fumetto Italiano") didn't pass by unnoticed abroad. Stories by Frigidaire and Valvoline's artists were picked up by similar magazines from the surrounding countries, such as El Víbora in Spain and L'Écho des Savanes in France. Especially Mattioli, Liberatore and Mattotti became famous names in the United States.

'Joe Galaxy'.

Joe Galaxy
Most of Massimo Mattioli's best-remembered creations first saw the light in these groundbreaking years. 'Gatto Cattivo', 'Bastardi' (1981), 'Il caso Joy Division' (1982), 'Guerra' (1982), 'Frisk the Frog' (1983) and 'Microcefalus' (1986) were all short stories, later collected in the book 'Bazooly Gazooly' (Comicon Edizioni, 2019). Mattioli's surreal space opera 'Joe Galaxy' (1977-1993) first appeared in Il Male, after which the anthropomorphic falcon's intergalactic space adventures were continued in Cannibale, Frigidaire, Comic Art and Lupo Alberto Magazine. Unlike the well-spirited 'Pinky', Joe is an utterly dislikeable egomaniac. He steals, kills, rapes, rages and beats children. Mattioli used every science fiction cliché he could think of, and gave them his own interpretation. While most stories started off traditionally, their narratives eventually degenerated in an convulsive mix of sex, black humor and assorted absurdities.

'Squeak the Mouse' #1.

Squeak the Mouse
Equally dislikeable was 'Squeak the Mouse' (1982-1983, 1992), who made his first appearance in the pages of Frigidaire #21 in August 1982. Giving the impression of a funny kids' cartoon, the pantomime series was in fact a mix between classic 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons by Hanna-Barbera and American splatter B-movies. Episodes are kicked off with a traditional cartoon title card, on which fictional production houses like "More Gore Galore Productions" and "Sickly Bad Taste Productions" present the latest installment. Labelled a "goretoons" or "porn splatter", the cat-and-mouse stories are indeed filled with pornography, violence and gore. Characters are decapitated and electrocuted, limbs are chopped off and mashed in a blender. In the first story, Squeak is chased, killed and eaten by a cat, who subsequently indulges in all sorts of orgies. A zombified skeleton version of Squeak however spoils the fun and kills all the party guests in a gruesome way before going after the cat. After this first series, collected in comic book format in 1984, Mattioli created a follow-up in 1992, in which the roles were reversed. Squeak is revived from the pages of the first comic book, reads about his gruesome death and seeks revenge. This time it is Squeak who kills the cat, while the latter returns as a zombie to hunt Squeak on board of a plane and on a tropical island.

'Squeak the Mouse' #2.

'Squeak the Mouse' gained notoriety in the United States, where the comic books were distributed by Catalan Communications. In 1985 the U.S. Customs seized a shipment of Mattioli's books. An obscenity trial followed, but the books eventually had to be released because they failed the "three-prong obscenity test", used in U.S. law to determine whether a work of art is obscene or not. Mattioli's comic was furthermore defended in court by comic historian Maurice Horn and Raw editor Françoise Mouly. The whole matter however proved a perfect marketing campaign, and each copy of the book was eventually distributed with a sticker stating: "This copy of Squeak the Mouse is from the shipment of books seized by U.S. Customs at JFK airport on August 1, 1985." The proceeds were enough to cover Catalan's legal fees. The terrible vengeance of the zombie mouse was additionally performed in a bizarre stage show twice, first at the Teatro Tenda Spazio Zero in Rome, then in the trendy Parisian disco Douches Bains.


Further comics work
Another 1980s creation by Massimo Mattioli was 'Superwest' (1981), about a mouse superhero who defends law and order according to Western values. Again, the author alludes to cinema, writing the dialogues in English with Italian subtitles written underneath the panels. The stories are collected in French by Albin Michel in 1986, and in the USA by Catalan Communications in 1987. The 1990s saw the creation of 'Awop Bop Aloobop Alop Bam Boom' (1993), or 'Bam Boom' in short. It stars a cat who embarks upon a delirious "interstellar intrigue". Originally constructed as a newspaper strip, the story was published in Cyborg magazine in 1993, then in Blue magazine in 1996, while the Spanish El Vibora ran a colored version. In France, it was collected in book format by L'Association in 1999. Further graphical experiments by Massimo Mattioli appeared in several alternative magazines of the 1980s and 1990s, including Il Grande Alter, Comic Art, Blue, Corto Maltese and Lapin (France). Especially his 'Tales of Fear' in Frigidaire and 'B Stories' (1988-1989) in Corto Maltese showed Mattioli exploring a more realistic drawing style, science fiction, pop art, geometric experimental narratives and eschatology. The 'B Stories' were compiled in France by L'Association in 2008.

'Awop Bop Aloobop Alop Bam Boom'.

Other artistic activities
Besides comics, Massimo Mattioli has made illustrations for such magazines as Vanity Fair, Chic Magazine and Vogue. He designed a series "I love you - I know" series of T-shirts for Globul, and also wrote short stories and screenplays for cinema and television. In 1989 he returned to London to work with musician Robert Palmer on the animated video promoting the song 'Change his Ways' (1989).

Recognition & legacy
Mattioli saw his work exhibited in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Bologna (1982), the Studio Marconi Gallery in Milan (1984), the Spazio Memphis (1985), the Swatch Street Painting in Basel (1987), the Salão Lisboa in Lisbon (1999) and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs/La Galerie des Jouets in Paris (2007). He was awarded the French Phénix award in 1971, the Yellow Kid at the Lucca Comics festival of 1975 and the Romics d'Oro in 2009, as well as the Attilio Micheluzzi Prize at the Napoli Comicon for 'Pinky' in 2010 and 2012.

Zero, one of Mattioli's 'B Stories'.

Final years and death
Massimo Mattioli continued to make new 'Pinky' stories for Il Giornalino until 2014, and then disappeared off the radar. He passed away in Rome on 23 August 2019 at the age of 75. Ironically, in that same year his work was brought back into the spotlight with the release of three book compilations: 'Bazooly Gazooly' by Comicon Edizioni, 'Superwest' by Panini Comics and 'Squeak the Mouse' by Coconino Press.

Influence on Itchy & Scratchy?
As one of the most recognized Italian creators abroad, his 'Squeak the Mouse' must have been an inspiration to Matt Groening for creating the 'Itchy & Scratchy Show' segments in the 'Simpsons' cartoon series. Though Groening himself said in the audio commentary for the episode 'Itchy, Scratchy & Marge' that even as a teenager he was already fantasizing with his friends about an ultraviolent cartoon series and how cool it would be to work on that. None of 'The Simpsons' writers, nor Groening, has ever mentioned 'Squeak' as an influence, though given the media buzz around the U.S. obscenity trial in 1985, it's almost impossible that nobody was at least aware of this comic strip. It is certain that both Mattioli and Groening were inspired by the same source: animated shorts of the 1940s like Tex Avery's 'Screwy Squirrel' and 'Droopy', the Looney Tunes cartoons by Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz FrelengChuck Jones, Frank Tashlin & Bob McKimson, 'Woody Woodpecker' by Walter Lantz, Paul Terry's 'Mighty Mouse' and 'Heckle & Jeckle' and various cat-and-mouse duos like Joseph Barbera's 'Tom & Jerry' and Famous Studios' 'Herman and Katnip'. All these cartoons featured excessive and sometimes sadistic slapstick violence. Mattioli and Groening merely pushed it to its logical and more morbid extremes. A notable difference between the two series, however, is that in 'Squeak' all characters, including the mouse, are victim of gruesome violence. In 'Itchy & Scratchy' it's almost exclusively the cat who is targeted, often without having done anything. Mattioli's comic has always been strictly intended for adult audiences, made clear by the sexual content. 'Itchy & Scratchy' features no sexual imagery, but was nevertheless seen by younger viewers too, since 'The Simpsons' is a prime time sitcom. 

'Pinky' from Il Giornalino #4, 2012.


Massimo Mattioli on corrierino-giornalino.blogspot.com

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