Notes from the cartoon underground

Italian cartoonist Gianluca Costantini's work is ever-changing. Founder of the Kamikaze Festival for cartoonists and editor of Inguine Mah!gazine, he explains to about trials and tribulations of an artist's life both in the underground and mainstream.

I catch up with political cartoonist Gianluca Costantini in the cellar of Mirada Association's library-gallery, which he also manages.  I am accompanied by Andrea Zoli, another cartoonist friend with whom I previously interviewed  Costantini for a fanzine. The zine was inspired by cult seventies comic strip magazines like Métal Hurlant (Screaming Metal 1974), Cannibale (Cannibal, 1977) and Frigidaire (Fridge, 1980), all of which eventually folded. Our main purpose is to understand what "underground" is and whether it's not just a place for dreamers. And must you abandon your ideals in order to make a breakthrough?


Born in 1971, Costantini got his own first break in the comic strip world in 1993 when he published his illustrations in a national magazine. He confesses that prior to this he had "put up with a lot of rejection from editors." He started out with what he ironically terms "decorative humour" - uninspiring work which was to drive him into the arms of the internet.


No censorship, no copyright

On the web, Costantini rapidly gained notoriety for his politically oriented news diary style. "After ten years of "decorative" work I completely changed direction," he says. "It's something which you don't usually do if you have any commercial instincts. But for me it was a way to learn things after a long period in which I had been stuck in the studio drawing, not knowing what was going on in the outside world. I switched to underground humour. You didn't have to pay for it, it was public and could be enjoyed by all. It wasn't censored or copyrighted."


Does success allow an artist the necessary freedom to explore new horizons? "If you wish to succeed you must break the mould - do something different, radically different, that no one has ever done before. If you continually change your style you've made it. Your approach is most important. You need to sketch - just like the painters of the fifteenth century. I sketch eight hours a day and have done so ever since I was fifteen."


But the underground isn't just a questions of style. Themes and editorial line are important too. "In the seventies, for example, the main topic of the underground was sex because it was something scandalous. Now the main topic is politics. The perfect example is New York's World War 3 Illustrated, a comic magazine created by political activists who uses artists like Peter Kuper to bounce around ideas and opinions,' explains Costantini. Underground, however, remains quite difficult to define. Few artists who sell their work remain involved in its confines and the artists who aren't in it for the usual motives (like the money) can be counted on one hand. Amongst these are the tagger Blu and the Swedish and American comic artists Max Anderson and Robert Crumb. "The sad truth is that almost without exception, only those who work for a mass audience earn a living."

Costantini's activities don't stop here. He also organises exhibitions, meetings and debates, notably the Kamikaze Festival, which bring together renowned artists such as the Maltese-American Joe Sacco, French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi and Serbian Aleksander Zograf in Italy. These events have done much to enrich the underground scene in Europe. Costantini especially praises the former Yugoslavia where "there are phenomenal artists. But no platform exists for them so they remain underground. They choose the themes they like and draw what they like. In France however, despite being the biggest comic book market in the world, the scene is not so vibrant."


Can he recommend any unknown cutting-edge European artists? After a long pause he gives us only one name, Raul, from Spain. "He only did three comic books and now he doesn't do it anymore. Now he is an illustrator for a newspaper. He doesn't even have a website so you have to look for his books in Spanish."


Mattia Bergamini

(Translation : Michelle Williams)

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