In English_Feature: Dylan Dog

My name is Dog ... Dylan Dog!

For the past 21 years, the "Horror Investigator" from Italy has been disemboweling monsters, breaking hearts, and raking in the Lires/Euros ... for the past six years also in German language. Thomas Froehlich attempts to get to the bottom of the fascination emanating from the lanky detective - and enters the twilight zone.    07.04.2008

Homer, the Bible and Dylan Dog are so great, I can read them every day!

(Umberto Eco)

 

Death and the Devil!

(Dylan Dog's trademark curse)

 

 

Prologue: A chilling visit to the Sinema of Horror

 

Date: 1994. Location: Vienna. More precisely, the Italian Cultural Institute on Ungargasse, 3rd district. Every now and then they have movie screenings here; mostly artistically valuable, socio-critical classics, or at the very least family-friendly flicks in their original Italian to cater to both the Vienna expat comunitá as well as that certain breed of local cine- and italophile poseurs that praise the fact that this is the one place in town where you can get straight-up Italian cinema without those annoying subtitles.

Now showing: not another Taviani/Scola/Fellini/de Sica retrospective with subsequent degustation of Tuscan wines, but the first (and the only one in this country) screening of a just completed film with the cryptic title Dellamorte Dellamore, starring Rupert Everett. Directed by the enthusiastic Argento pupil Michele Soavi, it was adapted from a story by Italian novelist and comic-book writer Tiziano Sclavi.

"Aha!" thinks yours truly, silenty rejoicing in remembrance of previous entertaining movies by the same director, such as "La Chiesa" ("The Church", 1989), or "La Setta" ("The Sect" a. k. a. "Devil's Daughter", 1991), both of them good examples of the last blaze of glory for what cognoscenti revered during the 70s and 80s as Italo Horror. Off to the Italian Cultural Institute, then!

Once there, one can observe an illustrious crowd of unsuspecting Italian mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, along with their bambini, utterly clueless about what is to follow. No professional cineastes are to be seen anywhere.

Then it goes dark, and the film commences.

When, during the first two minutes, the ever ready cemetary caretaker Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) blows the first zombie skull across the entire screen, only to get it on moments later with a black-clad, necrophiliac beauty (Anna Falchi) on top of the not very clean looking bones of the nearby charnel house, the entire theatre noticeably empties. The almost completely assembled "Little Italy" of Vienna walks out the door, medium-strength curses on their lips and parental hands covering innocent children's eyes.


What remains is only a handful of individuals such as yours truly, their eyes captivated by the rather pleasant sight of Anna Falchi's breasts and/or anticipating what is to come with dirty grins on their faces.

But even these moviegoers are in for a ride: "Dellamorte Dellamore" is anything but a one-dimensional, straight-in-your-face-sexploitation-splatter flick (although that would still be pretty cool): Writer Sclavi, director Soavi and leading man Everett all work together to tell no more and no less than a wonderfully spooky-erotic-poetic tale of love, death, sex, coming of age, friendship, and - last but not least - the end of the world (or at least something one could mistake for it). Simultaneously, the film is also the last real big entry into the big book of Italo Horror.

The plot is easily retold: Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is cemetary guard of the village of Buffalora, picturesquely nestled in the rolling green hills of Italy. His primary job is to keep the dead (who simply reanimate as zombies six days after death) from doing any damage - which is, after all, their nature - by (as we all know too well) laying them to eternal rest with a well placed shot to the brain. Years of practice and monotonous routine have made the job fairly boring for him, and he leads a pretty unspectacular life along with his apparently mentally retarded assistand Gnaghi, until ... yes, until he falls insanely in love ...

Rupert Everett is the caretaker - and looks, from his expressions to his character to even his wardrobe (dark jeans, white shirt, black suit jacket), like a carbon-copy of Italian comic-book legend Dylan Dog. This is far from being a coincidence, as the plot of the movie is based on a Tiziano Sclavi novel - which is itself adapted from a "Dylan Dog" story called Orrore Nero, in which not only Dylan Dog but also the cemetary guard Dellamorte make an appearance.

Also, said Dylan Dog was modeled after Rupert Everett by pulp-novelist and comic-writer Tiziano Sclavi eight years previously (1986) in sunny Italy, back when Italian genre cinema was beginning its slow decline, and comics (or their counterpart for adults, the so-called fumetti) were the only refuge where said genres could continue to survive - and even reinvent themselves.

Dylan Dog - Horror Investigator

A former Scotland Yard associate who's afraid of flying, a reformed alcoholic that only wears dark jeans, red shirts and a black suit-jacket (of which he has several identical outfits in his closet), occasionally appearing clumsy while simultaneously strolling through events with Fred Astaire-esque flair, a self-declared "Horror Investigator" ("indagatore dell' incubo) who is also an incorrigible romantic and a melancholic womanizer, driver of an old Volkswagen Beetle with the plates "DYD 666" and employer of an assistant that not only looks like Groucho Marx, but actually answers to that name and is his cineastic predecessor's equal in terms of wisecracking wisdom ...

Dylan's origins are murky and contradictory; there are rumours of a father with a split soul, even of the devil himself; on his mother's side there seems to be a certain affinity towards witches and zombies. However: no concrete facts are known.

And a guy like this is really Italy's no. 1 comic-book hero?

Yes, we're talking about Dylan Dog, who has spent the last 21 years entertaining over a million Italians per issue - 40 percent of them female, which is in itself a minor sensation in the comics-business. As graffiti on the walls, as subject of street murals, as popular T-Shirt logo and of course in the form of countless editions and reprints lying about the nation's bookstores and newspaper stands, the dishevelled, charismatic, red-shirted ghost hunter and pleasurer of female clients has become an indispensable part of Italian (pop-) culture!

Who the heck comes up with this sort of thing anyway?

Tiziano Sclavi - Horror Writer

"Dylan Dog" creator Tiziano Sclavi was born 1953 in Broni (Pavia), Italy, but lives and works in Milan. He began writing at an early age and was working as a journalist as early as 1976. At 21, he won the prestigeous Scanno Award for his novel "Film" and spent the next few years writing about ten more books, some under the pseudonym Francesco Argento (!). In the 70s, Sclavi discovered his interest in comics, first as an editor, then as a writer for Rizolli. Following that, he was involved in "Corriere dei Ragazzi" and "Corriere dei Piccoli".

In 1981, he found permanent employment with comic-book publisher Bonelli. He contributed to the series "Ken Parker", "Mister No", "Zagor" and "Martin Mystére", but his name is still most often connected with his signature series "Dylan Dog". From its first year on (1986) the series enjoys unprecedented success; in part due to the extraordinary (standing out from other, more generic fumetti) darkness of the black and white panels and the general cinematic feeling that pervades the entire series.

The latter can occasionally devolve into a veritable orgy of movie references and film quotations, but it never threatens to overshadow or even endanger story integrity - let alone to over-ironize it.

Generally, "Dylan Dog" owes a huge debt to the movies. Sclavi has made no attempt to hide the pictures that influenced him: George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" is there, as well as David Lynch's "Elephant Man", Tod Browning's "Freaks", Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (Anthony Perkins actually appears in one of his stories as a sinister subway driver) or actress Kim Novak in some of her horror/suspense roles. Dylan's first name is on loan from welsh poet Dylan Thomas (whose name had already been appropriated by a certain Robert Zimmerman during the 60s); his address, Craven Road 7, is a tribute to director Wes Craven. And his last name, Dog, allegedly stems from an old Mickey Spillane story which had the Italian title "Dog figlio di".

However - despite the raging storm of references Sclavi and his illustrators never cease to take their character Dylan Dog seriously, even if artistic breaks and crossover/mutational elements meander throughout the stories. "Dylan Dog" represents the antithesis to all the imitation artworks of the Tarantinos of this world, for which it's only ever about the clever, tongue-in-cheek inventory taking of one's own hollow pop-cultural world, be it in film, literature or music. Similarly to the originally mentioned "Dellamorte Dellamore", splatter driven horror alternates with dreamy, melancholy poetry - and occcasionally, in certain scenes and panels, enter a dark symbiosis.

The series - Tales of Horror

The basic concept can be best described as "one man - one adventure": Dylan is a (usually stone broke) detective that has specialized himself on cases of the supernatural type, occasionally works alone, but usually with his sidekick Groucho, and has macabre adventures, interspersed with beautiful women, terrible monsters, an even more terrible "normality", white-knuckle action and a lot of suspense, drenched in mystery.

What really sets the series apart from the rest are the loving details: Dylan Dog, like many other comic-book heroes, always wears the same clothes (think Donald Duck!); in his case, however, this is because he bought himself twelve identical outfits after the death of his wife. Just as Sherlock Holmes likes to abuse his violin when he's trying to relax, Dylan plays the flute or tinkers on a scale-model miniature sailboat - an endeavor that is naturally never concluded. He has given up drinking, but remains partial to the occasional cigarette. Dylan Dog's sleeping-hours are a pandemonium of horrible nightmares - and in addition to that, he suffers from fear of flying (because of which he rarely leaves London), fear of heights ("Vertigo"!), and fear of the dark (because of which he tends to leave his lights on).

He's definitely not the hero type with a winning smile, more the kind of guy that simply survives (which in itself is often incredible). Generally, a lot of dying takes place within his vicinity - death, either in his traditional form as Grim Reaper or as a beautiful woman (of course) by the name of Hope, is an omnipresent entity in the "Dylan Dog" universe. And, similar to Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal", Dylan occasionally plays chess with his one true, eternal antagonist. All his other opponents (with a few notable exceptions) are more like "Flavour of the Month" type monsters, be they zombies, serial killers, vampires, werewolves, witches, dehumanized slashers, Frankensteinesque monsters, or by-the-book postal workers.

The true monsters tend to be the "normal" people anyways.

Also, Dylan Dog is a pretty urban figure. Unlike the heroes, avengers and law enforcers from the American homeland that tend to dream of suburban happiness with a house, garden, dog, kids and a gorgeous wife (and only bust heads and kick in doors because they can't have that, or - in case of the Punisher - it was taken away from them by some kind of axis of evil), that particular way of life would put Dylan Dog on the fast track to raving madness and complete mental lunacy. (That's probably one of the reasons his stay in God's own country was limited to six issues).

Dylan Dog is an urbanite by personal conviction; besides, at least once per episode, an incredibly fetching woman wants to drag him into bed (or vice versa) - and it just seems more elegant and glamourous to take care of business in a stylish house on the stylish high street than in some faceless suburb. Downtown is sexy - to this Dylan Dog, who since his discharge from the force has probably had more sex than any other Londoner, would wholeheartedly agree.

Supporting characters - the Sideshow of Horror

Recurring characters (be they alive, dead, or the living dead) have over the years become part of the series' inventory. We've already mentioned Groucho, the eldest Marx Brother's doppelgänger. But there's also a Lord H. G. Wells (!), a great inventor with encyclopedic knowledge and memory; an 100+ year old fortune-teller by the name of Madame Maria Trelkowski; the sinister, melon-headed owner of an equally sinister shop called "Safara"; and last but not least Inspector Bloch (inspired by british actor Robert Morley), Dylan's fatherly friend and mentor, who lives in constant fear (mostly due to the hairy cases his friend the horror-investigator drags him into) that he may endanger his pension, life expectancy or the contents of his stomach.

As recurring enemies - or at least opponents - we have: Xabaras, demon and sorceror (and possibly related to Dylan Dog in a weird and unfortunate way), Jamais Nonplus, a feared and respected Voodoo Priest and man with two faces (and evidently a senoir civil-servant and administrative director of an Inferno that would make Dante proud); Kim, the Witch of the West, and her ill-mannered cat Cagliostro etc. etc. etc ...

Dylan Dog in German - The Horror Continues

From 2001 on, comic-book publisher Carlsen released the series for the German market. However, due to lack of interest, they discontinued the series after issue 20 in November 2002. Another publisher, Edition Schwarzer Klecks, has thankfully taken it upon themselves to continue where they left off, with lower circulation and in monthly installments. Since they are sticking to a sort of "Best Of" - most likely out of necessity - there is no clear timeline. (Currently out are issues 55 and 56 of their edition.) Those who are interested can get a whole load of background information from their website. Highly recommendable is also issue 50 of the series (not just for beginners), which is pretty much indispensable as the anniversary-issue to anyone that wants to know all the details!

Epilogue: The Trainride of Horror

Once again, the date is 1994. Yours truly, after having watched "Dellamorte Dellamore", has taken the train down south to the damp, cold, foggy but attractively enigmatic Venice for a couple of days - with the intention (also inspired by the movie) to amass a sizable collection of Italian language "Dylan Dog" comics. Afterwards, he has proceeded to decipher them with the help of the pictures, half forgotten Latin lessons, his current girlfriend, and a healthy supply of Campari Sodas ...

Upon the return trip, he (along with said girlfriend) has to cross the border to icy, foggy, treacherous Carinthia (sadly unavoidable, if you want to go back to Vienna). On the Italian side the Italian official - tall, haggard, slightly pale - enters to check our passports. But as soon as he enters our compartment and sees the open "Dylan Dog" albums, he pulls his mouth into a conspiratory grin and says (quote) "Ahhhhh ... Dylan Dog!", pats yours truly on the shoulder, smacks his tongue in an understanding fashion and leaves the compartment without even bothering to have a look at our passports, which were lying right next to the comic-books.
An almost textbook Italian cliché. But ... yours truly and said girlfriend look at each other and smile, almost grimacing. They both know what their counterpart is thinking.

There's this Dylan Dog story, with the border-patrol guard on the train, tall, haggard and slightly pale, that likes to smack his tongue impetuously, and then that knife, and don't forget the ballpen in the eye, and his disemboweled guts spread out all across the ... and ...
One thing they do sense though: The true horror hasn't even begun. There´s still Carinthia.

 

I never forget a face ... but in your case, I'll make an exception ...

(Dylan Dog's second most favourite insult)


The End ... of this episode

Thomas Froehlich (Translated by Binu Starnegg)

Tiziano Sclavi - Dylan Dog

Pictures© Bonelli (TM); for German edition: Kult Editionen

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"Dellamorte Dellamore" a. k. a. "Cemetary Man" available on DVD from VellaVision & Anchor Bay. 

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The Austrian web-based magazine EVOLVER is the first (and still the best) online publication by professional journalists and writers in the German speaking countries. For more than eleven years now (since autumn of 1996), the EVOLVER editors provide their readers with exclusive stories, specials, reviews and opinion columns from all areas of pop-, cyber- and subculture - from Hunter S. Thompson to "Bastard Pop", from Nick Tosches to Frank Miller, from original trash novels to a comprehensive history of porn movies. 

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