Saturday, September 29, 2012

Zagor episode "American Odyssey": Guido Nolitta's & Gallieno Ferri's masterpiece

Called in to help Mayor Mortimer Rothman in a small town called Meadow, Zagor arrives with Chico and meets Bannington, the famous writer and poet family descendant of epic poem writers. Together with the crew of ship Athena, they will embark on an expedition across North America, therefore beginning their Odyssey, which will bring all kinds of different threats and dangers ...

I stumbled on this episode some 22 years ago, when it was published (for the second time) in former Yugoslavia as a special number 2 and 3 (and was massacred by the publisher: not only were the covers wrong, which in this case originally belonged to the original Zagor No. 1, "Ambush in the forest," and the number 252 "Crime Genius", but the titles, "Zagor's Odyssey" instead of "American Odyssey", and "Dangerous Waters" instead of "Hellish Fog"). At that time, as a kid of 11 years, I did not know that the 'Zlatna  Serija' already issued this episode in the 1970s, so when I read the first part I could not wait for the sequel that was supposed to come out a month or two later. Those were weary days of heavy anticipation and frustrating teenage impatience.

The adventure begins when Zagor and Chico arrive in Meadow, a small North American town, where our hero has been invited by Mayor Mortimer Rothman to help guide an expedition led by Homerus Bannington, aka Junior, a descendant of the family of the legendary Greek poets.

Bannington: "So I said to myself: if Bannigton can not give the world a new Illiad, he will at least give her The Odyssey.  I'll visit all the strange places that are characterized by Odysseus' journey ... Discovery of new potential life forms will give me enough material for an immortal poem of my own."

Bannington wants Zagor to go with him on an expedition into the unknown part of North America, where other ships sailed away, but never returned. While Zagor and crew are preparing for the trip, Chico and Trampy, trying to deceive Meadow's residents, unsuccessfully try to rid the townspeople of rats by playing the flute, similar to the old story, "Piper of Hamelin." This endeavor ends like all others when these two put their heads together: the townsfolk chase them away with pitchforks and guns.

Not knowing the danger that's ahead of them on this mission, Zagor and Chico go with Bannington and Athena's crew, and head into the unknown.  Blessed are the readers who find Zagor on a boat and journey into unfamiliar territory, because that is a sure sign that we will get a classical adventure (Prisoners Red Witch, Departure of the expedition, Captain Snake, Journey to the Northwest, etc.). Here, aboard Athena, we meet the other crew members, who are classic Nolitta archetypes: Captain James Moreland, machinist Frisco Kid, Tattoo Lopez and Walter Thompson. The dispute between the Frisco Kid and Lopez, which begins as a joke about Lopez's tatoos, is only the beginning of Athena crew's problems.  

In the middle of the night a gunshot is heard, and then Frisco vanishes from the ship.  Everyone assumes that Lopez is to blame, because of the earlier misunderstanding and quarrel between the two men.  And with this event, this Odyssey enters seriously dangerous waters: Zagor will encounter large human-apes, prehistoric creatures that time have obviously forgot.  Bold and proud as we only know him to be, Zagor once again puts his life at risk to save the crew of Athena. He faces the ape leader in a dangerous fight to the death, whose apes now have the rest of the crew as prisoners.  Their fight is a long and dangerous, and when Zagor finally emerges victorious, he also manages to win the respect of the rest of the ape tribe.  With his familiar cry of "Aaaayyyaaaaak!", he stomps the ape king, and marks this territory as well: King of Darkwood, for sure, but also the King of the Unknown!

Although it is foreshadowed early on that this Odyssey is cursed from the beginning, the way in which members of the crew begin to die, one by one, still feels original, suspenseful and tense: Nolitta makes this classic story, which we've all read or watched a few times in various books and films, all his own. He gives us an old theme, but the details are his and his alone: the furious whirlpools, monstrous man-eating plants, the ape-men, forests of stone and rocks that rise from the ground and fall on those who happen to be underneath them, and the mist that creates hallucinations of the past which no one can resist. When Zagor - on a raft in which he and other survivors have built, slowly navigating through this infernal fog - sees the ghosts of his mother and father, one can see that he is ready to surrender and end up like Moreland (who fell into the water when he 'saw' his wife).  Only the appearance of a new rising sun that suddenly breaks the fog and the apparitions, is able to save Zagor's life. Thank goodness for nature and its daily rituals.  Eventually, only three men survive this Odyssey: Zagor, Chico and Bannington, who at this point is completely changed, and has an entirely different philosophy than he had at the beginning of the Odyssey.

Bannington: "Four men are dead ... four young lives sacrificed because of my wild ambition! No, gentlemen! The price is too high for the ultimate work of art ...  epic poem or not!  Never mind the "American Odyssey"!  I want only to forget this painful experience." 

Wise is he who knows that he can overcome what is inevitable, and even wiser is the one who recognizes his mistakes and decides to change his way of life. In the end, when Bannington tears the pages of his current poem, makes them into little paper boats and puts them into the river, forever giving up all hope of poetic success, I was feeling simultaneous satisfaction and sadness. Satisfaction, because I was sure that this is the only and best way to end Nolitta's epic story, and sad, because it had to end.

For someone who has survived his own American Odyssey twenty years ago (although mine had a psychological barrier, and not the physical one that took place in this story), I can honestly say that I know nothing about any unexplored lands of the world . I do not know anything about monstrous plants, prehistoric apes or wild waters or what effects they have on those who sail across them, but about a good work of art, I may be able to say a thing or two. "American Odyssey" has an iconic status in the world Zagor's comics, and I doubt that there is a faithful Bonelli reader who isn't familiar with it.  As Dylan's "After Midnight" and Mr. No's "The Last Cangaçeiro," this is an adventure that every comic book lover should read at some point in their lives.   Here we have Nolitta and Ferri at top of their game.  Homer's "The Odyssey" is classic literature that everyone knows pretty well, but give me this "American Odyssey" any day of the week, and I won't need anything else.