May I Do a Comic Book Instead? by Sergio Ruzzier
Throughout my childhood, comic strips and comic books, especially the funny ones, were my true passion. I still read them, and occasionally I discover a new author or story that inspires or moves me. But nothing compares to the excitement I would feel when I was 6 or 12 years old.
I still remember spending a considerable amount of time circling around the local newsstand, waiting impatiently for the truck to deliver the new issue of my favorite comic book. I still remember my heart pounding at the first sight of it.
Once it was finally in my hands, I remember holding it delicately, not to spoil it or damage it in any way. And then I would carry it home, and read it from start to finish again and again. And finally I would place it beside the other issues, on my bookshelf.
Later on, when I was allowed to leave the block on my own, I would go look for old issues at the Fiera di Senigallia, the big flea market in Milan, or at one of the many used-book stands scattered around the city.
For many years comics (and picture books) were the only thing I wanted to read, which made me, in the adults’ eyes, a bad reader. I grew up learning the language of comics better than I learned Italian.
It was not unusual for me as a kid, in everyday situations, to say “gulp” (pron. “goolp”) or “sigh” (pron. “sig”) or “gasp”––which while speaking in Italian sound even more out of place. My myths were Charlie Brown and company, Popeye, Krazy Kat, Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, and many other American, French, and Italian characters. My fascination with Peanuts was almost religious: I had actually built something suspiciously similar to an altar under my desk, with pictures of all the Peanuts band and of his creator, Charles Schulz, surrounded by the whole collection of paperback books and the few, more precious hardcovers. Luckily, in those years––we are talking about the 1970s and ’80s––there were several publications that introduced Italian readers to the old American classics. The only kind of comics I was really not into was the superheroes, whether Marvel or DC. They bored me to death, with their always taking themselves so seriously. The only superhero I liked was a side character in the Italian parody series Alan Ford: a wretched, prone-to-failure, overweight character named Superciuk (which could be translated as Superdrunk), whose superpower consisted in exhaling into his opponents’ faces after drinking a good mouthful from the cheap red wine flask he always carried around.
In fourth grade my teacher, Mrs. Santarelli, gave me an important lesson, which I think was the first fundamental spark of my professional creative life. I was not the most disciplined or the most talented student, but I liked my teacher very much, and she liked me. Every Thursday we were supposed to write a long essay, or a story. She would usually give us a few themes we could write about, but I was normally unimpressed and uninspired by those ideas, and after a while I would beg her to let me write about “anything you want, as long as you write something” (of course half on the class time had already passed by then, and many of my classmates had already finished). But this particular Thursday, I couldn’t find anything at all I wanted to write about. I was getting really frustrated and fidgety. As kind of a last resort, and with close to no hope of an affermative answer, I asked Mrs. Santarelli: “Can I do a comic book instead?” You have to understand that in mid-seventies Italy education was still quite traditional, and comics were generally frowned upon. Well, Mrs. Santarelli looked at me very seriously and said: as long as you make the story coherent, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and as long as everything in the words and in the pictures is clear and interesting and grammatically correct, then yes, you can do a comic book instead of a written essay. That was such a revelation! I could be taken seriously doing comics! There were rules I was asked to follow, but that was a small price to pay, and I did understand their importance. I wrote and drew the four-page story (about a monster called Sprokostagorubolonoso who is happy to discover his toothache is gone), delivered it on time, and received for it a good grade, and more importantly the confidence that I could one day, maybe, do this for a living.
The first things I published, when I was 19 or so, still in Italy, were comic strips. Once I came to the U.S. I made a living doing illustrations for magazines and newspapers, and later illustrating and writing my own picture books. I am very happy to return to comics, my first love, with my new book Fox + Chick. I hope this book will find at least one kid, somewhere, who will be as excited about it as I was when a new issue of my favorite comic book would appear in the display of my local newsstand.
Sergio Ruzzier is a Sendak Fellow whose work has been lauded by the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, and the Society of Publication Designers. Born in Milan, Italy, he now makes his home in Brooklyn, New York.