giovedì 20 gennaio 1983

Tanino Liberatore: HM Interview

Gaetano (Tanino) Liberatore couldn't resemble his characters less. The first impression he gives is one of genuine warmth and openness. Violence seems as foreign to him as kindness to the characters in Ranxerox. But appearances are often deceiving.

During the first Part of this interview, Liberatore ran The Godfather on his video set, treating me to frame-by-frame freezes of the gorier scenes of his favorite film.

Liberatore was born in Quadri (population 900), Italy, thirty years ago. For the past year he has been living and working in Paris, where he has rapidly become one of the local star artists. Ranxerox, which is written by Stefano Tamburini, is being simultaneously published in French comics magazine L'Echo des Savanes and the Italian magazine Frigidaire. The hulking robot was introduced to American readers in the July l983 issue of Heavy Metal.

I interviewed Liberatore on two separate occasions. Once. immediately before his departure for New York, where he was Heavy Metal's guest at a summer comics convention. and again on his return to Paris... fresh with his impressions of the Big Apple.

Before New York....

HM : Where and when was Ranxerox born?

LIBERATORE: The first Ranxerox story was written and drawn, in black and white, by Stefano Tamburini in 1978. He created the main characters, Ranxerox and Lubna.

I'M: When did you first draw Ranxerox?

LIBERATORE: In November 1980 in the first issue of Frigidaire. It was also the first time Ranxerox appeared in color (Frigidaire no. 1).

HM : Have you ever wanted to write the scenario yourself?

LIBERATORE: Not particularly for Ranxerox. He's really Stefano's creation. I don't even like him all that much.

HM : But don't you feel he's also become your character now? Hasn't he changed and evolved since Stefano first drew him?

LIBERATORE: Yes. I've given Ranxerox more muscles and changed his nose a bit-I've tried to make it look more realistically sliced-off. Since then, he's kept on acquiring more muscles - he's been taking vitamins!

HM : Did you make Lubna younger?

LIBERATORE: No. She was always very young.

HM : So she's not part of your own fantasy world?

LIBERATORE: No. I have no fantasies.

HM: How do you work now that you're in Paris and Tamburini is in Italy?

LIBERATORE: We use the mail a lot! First he sends me a synopsis with a panel-by-panel breakdown, but which leaves me free to lay out each panel as I like. When he gets my penciled pages, he letters in the text, mails them back to me. and then I render them.

HM : Did you ever run into any problems with a well-known company that makes photocopying equipment?

LIBERATORE: When Stefano was doing it, the character was called Rank Xerox [Europe's Xerox Corporation]. Then we got a letter from the company lawyer saying we couldn't use their name, that the story was violent and obscene and therefore bad for their image. So we made it into one word, and never heard from them again.

HM : How did you first get into comics? Was it a childhood dream?

LIBERATORE: No. I've always drawn, but I didn't think of comics as something I could do professionally. My father always tried to stop me from drawing-he said there wasn't any money in it - but I carried on behind his back. I started when I was five years old. One day, when I was sick, I started drawing in the morning and kept going until I'd filled a 500-page notebook by the evening. I remember that incident very vividly. I looked for those drawings recently, but they seem to have disappeared.

HM: What did you draw then?

LIBERATORE: Even as a kid, I was fascinated by sex. I drew stars from movie magazines, but I took their clothes off and gave them very prominent breasts. I must have been between eight and ten then.

HM : Did you ever go to art school?

LIBERATORE: Yes. Finally, when I was thirteen, after a long battle with my father, he agreed to let me go to art school in Pescara, which is near Quadri. That was the first time I'd gone any-where outside my own village. and it was quite a shock. Pescara is a small town, but, to me, it seemed like a very big city. I've always been shy, but I was really shy then. But I finally managed to assert myself at school.

HM: In what way? Did you get into fights with the other kids and beat them up?

LIBERATORE: No. I was always on the sidelines. When the other kids saw I could draw fast and well, they all started asking me to do their homework for them. In the time it took them to do half a drawing, I could do four or five. So I did everyone's drawings for them and be-came very popular.

HM: Did you draw comics then?

LIBERATORE: No, that was my Michelangelo period. I just drew hands, feet, and muscles for a very long time. Michelangelo used to exaggerate his proportions - no real person has muscles like he drew. Today, that helps me to put veins like drain pipes into Ranxerox's arms without making them look unreal. What I learned about anatomy also helps me now to draw without using photographs.

When I finished art school, my father sent me to Rome to study architecture. For two years, I was a model student: I only did architectural drawings. But then, one day. my sister gave me a set of paints and brushes. and that was the end of my architectural career.

HM : How did you become a professional artist?

LIBERATORE: Completely by chance, like everything else in my life. I've never really had to go after anything I've achieved. In 1975. I started doing record jackets for RCA-mainly Italian rock groups, and a couple of Frank Zappa albums. The wife of a guy I knew worked for RCA. She happened to see my work and liked it, so she asked me to do a record jacket.

I also got into comics purely by chance. An old friend from Pescara was working for a semi-underground comics magazine. and he asked me to do a story. I liked comics and had drawers full of unfinished stories. But the language of comics didn't come naturally to me at first. I saw myself essentially as an illustrator. I still prefer illustration because it doesn't repeat itself-it ends on the page. Anyway, I ended up doing covers for them. and they published my first comics story. That was five years ago. I'm not very proud of the work I did then. The magazine was called Cannibale, after Picabia's satirical magazine. Frigidaire was horn out of Cannibale.

HM : Did you read comics as a kid?

LIBERATORE: I read only comics.

HM : What other artists besides Michelangelo influenced you?

LIBERATORE: Everyone. I mean it. All the Great Masters, and Moebius, Hugo Pratt, Gil Kane - when he drew Green Lantern - Corben, but not all of Corben. What I really like about Corben is the realism he puts into his work. For example, he varies the lighting so that when a character moves, the light shifts. Even when he draws a cartoon-like character with a big nose, he lights him so realistically that he doesn't look out of place in a realistic setting. I also like Will Eisner. but I discovered him rather late.

HM: What about your own technique? I've always been struck by the contrast between the harshness of the images you draw and the softness of your colors and forms.

LIBERATORE: I rely on chance, once again. I'm always experimenting with new techniques. In comics, you have to work fast. I don't like gouache or dyes because they take too long to dry. I prefer markers because they're fast, and modern, like comics. I use wide-tipped Pantone markers for the flat tones. For the modeling, I've tried various things: pencil. theater make-up... I now use a brand of marker that takes a few seconds to dry. I apply it over the Pantone wash and then smudge it with my finger to get the effect I want. I've got to work really fast!

HM : You've become something of a star in France. Do you think you're better known here in France than in Italy?

LIBERATORE: I don't think so. But success came to me more quickly in France. I became known in both countries at about the same time-thanks to Ranxerox, which was published al-most simultaneously in both countries. But Italian and French readers don't look at comics in the same way. In France comics artists are stars. In Italy. they aren't. Most Italian readers think comics are to be read and then thrown in the garbage.

HM : A disposable form?

LIBERATORE: That's right.

HM : Some of the violence in your work seems gratuitous. There's a scene in one of the early episodes where Ranxerox crushes the hand of a little flower girl.

LIBERATORE: No, no, it's not gratuitous at all! When you go to a restaurant in Rome. people keep coming up to you to sell flowers, play music at you, or just ask for money. It doesn't stop! So, when Ranxerox crushes the girl's hand, he's only doing what deep down every Italian would love to do. That incident was Stefano's idea. but I got a big kick out of drawing it!

HM : Do you get a lot of flak from editors and readers because of the violence?

LIBERATORE: Only from the editors. They always find the violence too much. The readers just want to know who Ranxerox is going to bump off next. Anyway, the violence in Ranxerox is so exaggerated. it's not really violence anymore. It's not real violence like the violence in Mad Max. In Italy, people find Ranxerox funny because it's so exaggerated - it's like a pie being thrown in someone's face. Or like a spaghetti western.

HM : Is this a typically Italian form of humor?

LIBERATORE: Perhaps. In Italy, even when there's a serious accident, there's always someone in the crowd who'll crack a joke.

HM : What about politics? Are there any political intentions in Ranxerox?

LIBERATORE: No, not in Ranxerox. There's no way it could be regarded as political. The editor of Frigidaire does have leftist leanings. but the magazine doesn't propound any political ideology. Though it's obviously not right-wing.

HM : You've said that Ranxerox is not your favorite character. Why is that?

LIBERATORE: I never feel I've obtained what I was after. It's overworked. I think it's because of the repetition involved in drawing the same characters over and over again. As I've said before, I really prefer illustration.

HM : Is repetition, then, a problem that is inherent to comics?

LIBERATORE: I don't know if it's the same with other artists, but for me that's the way it is. I'd like to do comics in black and white, to see if I would still react in the same way. I think working in black and white would be easier, less heavy, and faster too, so less repetitive.

HM: Ranxerox, the movie, is being prepared. Will you work on it?

LIBERATORE: I hope so, so I can make lots of money!

HM : What is your greatest ambition?

LIBERATORE: To become President of the United States so I can move the White House, brick by brick, to Quadri.

After New York....

HM : You've just been to the States for the first time, yet you've been drawing a futuristic New York in Ranxerox for several years. How did the real New York compare to the way you'd imagined it?

LIBERATORE: It was just as I'd imagined it, except more so . . . everything was more exaggerated than I had expected it to be. It was dirtier and hotter and more aggressive, but I loved it. I think New York's fantastic. The cabs are wonderfully filthy. You go in wearing a white suit, and when you get out, it's black. The heat is also unbelievable. It's worse than Rome, and I thought that was bad. It's a good thing they have air conditioning. During the first couple of days of the convention I only left the hotel to buy cigarettes.

HM : Do you have a lot of fans in the States? Did you meet them at the convention?

LIBERATORE: Yes, I met some guys at the convention who knew Ranxerox from before its publication in Heavy Metal. They'd picked up a copy of the French album, Ranxerox in New York. They took me to a fantastic Rasta bar. They were very "simpatico," very friendly, and I had a great time hanging out with them.

HM : What do you think of the censorship of some of the panels of Ranxerox for the American audience? Actually, have you seen the September issue of Heavy Metal?

LIBERATORE: No. [I hand him the issue, and he flicks through it till his eye falls on the panels on page nineteen, where a bedsheet has been strategically added to cover Ranxerox's very prominent erection. Liberatore lets out a loud guffaw.] They told me they were going to put a black band across it, but this is great. They said if they didn't censor these panels, the magazine would be banned in at least five states. This is really funny: [he points to a panel on the opposite page where Ranxerox is lying in bed, with his limp genitals in full view] they only censor the panels where he's got a hard on! In any case, it doesn't matter; it doesn't really make any difference to the story. But that's one of the weird things about Americans . . . . I can't figure them out. In someways they are very free, and in others they are very rigid.

HM : In what other ways did Americans puzzle you?

LIBERATORE: The way people think and reason in New York came as a real shock to me - at least at first. For Americans, both men and women, the most important thing in life is to succeed in their work. Everything else takes second place. For me that's [he shrugs, looks up at the ceiling]. ... strange. It doesn't even seem to matter what the job is. everyone thinks their job is the most important thing. And to succeed, people seem ready to give up anything that comes in the way.

HM: What effect does this grinding work ethic have on male-female relationships?

LIBERATORE: The result is that people aren't as passionate - they're not like the Italians [laughs loudly]. Seriously, though, what New York made me realize is that compared to Americans I'm much less free. Americans don't seem to give a damn about most things. And that's good. What bugs me is that I'm not like that. Being in New York made me realize that I'm very, very Italian. And American women made me realize that I'm a real provincial hick.

HM: Let's get back to your work. Did any new projects and contacts come out of your trip to the States?

LIBERATORE: Yes, lots of great contacts, lots of friendly people. While I was there I did a Conan cover for Marvel (The Savage Sword Of Conan no. 87), and I'm now working on a story by Bruce Jones (Confine). When I came back from New York, I went to Italy and I've started working on a new female character with Stefano Tamburini. It all began because I did some sketches for a projected cover for Frigidaire, which I ended up not doing. Stefano saw the sketches and liked them and he said, "Hey, that's good for a new character." So I said, "OK, I'll do it, but you have to write scenarios for me with things that I like to draw." So we decided that I would draw a portfolio of this new character first, and then Stefano would write the story around it. It takes place in a desert environment. The only link between the towns in the desert is by big heavy trucks. There are pirates in the desert. The main character is a very strong, muscular woman who does a lot of body building. She's an expert in all the martial arts and a great shot and she knows all about firearms. But all this still has to be developed.

HM : Have you thought about any of the other characters?

LIBERATORE: Not all of them, but I know who all the main characters are. The portfolio will have eight plates, and only two or three will be of the heroine. The others will show the other characters - the pirates, the eunuch who is her bodyguard - and the desert environment, the trucks and so on.

HM : Is all this very futuristic?

LIBERATORE: Yes. It's like Ranxerox, only instead of being in the city it's in the desert.

HM: Is the heroine a sort of female Ranxerox?

LIBERATORE: No, no, she's a sort of legionnaire.

HM : So basically she fights in the desert all the time?

LIBERATORE: Yes, she fights, but she also makes love and does lots of other things.

HM : Will this new story be published simultaneously with Ranxerox?

LIBERATORE: No. When we finish the third Ranxerox album, we'll stop doing him for a while to do the new story, and if it's successful, we'll do an album or two. But we'll come back to Ranxerox later. I just don't have time to do both - unless I can find an artist to help me. Someone who could do the inking for me.

Then I could do both.

HM : Will the new story be in color?

LIBERATORE: No, it will be in black and white with grays, like the bordello postcards.

HM : Do you have any other projects in the works?

LIBERATORE: I'm getting married at Christmas!

HM : From what you said earlier, we can safely assume the future bride is Italian..

LIBERATORE: Yes, she is. But to get back to work projects, I'm still hoping that someday I'll win a lottery and be able to retire from comics. If that happened, I'd only do illustrations. I'd like to carry on doing record album jackets. And I'd also like to do illustrated books; I'd love to illustrate the novels of Garcia Marquez. The idea of doing book illustrations is something new.

HM : How did this idea occur to you? Did someone ask you to illustrate a book?

LIBERATORE: Yes. Jodorowsky asked me to illustrate one of his novels. He told me I could do ten or 200 illustrations, whatever I wanted. But I still haven't done anything about that. I really haven't behaved very well, but I can't get into it. His style is too surrealistic for me. I'm more comfortable with a more realistic style, which is why I like Garcia Marquez. He combines fantasy with realism.

HM : Have you done any illustrations recently?

LIBERATORE: Yes, though not for books. I did a poster in Italy for a conference on industrial waste that will be held in Perugia. I drew a girl and a part-human, part-simian monster. The girl has a beautiful face and the body of a mutant. She has no skin on her arms, so you can see all the flesh and muscles. It's not a very happy message. It's supposed to make people think "Madonna, this is what could happen!" It's a pretty bleak, threatening image of the future.

Well, it's threatening for others, not for me, I'd like a world full of mutants . . . like Corben's [laughs]. But only if I weren't one myself!

HM : On the subject of accidents of birth. you once told me you had just missed being an American. Can you tell us that story?

LIBERATORE: Well, all my father's family emigrated to America. My grandfather went over many years ago, and then my grandmother and the kids followed. They all stayed in Philadelphia, except for my father, who only stayed for four months. He was already married then and had two daughters - my two older sisters. He was also the only one who had a job in Italy, so he got back on the boat and went back to Quadri. When I was in the States, I went to Philadelphia and met the families of my father's two brothers. We stayed up all night drinking lots of wine and talking about America and Italy. I had a great time with them. My aunt, who was born in the States and has never been to Italy, speaks perfect Italian, even the dialect, and she talks about Italy as if she knew it. I have seven cousins. One of them is only fifteen but he's already two meters tall. I feel really small next to him.

HM : So if your father hadn't taken the boat back to Italy, you would have been born in Philadelphia, and you could have realized your old dream of being President of the United States, and the world would have lost a great comics artist.

LIBERATORE: Sort of makes you think, doesn't it?

(from "Gaetano Liberatore, Around the World in Eighty Minutes" by Rosalie Gomes - Heavy Metal, December 1983)