‘People said I didn’t have enough talent’: the rise of Italy’s graphic novel gonzo

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Michele Rech is uncomfortable with success. The shy 38-year-old comic book artist, who works from a modest apartment on the outskirts of Rome, does not use the word “fame” but refers instead to his rise to national prominence as a “thing” he struggles to manage.

In the art world, he is known as Zerocalcare and is the cartoonist’s equivalent of Hunter S Thompson. Rech’s graphic novels, a form gonzo journalism, are inspired by his experiences as a protester at the frontlines in Italy and Syria. He was also embedded with Kurdish forces.

Netflix has released a Netflix adaptation of Rech’s most beloved cartoons. In it, Rech is struggling with grief and job security while an armadillo acts as his imaginary conscience. The series was a hit in Italy and topped the streaming charts ahead of South Korea’s Squid .

Rech’s career began in 2001 when he chronicled the bloody riots during the Genoa G8 summit in which the Italian police severely beat anti-globalism protesters. He was just 17 at the time and was among the demonstrators.

People wait for Zerocalcare to sign books in Rome. Photograph: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

“That experience was overwhelming,” says Rech. A year later, they arrested 54

“That experience was overwhelming,” says Rech. A year later they arrested 25 protesters who were accused of vandalism. They wanted to punish those who participated in the protests. I had to tell you what happened. That’s where it all started.”

The aim of Rech’s first short comic book, La Nostra Storia alla Sbarra (Our Story in the Dock), was to use proceeds from its sales to offset the legal costs of the young Italians arrested during the turmoil in Genoa. Zerocalcare was his first pen name. It means “zero limescale”, and it was inspired by a TV commercial about a descaler. The name was chosen in a hurry – it was the first thing he thought of. Rech used to be a tutor after school. “Also because many people told me I didn’t have enough talent to become a cartoonist.”

In 2010, Rech began working on his debut graphic novel, The Armadillo’s Prophecy. Zerocalcare’s graphic novel tells the story of his classmate’s death, with a mix of cultural stereotypes and the presence of an armadillo. It was turned down by dozens of publishers but one startup company, Bao, believed in the concept and in 2012, 500 copies were printed. The book went on to be reprinted 24 times and has sold more than 150,000 copies. This was Rech’s first step towards renown among Italian cartoonists.

Kobane Calling was based on his visits to the city. Photograph: Bao Publishing

The second was a 3,600km journey, when in 2014, Islamic State launched an attack in northern Syria. Rech, a supporter of the Kurdish cause made numerous trips to Kobani, northern Syria, to tell the story of the resistance of female fighters against IS. The result of those experiences culminated in his 2015 book, Kobane calling: Greetings from Northern Syria.

His success has continued to build and now on Netflix there is his offbeat animated series, Tear Along the Dotted Line, which follows the existential vicissitudes of a socially awkward cartoonist (Rech’s own avatar) with his armadillo-cum-conscience reflecting on his life’s path. Rech says that he was obsessed with the idea to create an animated series. “First and foremost, the music. Although I always included my musical suggestions in my comics I knew that not many people would listen to them. I wanted people listening to my music. I sent Netflix hundreds of emails, until they finally caved in. They allowed me free rein to decide the content as I pleased.”

The series, in which Rech performs the voiceover for all his characters, except for the armadillo, which is performed by the Italian actor Valerio Mastandrea, has become the most-watched show on Netflix in Italy. The Turkish didn’t like the inclusion in the series of the PKK Kurdish flag, deemed outrageous by Ankara, which considers the organisation a terrorist group.

“Those are the flags of the people who liberated northern Syria from IS,” says Rech, “of those who gave their lives to fight Islamic fundamentalism.”

Michele Rech at a festival screening of Tear Along the Dotted Line in Rome. Photograph: Maria Laura Antonelli/Rex/Shutterstock

Today Zerocalcare is one of the most trending hashtags on Italian social media. The crowds that gather at his book signings resemble the queues outside concerts and can last hours.

“The last time I signed copies of my comic books it lasted 14 hours,” he says. It’s not a serious problem, but it is something I feel the need to communicate with my readers as openly as possible. Some people say I should hire an agent who says ‘no’, and that I should only sign the first 40 copies. It would feel like I was delegating the dirty work to someone else. But it would be an injustice and I’d feel guilty.”

Rech follows a strict subculture of hardcore punk called “straight edge”, whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and says it helps him to deal with the recent barrage of success.

Michele Rech signs a copy of a book for a fan. Photograph: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

He is glad things are going well but adds, “I just have to learn that things aren’t the way they were a month ago. And maybe it’s not easy for someone like me.”

For a good understanding of Rech’s personality, there is a scene in the TV series that represents the artist’s philosophy of life. Zerocalcare returns home from a night out with his lover and finds his alter ego the armadillo sitting on a chair, sipping herbal tea. Zero closes his door and the armadillo questions him about his sexual history. “No,” replies the protagonist.

The armadillo replies: “You’re a black belt at dodging life.”

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