Wild Wild Ovest: Gian Luigi Bonelli And His Great Italian Cowboy

Gian Luigi Bonelli built an empire of imagination that stretched far beyond the confines of Italy, transporting millions of fans to the Old West.

Tex Willer - Gian Luigi Bonelli
Tex Willer — Photo: Comune di Siena (sienacomunica.it)

A cowboy in postwar Italy

When it comes to comics, certain names are simply iconic. America has its Stan Lee, Belgium its Hergé, and Britain its Alan Moore. Though the quality and scale of his work rivaled or surpassed these others, the name Gian Luigi Bonelli is less known outside the Italian speaking world. Now considered the “patriarch of Italian comics,” Bonelli built an empire of imagination that stretched far beyond the confines of Italy, transporting millions of fans to the sights and sounds of the Old West.

From the beginning, Bonelli was influenced by all things high adventure. As a youth he devoured books like Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, and Emilio Salgari’s Sandokan novels. Growing up in the rapidly expanding environs of Milan, Bonelli began writing poems and then moved on to serial novels published in periodicals like the Corriere dei Piccoli. As a young writer with talent to spare, Bonelli soon found himself writing and editing comics for Lotario Vecchi’s flourishing publishing house. Vecchi had essentially established the fumetto (comic) business in Italy, beginning by translating and adapting foreign series like Popeye and Rin Tin Tin. He found a strong right-hand man in Bonelli, who improved the quality of the writing and applied his extensive knowledge of the dramatic to lure in new readers. Looking back on his entry into the cartoon world years later, Bonelli would reflect that “I was a novelist loaned to comics and never returned.”

This novelist continued his meteoric rise even while the shadow of World War II crept across Europe and into Italy. In the midst of uncertain times, Bonelli decided to take a risk and found a publishing house in 1941 with a generous gift of 7,000 lire from his mother-in-law. Fondazione Audace would form the core of what would ultimately become the Bonelli empire.

Gian Luigi Bonelli
By Nicholas GeminiOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It soon became apparent to Bonelli just how much of a risk he had taken. Benito Mussolini’s Ministero della Cultura Popolare, better known as MinCulPop, took a special interest in publications deemed not to be edifying for the Italian public. Fondazione Audace was constantly under scrutiny by the authorities, threatened with fines and closure. Bonelli and his team used different tactics to divert the attention of the Fascists, from adapting approved literary classics like Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered to “camouflaging” the publishing operation as a newspaper (a medium which tended to find more favor under the regime).

By 1945, with Mussolini hanging from an Esso gas station and the rest of Italy liberated, Bonelli returned from his safehouse in Switzerland and set about plotting a new course for his company. Italy had suffered greatly during the war, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, an intense bombing campaign, and severe famine in places like Naples. The country needed distractions, and Bonelli’s comics were there to color over some of the dreariness of reality. He formed a partnership with the artist Aurelio Galleppini, known by his pseudonym Galep, and together they introduced two new characters to their readers: Occhio Cupo and Tex Willer. While they both debuted in 1948, it would be Tex Willer, an intrepid Texas Ranger seeking frontier justice, who would make Bonelli a household name.

Dreamt up by Bonelli and stylized after the honest-faced Gary Cooper, Tex Willer was originally given the name “Tex Killer.” Bonelli’s wife argued that it was too violent of a name, so after some debate they settled on the moniker he still holds today. While it would be easy to dismiss Tex as just another standard knight in shining armor, there is something more to this fictional character if you look closer. That Tex is an unambiguously white-hatted hero, fighting for the helpless and downtrodden in every issue, is straightforward enough. Yet as discussed in the RAI 3 program Figu-Album di persone notevoli, “Tex differs in that he is, without any excuses, a sincerely democratic figure.” Not only is Tex a friend and ally of many of the Native Americans he comes into contact with, but the series also presents the viewpoint of these natives with equal regard alongside those of the white man. Tex speaks Navajo, is dubbed Aquila della Notte (Night Eagle) by his Indian comrades, and in many issues goes up against those trying to seize land or resources from them.

According to Elizabeth Leake, a Columbia University professor and author of Tex Willer: A Cowboy in Postwar Italy, “Tex did not correspond at all to the typical cowboy portrayed in American movies at the time, who tended to be a good guy, a little overweight, with a happy countenance and a penchant for singing around the campfire. Tex’s character is genuinely Italian.” Tex may not drink espresso or cheer for A.C. Milan, but his mindset is representative of Italy because he does not always share the monolithic values of his American counterparts. He could blend into the American West, but he would probably be considered an outsider, similar to a Jeremiah Johnson or a Josey Wales.

Since 1948, Tex has battled the Ku Klux Klan, overthrown greedy oil barons, and even gotten mixed up in political schemes in Washington, D.C. Throughout all of these challenges, Tex has remained a steady beacon of truth, justice, and lightning fast gunplay. As Bonelli loved to say, “I am Tex. In Tex there is my reaction towards every injustice committed.” While he passed away in January 2001 at the age of 93, he left behind a legacy that can be found in bookstores, newsstands, and the spirits of generations of Italians.

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