Makkox: The Italian Cartoonist Bringing Laughter To A Distraught Nation

Makkox, one of Italy’s most famous cartoonists, explains what it’s like to produce satire in a time of tragedy.

Makkox
Alessio Jacona / International Journalism Festival / CC BY-SA

Makkox, one of Italy’s most famous cartoonists, explains what it’s like to produce satire in a time of tragedy.

By Jonathan Moens

The interviews for this article were carried out late in March. The cartoons were originally published on Il Foglio and L’Espresso.

The silence in Piazza Navona is disquieting. Normally, a stroll across the Roman square this time of year reveals a cacophony: the chatter of tourists huddled around the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi; the imploring calls of waiters trying to lure passers-by into their restaurants; the whizzing of toy rockets slingshotted into the night sky. Marco Dambrosio, an Italian cartoonist whose apartment overlooks the square, remembers these sounds with nostalgia. For over two months now, the sounds have ceased — not just in Piazza Navona, but across the nation.

Cartoonist Makkox
As the coronavirus tears through Italy, Marco Dambrosio (a.k.a Makkox), a
cartoonist from Rome, feels a duty to bring hope and optimism to the nation.

“It’s a kind of silent war,” he says. “There’s this sense of weight so powerful that words can’t even begin to describe it.” Humor, though, can be an antidote, as the 54-year-old satirist is demonstrating in his widely circulated satirical cartoons.

His cartoons have become a vital source of laughter and optimism to an otherwise distraught nation. With over 233,000 positive cases and nearly 33,000 deaths to date, Italy is one of the countries most severely hit by COVID-19. With infection rates steadily declining, Italy has recently decided to re-open its shops, restaurants, and public spaces. But fear and anxiety over a resurgent spike still lingers, says Dambrosio.

Despite the chaos, Dambrosio’s day-to-day life has changed very little since the country went on national lockdown in early March. As a freelancer working from home, he spends his days relaxing, watching TV, drinking Coke Zero — and sketching. A disheveled mop of grey-white hair covers his face as he crouches over his sketchbook and scribbles characters, ideas, and jokes to life.

What has changed for him is his subject matter. Dambrosio used to focus on political satire — criticizing what he views as the “frightening” rise of populist and far-right movements in Italy. Now, however, he has made it his mission to bring levity to millions of Italians shaken by the virus. “I feel like it’s in some ways my duty to bring some lightness,” he says.

— Cover yourself!
— Where the fuck is everyone?!
— Come on, slowly slowly we’ll starve him to death

Doing so, however, is not a simple process. Producing comical sketches in the midst of a catastrophe involves finding a nuanced balance that successfully mocks the status quo without being overly flippant, he says. “It’s a very delicate process, and I’m not sure I always pull it off.”

Most cartoonists agree that satire has no boundaries, he says. But the pandemic has challenged this notion. “You need to be very careful what you make fun of,” he says. Going too far can end up trivializing the gravity of the ongoing crisis. Dambrosio is also not sure his nation is ready for the kind of morbid humour adopted by other satirical magazines such as Charlie Hebdo in France. “We’re still not in a phase where we can mock ourselves in that way.”

Instead, Dambrosio has opted for a more positive tone. “It needs to provoke laughter, but also provide a thread of hope,” he says. Often that means tapping into the great sense of solidarity that has diffused throughout the nation — including the widely disseminated videos of Italians dancing, chanting, and cheering in unison from their balconies. While the chanting in Rome has largely stopped, says Dambrosio, Italians haven’t given up. “This really is who we are.”

Dambrosio’s passion for drawing started with an adoration for Donald Duck comic books. As a kid, Dambrosio would pore over these books, and immediately decided he wanted to become an artist. His aunt, a professor of scenography, decided to help him. Aged only 8-years old, Dambrosio would spend his days relentlessly sketching coffee-machines and still-life sets his aunt had arranged for him to practice.

There was, however, another, deeper, motivation for drawing: fame. Uninterested in football, attaining mediocre grades, and generally struggling at school meant he saw himself as a “loser,” he says in an interview with The Creative Network. To gain recognition, Dambrosio would fill his school toilet rooms with comical sketches. “I’d be in the toilet and it was this great white wall. It was perfect,” he says in the interview. Soon, he says, his peers started to notice him.

Years later, when blogs became popular, Dambrosio saw this digital space as an opportunity for him to gain even more recognition. In 2007, Dambrosio launched his personal blog, mixing his bold, stylistic drawings (many of which are still inspired by Donald Duck), with irreverent political satire. As his viewership rapidly grew, editors from major Italian newspapers and magazines began to take note. To this day, the recognition and applause from his audience is what drives him to continue to work, he says. “Those who say to me, ‘bravo, bravo’ — this is what keeps me going.”

Dambrosio’s work now appears weekly in L’Espresso, one of Italy’s most influential magazines, with over 220,000 copies sold per month, as well as on newspapers such as Il Foglio and Il Post. His work also appears on Italian national television on a show called Propaganda Live, with up to 1.5 million viewers per episode.

In his drawings, Dambrosio likes to appeal to people’s imagination. During the lockdown, the seclusion made people romanticise the lives they led prior to the pandemic, he says. Dambrosio shows this through comical sketches of Italians fantasising about lining up at well-stocked IKEA furniture stores; colliding with strangers in cramped subways; and huddling around tram stops while waiting. Self-isolation has also surprised him with unrealistic cravings, he jokes. “I miss going for long runs and going to the theatre,” he says. “Even though it’s something I’ve never ever done.”

Sometimes, Dambrosio’s cartoons are more daring — appealing to the unapologetically brazen sense of humour characteristic of Romans. In a series called “Stay home: Makkox tells you what to do” published in L’Espresso magazine, Dambrosio depicts himself reading French author, Marcel Proust, while striking a stereotypically pretentious pose. “There’s this feeling that quarantining at home should involve ‘upper class’ activities — like reading a book or painting,” he says.

Instead, Dambrosio proposes a radically different mode of self-isolation — one involving senseless debauchery. He suggests Italians should bathe in sangria, smoke copious amounts of weed, and use YouTube tutorials to tattoo themselves. “Yes, I know, it’s a little extreme,” he says. But he believes that proposing a ludicrous alternative way of life can help readers temporarily escape from the tragic realities of their daily lives.

Makkox 3
— The phrase, “Stay at home and read a good book,” evokes
an annoying image of someone striking a put-on pose…
— Is the quarantine weighing on you?
— Absolutely not!
Makkox 4
— No. I propose “The Hangover” quarantine. Or perhaps more literally, the
“Bukowski quarantine.” I dare you! Lose yourself in excesses, do things you
haven’t done in years. Get smashed, drink coca cola with aspirin (Wow! what
a trip!) tattoo yourself (the tutorial is on YouTube), bathe in sangria, paint on
walls, sing horrible songs, retweet Salvini and Meloni, I mean everything you
should normally be too embarrassed to do, but this time — no. Because you
are saintly, civil heroes of the voluntary quarantine! Yeeeee!
— Uhh…how many days have passed?
— One
— Have you ever read Bukowski?
— No
— Well, now you have time to do it
(Little disclaimer near the signature) “Don’t do this at home!”

One of these readers is Ivan Cerminara, a long-time fan of Dambrosio’s work. To Cerminara, whose job at a hospital in Liguria sterilizing equipment hasn’t been strongly affected by the virus, Dambrosio’s work keeps him positive. “They remind me of how fortunate I am,” he says. “I have a safe job, I’m in a relatively calm area, my loved ones are well, and the smiles his works bring strengthen my desire to help others.”

Dambrosio is grateful his work resonates with readers, but he’s also doing this for himself. “Perhaps I do this because I need some [optimism] too,” he says. On Fridays, Dambrosio presents his sketches on a show called Propaganda Liveone of few live entertainment shows that continued running on national Italian television during the lockdown. After the show, at 6 p.m, the government announces the total numbers of deaths, infections, and discharged patients since the previous day. “You’ve prepared a whole series of jokes, satire, and then the 6 p.m. bulletin comes in and tells you: 800 dead, 900 dead — it’s not a great feeling,” explained Diego Bianchi, the host of the show, during the peak of the pandemic. Switching from comedy to reality on Fridays is a nightmarish awakening for the entire team, he says.

— Should I switch it on?
— Switch it on
— The 18.00 bulletin

It’s not just the numbers that trouble Dambrosio, however, it’s everything: the never-ending stream of news, the disturbing images, the social-distancing. In particular, he’s troubled by the images he sees coming out of Lombardy — a region in Northern Italy responsible for about half of the nation’s total death toll. He recalls the horror of watching military trucks carrying off coffins for cremation to make space in overcrowded cemeteries and morgues in mid-March. “These images stay with me,” he says.

Consciously or not, he says, the pain and suffering he sees in the media every day inevitably seeps into his work. It is also affecting his patience when listening to politicians he disagrees with. “I no longer tolerate bullshit. Things I used to tolerate and endure — stupid, populist rhetoric — I now say: enough. Now is not the time.”

But now is also not the time for him to overreact to these inflammatory comments, he says. “Right now it feels wrong, even if I see things that irritate me.” He may be holding back, but Dambrosio says he won’t let things slide forever. “Once we have digested everything we’ve gone through, there will be space to make fun of, accuse, and hold people accountable through satire,” he says.

Until then, Dambrosio will keep bringing levity and a sense of normalcy to a devastated nation. “I feel a sense of responsibility to give a little kick of optimism — of hope,” he says. And soon, perhaps, the raucous sounds of a bustling Piazza Navona will flood Dambrosio’s apartment once again.

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