From Dylan Dog investigating the paranormal underbelly of London life to the king of terror Diabolik and the erotic works of Manara, Italian comics, or fumetti, are almost as much a part of the countrys culture as Federico Fellinis films or renaissance art.

However, the vast majority of titles, even the most famous, are largely unknown beyond Italys borders. This is partly because of the visual style Italian comics are mostly black and white, something considered underground in America and partly because of the

content. The world of Italian comics is one of moody, film noire-style shadows and tormented heroes quite unlike those of more famous

American comics. Superheroes and caped avengers are conspicuous

by their absence.

Lorenzo Bartoli is a long-standing writer for Eura Editoriale, as well as co-author (alongside Roberto Recchioni and illustrator Massimo Carnevale) of Napoli Ground Zero and John Doe, the much talked-about comic launched in June this year. Of this difference in content he says: The superhero is something very much tied up with American society someone able to rise above the masses, a guiding light. In Europe, and particularly in Italy, the hero is more tormented, more human and closer to the people.

While most Italian comics are aimed at a domestic readership, they are almost always set abroad. The paranormal investigations of Dylan Dog are set in a London both familiar and unfamiliar to Londoners: when was the last time you saw a werewolf on Goodge Street? Or a bowler hat for that matter? Tex is set in a wild west closer to the films of John Wayne than the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Diabolik is also set in America, but in a more recent era. These foreign lands are nevertheless uniquely Italian, as Bartoli explains when describing John Doe. Our comic (is set in America), but it is the America that arrives here an imagined America, and therefore filtered by a European/Italian sensibility, he says. There is a strange fascination in this for an English or American reader: our own lands, our own cultures, our own myths (whether of the future or of the past) are seen from an outsiders point of view, portrayed as mysterious, dangerous and exotic.

One of the reasons for the proliferation of comics is the freedom the medium offers to writers and artists. Comics are unrestricted by the budget or production constraints of cinema. As Bartoli puts it: In comics you dont pay for special effects. If I want a planet to explode, I write bang and the planet explodes. In cinema there are different sums of money involved.

Bartoli admits that the story of John Doe is something that probably couldnt be made as a film. Doe works for a supernatural organisation run by Death (personified as a woman), who organises the killing of any given person at their assigned time. But Death, alongside the other horsemen of the apocalypse, has been fiddling the books by saving scientists, criminals and other individuals required for the Armageddon, and consequently has to kill five million people who arent actually due to die in order to balance her accounts. On discovering this metaphysical Enron scandal, Does sense of professionalism leads him to rebel, hiding Deaths scythe and then going on the run.

This supernatural concoction of popular myth and culture exploits the mediums ability to portray almost anything with a main protagonist who bears a remarkable resemblance to a famous American actor. Tom Cruise for me represents the man tormented, and so seemed the perfect model for our John Doe, says Bartoli.

The unlimited range of effects, locations and cast that comics enjoy is enough to make any Italian film director envious. A supernatural epic starring Tom Cruise would be beyond the usual Italian budget (on average 2.5 million per film, as opposed to 70 million in Hollywood). Also, genres usually closed to Italian cinema, such as science fiction, have made highly successful comics, such as Nathan Never.

The freedom from large production costs may be one of the factors that attract many young Italian creative talents to a career in comics. Rome is home to a number of professional courses in comic art, the oldest of which is run by the Scuola Internazionale di Comics. The school, founded in 1979, now runs courses not only in comic art and scriptwriting, but also in related fields such as animation (including three-dimensional computer animation) and graphics. Daniele Bonomo, a lecturer at the school, explains that the main aim of the courses is to teach not only drawing and writing skills, but also good professional practice. A talented artist who fails to respect deadlines will end up out of work. He adds that while there are no guarantees in this field, those who combine creativity with professionalism will find employment.

Although earnings in the comic industry may be less than in cinema, Bartoli points out that the medium allows you to experiment. In cinema they dont let you experiment any more. This freedom in Italian comics is something that both artists and readers can enjoy.

For details of courses (in Italian only) at the Scuola Internazionale di Comics, Via Ostiense 75/f,

tel. 065783038 or see www.scuolacomics.it.

Picture: Inspired by Tom Cruise, John Doe is the hero of a new Italian comic.