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‘People said I didn’t have enough talent’: the rise of the Italian graphic novel Gonzo

michele Rech is uncomfortable with success. The shy 38-year-old cartoonist, who works out of a modest apartment on the outskirts of Rome, does not use the word ‘fame’, but refers to his rise to national fame as a ‘thing’ he struggles with.

In the art world, he is known as Zerocalcare and is the cartoonist’s equivalent of Hunter S Thompson. Rech’s graphic novels are a form of gonzo journalism – inspired by his own adventures as a protester on the front lines of police brutality in Italy and in Syria, where he was embedded with Kurdish troops.

This year, Netflix released an adaptation of its best-loved cartoons, in which Rech grapples with grief and job insecurity, while a giant armadillo represents his imaginary conscience. Last month, the series topped the streaming charts in Italy, ahead of the South Korean hit show Squid Game.

Rech’s career began in 2001 when he chronicled the bloody riots at the G8 summit in Genoa, in which Italian police brutally beat anti-globalist protesters. He was just 17 at the time and was one of the protesters.

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

“That experience was overwhelming,” says Rech. “I felt that everyone in uniform wanted to kill us all. A year later, they arrested 25 protesters accused of vandalism. The brutality wasn’t enough; they wanted to put those who took part in the protests behind bars. I had to tell what happened. That’s where it all started.”

The purpose of Rech’s first short comic book, La Nostra Storia alla Sbarra (Our Story in the Dock), was to use the proceeds from the sale to offset the legal costs of the young Italians arrested during the unrest in Genoa. He first used his pen name, Zerocalcare, meaning “zero limescale,” inspired by a catchy jingle for a TV commercial for a descaling solution. He chose the name in a hurry – it was the first thing that came to mind.

“I never thought that being a cartoonist could be my main source of income,” says Rech, who used to work as a tutor. “Also because a lot of people told me I wasn’t talented enough to be a cartoonist.”

In 2010, Rech began work on his debut graphic novel, The Prophecy of the Armadillo. In it, Zerocalcare tells of the mourning for the death of a classmate, interspersed with Italian cultural stereotypes, in the presence of the giant armadillo. It was rejected by dozens of publishers, but one startup company, Bao, believed in the concept and 500 copies were printed in 2012. The book has been reprinted 24 times and has sold over 150,000 copies. It was Rech’s first step towards fame among Italian cartoonists.

The second was a 3,600km journey when Islamic State launched an attack in northern Syria in 2014. Rech, who supported the Kurdish cause, made several trips to the city of Kobani in northern Syria to talk about the resistance of the women fighters against IS. The result of those experiences culminated in his 2015 book Kobane shouts: Greetings from Northern Syria.

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

His success continued to grow and now Netflix has his unusual 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 pondering his life path.

“I was obsessed with the idea of ​​making an animated series,” Rech says. “First of all for the music. I had always mentioned my musical suggestions in my comics, but I knew a lot of people would never listen to them. So I wanted people to listen to my stuff. I sent Netflix hundreds of emails until they finally relented. They left me free to determine the content however I wanted.”

The series, in which Rech provides the voice-over for all his characters, except the armadillo, which is played by the Italian actor Valerio Mastrandrea, has become the most watched show on Netflix in Italy. The Turks did not like the inclusion in the series of the PKK Kurdish flag, deemed outrageous by Ankara, which considers the organization a terrorist group.

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

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

“The last time I signed copies of my comic books, it took 14 hours,” he says. “It’s soothing, but I want my relationship with readers to be as transparent as possible. Some people say I should hire an agent who says “no” and I should only sign the first 40 copies. I would feel like I was delegating the dirty work to someone else. But it would be unjust and I would feel guilty.”

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

Rech follows a strict subculture of hardcore punk called “straight edge”, whose followers forego the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, saying it helps him deal with the recent barrage of success.

He’s happy it’s going well, but adds, “I just need to learn that it’s not like it was a month ago. And maybe it’s not easy for someone like me.”

For an understanding of Rech’s personality, there is a scene in the TV series representing the artist’s philosophy of life. When Zerocalcare comes home after a night with his future love, he finds the armadillo, his alter ego, sitting on a chair sipping a herbal tea. Before Zero closes the door, the armadillo asks him if he’s had sex. “No,” replies the main character.

The armadillo replies, “You’re a black belt in dodging life.”