The name’s Ford, Alan Ford: how an Italian comic book spy became a Yugoslav hero

The name’s Ford, Alan Ford: how an Italian comic book spy became a Yugoslav hero
The first edition of the Alan Ford comic book series. Used under a Fair Use agreement/Wikimedia Commons

Produced in Italy, the Alan Ford comic book series was published in France, Denmark, and Brazil, but only became a runaway success in the former Yugoslavia. What was the secret behind its dedicated cult following?

26 January 2021
Exhibition Images: Djordje Tomic

For those keen to know more about the former Yugoslavia, there is little as instructional as an Italian comic strip set in New York City. Relaying the adventures of a likeable but incompetent secret agent, Alan Ford enjoyed runaway success in the Yugoslavia of the 1970s and 1980s. So much that the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade has launched a new exhibition, Alan Ford Trči Počasni Krug (Alan Ford Runs the Lap of Honour), to celebrate a fictional character that shaped the pop-culture tastes of generations.

In a society that mixed internationalist idealism with bureaucratic dysfunction, Alan Ford was an ideal form of social satire

Alan Ford’s set-up has on the face of it little to do with either Italy or the former Yugoslavia. The titular hero works for TNT, an ambiguous intelligence agency that operates out of a florist’s shop in New York. Together with a dissonant crew of incompetent colleagues, the accident-prone Ford (who was only signed up as an agent due to a case of mistaken identity) bungles his way through each adventure but always comes out on top.

Alan Ford was a moderate commercial success in its country of origin although its style – full of in-jokes and wordplay – made it a daunting prospect for foreign publishers. A Danish edition (in which the main character was re-named Oskar Mortensen) only ran to six issues before being pulled; English-language publishing houses never showed any interest. Why it became such a big hit in Yugoslavia has always been the subject of much debate. Many have argued that, in a society that mixed internationalist idealism with bureaucratic dysfunction, Alan Ford was an ideal form of social satire. Its success also owed a great deal to the genius of its translator, Zagreb publishing executive Nenad Brixy. Brixy not only understood the subtle humour of the original, he also thought up Croatian alternatives for any gags lost in translation.

Alan Ford was the brainchild of Italian publisher and writer Max Bunker (real name Luciano Secchi), who launched the first episode in 1969. It was Bunker’s artist colleague Magnus (Roberto Raviola) who provided the main protagonists with their distinctive, part-realistic-part-caricature appearance. With a visage based on that of Irish actor Peter O’Toole, Ford was very much the anti-hero that the reader rooted for; the naïve blunderer with whom we could all identify. Other members of the cast were more grotesque – TNT’s “Number One” was given a flowing white beard; while incompetent investigator Bob wore a ridiculous Sherlock Holmes cape - but they were misfits of a kind that one might find on any big-city street. Most iconic of the lot was the inventor Grunf (constantly clad in aviator goggles), the self-proclaimed expert on everything who was in fact the embodiment of anti-talent.

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Magnus left the Alan Ford operation in 1974. His replacement Paolo Piffarerio did his best to continue the comic’s visual style, but the chemistry was never quite the same. It is the 75 episodes drawn by Magnus, an epic cycle of tales illustrating the battles of a bunch of incompetents and fantasists against a cynical and manipulative world, that constitute the Alan Ford canon.

Many of the jokes and one-liners uttered by Alan Ford characters entered popular usage, to be endlessly re-quoted by his fans, establishing a body of absurdist folk wisdom that provided appropriate commentary to the problem-riven Yugoslavia of the 1980s and remains relevant to its successor states today. “Better a living coward than a dead hero”, “It’s always more important to win than to take part” and – perhaps the ultimate political party slogan – “We make no promises and aim to carry them out to the letter”, are just some of the Ford-isms that remain in eternal circulation.

“There was something simultaneously brutal and gentle about Magnus’s drawings” says Zagreb publisher Ivan Sršen, a childhood devotee of Alan Ford who went on to publish an interview with Max Bunker in his book Halo Bing! (co-authored by Antonija Radić) in 2019. “It was a duality that was also present in Yugoslav socialism: idealism and the belief in a better tomorrow, contrasted with a not-so-shiny reality, which actually seemed cynical and grey. On the other hand, Bunker summed up all the negatives of capitalism in a few perfect gags. This subversive element was so much needed, not just in federal Yugoslavia, but also everywhere else in the world: to be political, provocative, and funny.”

The fact that Bunker’s humour was understood by his Yugoslav readers had a lot to do with translator Nenad Brixy. “He managed to create a peculiar language” Sršen explains, “through which all the characters spoke with a strange mixture of high style and street lingo, something originally theatrical and bizarrely funny.”

Serbian communications expert Lazar Džamić devoted a whole book to the way in which Yugoslav readers connected with Alan Ford. (The book’s title, Cvjećarnica u Kući Cveća or The Flower Shop in the House of Flowers is an arch reference to the fictional florists’ of Alan Ford, and the so-called House of Flowers in Belgrade, where former Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito is buried.) For Džamić, the absurdities of the Alan Ford universe were for citizens of communist Yugoslavia, “a way of life, not an artistic direction”. Džamić went further in claiming that Alan Ford functioned as an accurate picture of Balkan society, regardless of which political ideology it followed. “Our natural social system is neither socialism nor capitalism, but surrealism,” he writes.

Džamić claimed that Alan Ford functioned as an accurate picture of Balkan society, regardless of which political ideology it followed: “Our natural social system is neither socialism nor capitalism, but surrealism.”

The influence of Alan Ford on the development of comic culture across the Yugoslav sphere is difficult to underestimate. “It was one of the most important comics that I read as a kid,” says Serbian artist Saša Rakezić, whose own quirky, autobiographical comics (written under the pen-name of Aleksandar Zograf) have become classics of the contemporary Serbian scene. “It definitely had an impact on my own work as an author. Alan Ford demonstrated that an artist could show total disrespect for the ‘official’ way in which heroic figures should be visualised.”

Rakezić grew up in Pančevo, a town 20 km northeast of Belgrade. “I remember buying the first issues of Alan Ford ever to come out in Yugoslavia. Alan Ford was totally different from any of the other comics available on the newsstands, and with much darker humour. It was the closest thing to an underground comic that we had, and yet it wasn’t really intended to be underground; somehow it was beyond definition. Secret agents were usually portrayed as glamorous and heroic figures in popular culture, but were here pictured as confused, depressed, and utterly ineffective.”

Another fan (and obsessive collector) of Alan Ford comic books was Kornel Šeper, a leading light in Zagreb’s alternative club Močvara. “Unlike other childhood comics, the appeal of Alan Ford never wore off. It had the taste of real life, almost as if it offered a guide to how society really functioned”.

Kornel showed me the childhood notebooks he’d filled with obsessively detailed, beautifully illustrated biographies of the main Alan Ford characters. When I asked him if any of his friends followed Alan Ford with the same devotion, there was a long silence followed by the words, “I don’t know any person who did not.”

Alan Ford was not the only western import that caught the Yugoslav imagination. Socially-satirical sitcoms from the UK – running from On the Buses to Yes Minister and Only Fools and Horses – were massively popular back in the day; the latter in particular still enjoys major network re-runs. It was Alan Ford, however, that offered most in the way of subversive symbolism. In 1989, Slovene weekly Mladina published a spoof of the strip in which the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito appeared alongside the main characters. Mladina had already become notorious for its boldly independent take on Yugoslav politics, and framing Tito within the absurd world of Alan Ford was another sign that communist-era deference towards leaders and ideology was on its last legs.

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Max Bunker himself has always been pleasantly bemused by the popularity of Alan Ford in the former Yugoslavia, but has largely refrained from giving interviews. This media shyness has, if anything, added to the comic’s mystique. Kornel Šeper sent several emails to Bunker in the early 2000s asking him if he would take part in an Alan Ford evening at Zagreb’s Močvara club. The mails went unanswered, so Šeper went to Milan and knocked on Bunker’s door. He was politely turned away by Bunker’s assistant, but managed to glimpse the Alan Ford memorabilia crowding the walls of the lobby. It was, he recalls, a bit like gazing upon a shrine.

Ivan Sršen managed to gain Bunker’s confidence, but largely by accident. “A few years ago Bunker thought our publishing house Sandorf wanted to publish some of his old comics, while we were actually only inquiring about the rights for one single frame we wanted to use on the cover of one of our books. He sent me a sharp warning about any possible copyright infringement. I couldn’t refrain from telling him how much it meant to me to be able to exchange an email with a comic author I admired so much as a child. That softened him and eventually he agreed to do an interview.”

Alan Ford comics are still on sale at many of the former Yugoslavia’s newsstands, and their characters have become timeless points of reference. “Brexit? It’s like something out of Alan Ford!” was how one Croatian friend greeted me on New Year’s Day 2021.

Indeed, the essential premise of Alan Ford, that the modern world is an unforgiving place run by dilettantes and cynics, strikes an even more authentic note today than it did when first written. The absurd world conjured up by Max Bunker is more than just a mirror to the contradictions of Yugoslav life in the 70s, and may indeed have lessons for us all. More than fifty years after its first publication, maybe it’s time the rest of Europe caught up with Alan Ford.

Alan Ford Trči Počasni Krug (“Alan Ford’s Lap of Honour”) is on display at the Museum of Yugoslavia until 28 February.

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