Salami Western: Benito Jacovitti’s Cocco Bill

« I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar. » — Stephen King

Farcical ‘Wild West’ comic strips may be a dime a dozen, but despite the undeniable hoariness of the premise, a number of them are inevitably outstanding. To name but a few, there’s been Maurice ‘Morris’ De Bevere‘s Lucky Luke (1946); Basil Wolverton‘s Bingbang Buster (1949); Harvey Kurtzman‘s Pot-Shot Pete (Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch) (1950); Jean-Claude Poirier‘s Horace, cheval de l’Ouest (1970); Jean ‘Cézard’ César‘s Billy Bonbon (1973); and today’s cowboy in the spotlight, Benito Jacovitti‘s Cocco Bill (1957).

Cocco Bill was introduced in the pages of Il Giorno dei Ragazzi (1957-68), “originally intended as the Italian version of the British children’s periodical Eagle“. After Il Giorno’s demise, Cocco Bill shifted his sagebrush shenanigans to the venerable Corriere dei Piccoli (1908-95).

This is 7 fois mouche (1975, JC Lattès, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill fa sette più”, 1968-69. In Italy, it was actually number twenty in the series.

With Wolverton, Jacovitti (1923 – 1997) shares an animist sort of predilection for cramming every square centimetre of the panel with absurdist details, facetious sound effects, recurring motifs and symbols and, naturally, gags. It’s a most noble cartooning tradition that runs the course of the medium’s history, from Bill Holman through Kurtzman and Will Elder (chicken fat!) and merrily endures to this day in Dan Piraro and Wayno‘s oft-sublime Bizarro.

Here’s a two-page ambush sequence that gives you a sense of how handy — and deadly — our protagonist is with a pair of irons.

The sign says: “Do not trample the cacti“.
The surviving bushwacker is put out of his misery by the gang’s second-in-command, the Chaplinesque Kruel; you know he’s a villain of substance because he rides a double horse. Pray note the lovely SALOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON sign with its behatted snake carvings.
Meet hired guns the Kuknass Brothers: Brown, White, Green, Black, Yellow, Blue and Red, of course. Like the idea, Quentin? Note the extra digits (the better to count with, panel five). It’s easy to imagine Jacovitti having some influence on Mad’s Don Martin
In the manner of many a pure-hearted cowboy, Cocco Bill’s brew of choice is alcohol-free; his poison is chamomile tea, a drink with numerous health benefits! With sugar and lemon, but hold the paprika, thank you! Note: Don’t Shoot the Piano Player!
This is Sur les rails (1975, JC Lattès, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill sulle rotaie”, 1969. In Italy, it was number twenty-one in the series.
The train meets the stagecoach, and how! A page from Sur les rails.

Last month, my co-admin ds reported, in the course of her spotlight on Massimo Mattioli, that Jacovitti is said to be the Italian cartoonist best known internationally. I have no idea how such popularity is measured, but I do enjoy the idea of a palmarès headed by cartoonists I love, for once. I do, however, suspect that the global reach of animation frequently contributes more to a cartoonist’s name recognition than does his printed work (think Guillermo Mordillo). Case in point: while Cocco Bill strips have been translated and reprinted in several countries, these efforts have been, more often than not, patchy and sporadic. On the other hand, the Cocco Bill TV series (2000-04) ran a healthy 104 episodes. And it looks great, which didn’t hurt. Check out the pilot episode, ‘Cocco Augh‘. For a creator, it’s assuredly a classier calling card than a bunch of sordid sex ‘comedies’.

I’d like to dedicate this post to the fond memory of a departed cartooning colleague, Patrick ‘Henriette Valium’ Henley (1959-2021), since Cocco Bill was, I’ve heard tell, his favourite bédé.

-RG

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