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From Darkwood to Manaus

Face to face with Jerry Drake

Face to face with Jerry Drake

After several years of fantastic stories, starring Zagor, Sergio Bonelli (alias Guido Nolitta) changes his path and begins writing tales based, even if for a small part, on his own personal experiences. And when he meets two strange pilots, it’s the sparkle for Mister No’s birth!

By Graziano Frediani and Stefano Marzorati

THE FIRST COMICS’ VOYAGES TOLD BY SERGIO BONELLI, HIDDEN BEYOND THE NOM DE PLUME OF GUIDO NOLITTA, have an unlimited world as their target, a place where fantasy can deploy in complete freedom: that place it’s Darkwood, an imaginary forest, roughly placed in the North-East of the U.S., a little bit under the Great Lakes area, straddling Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

During the first decades of the XIX century, the area is ruled by a relentless but impartial avenger with a White skin, nicknamed Za-Gor-Te-Nay (“The Spirit with the Hatchet”, in Algonkin dialect) by the Natives, who treat him with a mixture of respect, admiration and awe.

A detail of the cover for "L'esploratore scomparso".

For Nolitta, Darkwood is not a geographical place, but only an ideal "repository" of adventurous ideas; the perfect setting where different characters and narrative “veins” can come to life: Western, of course, but also Thriller, Horror, Detective Story, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery. While he’s writing Zagor’s adventures – that begun to be published in 1961 – Sergio Bonelli starts travelling with more and more passion and method, with his main targets being Africa and South America. That’s how, in 1975, he feels the need to step out of Darkwood’s colorful universe, launching a new series, Mister No, centered around the adventures of Jerry Drake, a pilot from New York and a veteran of WWII, who ran to Amazonas to find his peace, but is still, fatefully and unceasingly, chased by the violence of the so-called “civilized” world.

HERE, THE FANTASY – BASED ON A LITERARY, COMIC OR CINEMATOGRAPHIC INSPIRATION – THAT NURTURED ZAGOR BECOMES LESS UNBOUNDED, leaving space for a realistic tone, with a romantic touch, but also with exact and meticulous historical and geografical features: the place where Mister No lives is a poor, humid, and tired town, still old for some aspects and cast towards the future for others. It’s Manaus in the 1950s: two steps away from a forest that, unlike Darkwood, doesn’t resemble Tarzan’s Africa or The Phantom’s Bengala, and least of all Robin Hood’s Sherwood.

It’s a small point on the map of Brazil, a place that the writer visited several times, along the years, until he knew exactly how its smell, atmosphere and vibe felt like.

Sergio Bonelli during a canoe trip.

When a reader asked him if Mister No would move towards the East, with its more “fabulous” lands, away from Manaus, Nolitta answered, in all truth, that "though I certainly have the right material about it, if needed, nowadays I’d rather tell stories based, even if in a small part, on my personal experience". And when somebody asked him the classic question (''What’s your favorite land, Amazonas or Sahara?"), he had no doubts about it: "Even if the comparison between the realm of waters and humidity and the arid kingdom of sand could sound ridiculous, my answer is that both these places can make me feel the same emotion; the same, repeated and unquenchable desire to discover their colors and their wonders, secret or not that they be. In the end, what made those places so fascinating is that they’re two extremes, two opposite antipodes...”.

"EMOTION" IS THE KEYWORD, INDEED, OF ALL OF SERGIO’S WANDERINGS, THE LEIT MOTIF OF HIS TRAVEL LOGS, CHOCK-FULL OF SKETCHES AND ENTRIES swiftly written with his pen on several notebooks with a leather cover; once he got back home, he kept them jealously locked in his drawer, and used those notes as an inspiration for his stories. Resurfacing from these sketches and writings, here are the two figures that inspired for Jerry Drake, when Sergio was looking for the right idea for a new hero: Captain Vega and Boris Kaminsky.

"At the beginning of the 1960s, I was in Mexico, in the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque, but I wanted to see the archaeological site in Bonampak", Sergio remembered in 1988. "At the time, there, you couldn’t find the same touristic comforts of today. I’d have spent three days to get to Bonampak by canoe and walking: too long. As fate would have it, I was told: “Señor, if you dare going there by plane and landing on a strip in the middle of the forest, there’s Capitan Vega’s Piper”. I said yes. And when I saw Capitan Vega, I found myself right in front of my character: a vigorous young man, who donned boots, leather belt, gun and a very battered Piper plane. It was a kick in the backside for my slow-witted fantasy, not dissimilar from the classic kick used by Mister No to start his plane when it just didn’t want to go. Vega lived dangerously, shipping chickens, pigs and sacks of potatoes up and down the Mexican sky, flying in prohibitive conditions and landing on impossible airstrips. I liked a lot even his name, and I used it in one of the first Mister No episodes, while for my hero I chose the name and the personality of a likable contrarian, an individualistic anti-hero".

"After that, the character just grew in my hands. But probably his original, flesh-and-blood version is still flying over the mountains and the forests of Central America...".

Capitan Vega by Michele Pepe.

JERRY DRAKE’S PERSONALITY DEVELOPED TO THE FULLEST IN NOLITTA’S MIND A LITTLE WHILE LATER, WHEN, IN VENEZUELA, he met Boris Kaminsky: "a kayaking champion from Poland, who ran away and into the forbidden forest to forget about the Socialist reality". Some more details about Kaminsky are provided by Alfredo Coppa, one of the three companions that joined Sergio Bonelli in dozens of his journeys. "I don’t remember about Capitan Vega", Coppa says, "but I knew Kaminsky very well. He was the pilot of a small twin-engined plane, and took us around Venezuela. He was a very friendly and efficient person. When we got on his plane, he always offered us a glass of wine or a piece of smoked salmon: he liked to look good. During the years, we became good friends... Still talking about pilots, though, I remember a funny episode that happened in the early 1980s, when we went to Namibia. That time, we met a sort of Mister No’s alter ego, whose physical appearance also resembled the character. We organized that trip through an Italian travel agent that put us in contact with some people in Namibia. They had the vehicles and an expert guide. In his mid-40s, the man was a former Sergeant of the British Army, and he had a sort of primordial GPS device that let us awestruck. We made the first part of our trip with him; then we were entrusted to the son of a very famous German guide, who had created a high-level travel agency with a series of lodges in different places and, above all, planes to move around the area".

"He was a very good pilot and could land everywhere, in every weather. Indeed, sometimes we landed in the middle of nowhere, just to find a Land Rover waiting, ready for our explorations".

Sergio Bonelli with a pilot met in Namibia.

"We visited the Skeleton Coast, and we loved it: I still remember the big villages of German immigrants, with small airports just a few miles away. There I ate the best 'sachertorte' of my life. Our pilot – alas, I can’t remember his name – was so sure of himself that sometimes indulged in reckless acrobatic moves: once, we flew over a huge canyon, flying just above the river the ran through it, grazing the heads of the giraffes that watched us curiously. Our German was as able as he was stubborn. During one of our car trips (we were out to see a site full of rock paintings), one of the tires blew, but he chose not to stop. We had to get to the plane at all costs, so he drove on, with the flat tire and all. When we got to our destination, all of us were very relieved, and especially Sergio, who was very angry for that turn of events!". 

A REPORT ABOUT SERGIO BONELLI’S FIRST JOURNEYS IN THE BASIN OF THE UPPER ORINOCO – THE RIVER THAT FLOWS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TROPICAL FOREST, along the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, where the legendary Indios Yanoama (or Yanomami) live – is offered in the 14th volume of Collana America, L'ultimo indio, published in December 1977 with the trademark Edizioni Cepim (the name of our Publishing House at the time).

Sergio Bonelli and the chief-shaman of Indios Camaiurà.

The task of converting the encounters and the discoveries of Mister No’s “Dad” in the wild lands of the Yanoama into a long and engrossing "prose”, half-illustrated reportage and half-anthropological essay with a popular tone, was given to a writer, Walter Minestrini.

Along with dozens of beautiful photos, L'ultimo indio also comprises an eight-page comic story, written and illustrated by the late Sergio Toppi: "La storia di Helena Valero" is just a small part of the dramatic odyssey of a woman (Helena Valero da Silva) who was kidnapped by the Yanoama from the Kohorosciwetari tribe in 1937, when she still was a teenager. Helena wasn’t a White girl, but a "cabocla” of mixed descent; the Natives who took her away, though, used to call her "Napeyoma”', or "the White Woman”, "the Foreigner”, and this condition of feeling an alien would stay with her forever, no matter where she was.

The Yanoama people who kidnapped Helena Valero in 1937 (art by S. Toppi)

In 1962, she managed to get to the so-called Civilization with her four children: her face, bearing the marks of her fate, became well-known in Brazil and was on the front pages of the newspapers for a long time; but soon, despite becoming popular, she and her children were marginalized once again, estranged by a society that made them feel unwelcome. "To survive", Sergio Bonelli said, "Helena had to do the most humble work, as a house servant, but she was often forced to live on charity, reduced to an unbearable penury for a mother of four. I met her when she was still living in a slum on the outskirts of Manaus; then, I saw her again, when she managed to find a slightly quieter, even if not less poor, life with her kids, in a shack in the Venezuelan forest, not far from the places where she had been held captive by the Yanoama".