Anyone who's ever read a copy of Heavy Metal probably doesn't need to hear me say that European comics are might strange to us colonial types. It's not just the extreme violence and sexual content (although if you're fourteen and just bought a copy of Heavy Metal, that's probably all you care about. It's a grand tradition, I'm sure.) a close reading of them tends to lead you to a pronounced anti-authoritarian streak--not only in the characters chosen, but European comics creators seemed to take great delight in flicking the finger at any established order, be it formal (ever notice some Euro comics have a certain loose, dreamlike quality, like they don't give a rat's ass about traditional plot structure?) or concrete--Euro comics love their rebels.
I've heard a couple reasons for this tendency--most involve the mood of the people in most of the countries in past WWII Europe. Most of them had come of age in the wake of impossibly corrupt wartime regimes who wielded their powers like a cudgel. Add that to the fact the Europe was that the crucible for the Cold War and most of the populace doubtlessly didn't fully trust anyone with a badge.
It also doesn't hurt that Europe has a tradition of pulp anti-heroes--characters like Fantomas, Arsene Lupin and Dr. Mabuse, despite being the main characters of their respective stories, are either thieves, murderers, or megalomaniacs (and in Mabuse's case, all three) Pulp heroes in America used to straddle the line between good and evil in this same way (witness The Shadow) but that greyness fell away as comics overtook the pulps.
Into this fertile ground comes heroes a new generation of post-war anti-hero, best symbolized by Diabolik.
Diabolik is an institution in Italy--for 40+ years his adventures have been in regular publication. He shares a common ancestry with the aforementioned classic Euro heroes--like Lupin, he's a master thief, like Fantomas (uses a knife as his primary weapon, is a master of disguise) and early on he was a murderous megalomaniac, like Mabuse (though he lacked the hypnosis angle)
Like Golgo 13, Diabolik is curious in how little he's actually evolved over the years. He's mellowed a bit (More Robin Hood than Mabuse, nowadays--that there was a kids cartoon in Europe a few years back wherein Diabolik was a hero boggles my mind) but the basic storytelling engine is this:
Diabolik steals things, and intermittently kills people. His only companion is his partner in crime, Eva Kant, and they have a wonderfully healthy relationship based on their mutual interest in stealing things and killing people. So committed are they to their lifestyle, they bought matching cars.
(Note: For you fans of Grant Morrison's X-Men run, this will doubtless seem terribly familiar)
Diabolik and Eva are usually pursued (unsuccessfully) by Inspector Ginko, who is portrayed as a tough and competent adversary despite the fact that he's been unsuccessfully chasing the same guy for decades, now.
That's the basic conceit. Now, I should mention here I haven't actually read any Diabolik comics. My primary exposure comes from the tremendous, trippy and utterly wonderful filmic record of his adventures: Danger: Diabolik.
The thumbnail description of the movie would be: It's a James Bond movies from the point of view of a Bond Villain who is also James Bond, directed by someone from the old Batman TV show blasted out of his gourd on LSD.
It begins with Diabolik stealing $10 million out from under the police's nose and Diabolik and Eva taking their ill-gotten gains back to his swank Batcave-esque layer (complete with rotating bed--welcome to the Swinging Sixties) where they decide to chuck all the cash on the bed and get it on in ways that Scrooge McDuck probably never even considered in all his trips to his Money Bin.
This movie is pretty much one set-piece like that after another. Daibolik doesn't steal for personal gain as you might imagine--he really does what he foes for Eva and against Ginko and the government he represents. In between spectacular heists, Diabolik makes a mockery of a tough-on-crime press conference and, when the government turns up the heat in their pursuit of him, bankrupts the entire country by blowing up the tax offices.
There's a definite element of escalation that runs through the film. Ginko responds to this with an inspired plan or two--leaning on the criminal element to flush out Diabolik and when that fails, melts the entire gold reserve of his country into one gigantic, impossible to steal ingot, which Diabolik promptly steals and melts down again. Unfortunately, Ginko uses the gold to track Diabolik back to his lair and we're given a definite impression that This May Be It For Our, Uh, Hero.
But then, Diabolik's spent most of the movie beating the odds in the face of all reality, so really, why should this be any different?
This is very much a movie of it's time--the style is early-to-middle 60's Bond (on a budget) with a little camp, a lot of trippiness, and a distinctly late-60s anti-establishment theme that not only fit well with the times, but fit well with the character (there was a time when a few wags on the Internet described this as the closest comic-to-film translation ever) and whatever else you may think of it, it never once drags or flags from its frenetic pace. Teleport City wisely calls it "style as substance" in their review, and that's as good a description as any, both for the movie and for the character.
Like Golgo 13, the peculiar tone and mood of the stories is the star of the show, even more than the nominal character. And, needless to say, it's pretty awesome.
Next time: GRENDEL