The Super Gang of Super-Heroes

Continuing my theme of examining how Helena Bertinelli is perceived in her native Italy, along with the discourse that examines Italian stereotypes, here’s another article from Rai Tg3 on the matter.

The article is entitled ‘The Super-gang of Superheroes’, and it not only discusses the mafia stereotype, but also a new, troubling stereotype that has emerged in recent years. And that stereotype just happens to be the portrayal of a brutal and authoritative police force, specifically the carabinieri in Italy.

The new stereotype is troubling, because it portrays the Italian police as brutal and mindless machines who will beat anyone into submission. Not only does that demonstrate a great misunderstanding of the Italian police and the carabinieri in particular, but it also resurrects the image of Italy as a fascist state, and one whose government (and quite possibly its citizens) tolerates actions like this. Not only that, but it also subliminally reinforces the stereotype that Italian men are ultra violent, so much so that the violence even seeps into the nation’s police force. (And of course, it’s up to the virtuous non-Italians to come in and oppose them …)

Though the article was written in 2011, the themes of police brutality and the abuse of power are still quite relevant today, given the recent events in Ferguson and New York City.

The article does mention both Helena Bertinelli and Dick Grayson, specifically with Cry for Blood (with the mafiosi stereotype) and Nightwing #72, and the incredibly inaccurate portrayal of Italy in general that was the theme of that issue.

The focus however, is not limited to DC, as Thor’s encounter with the Italian police is also mentioned here, too.

It’s a long read, but it’s well worth it. If you want to move past an Americentric view of the world and understand just how wide reaching the American media is, and said media contributes to both creating and reinforcing harmful stereotypes, then read this.

Also note I removed the images for the sake of space, but they can be found once you click the link. And a big, heartfelt thank you to Filippo Rubino for translating this for me when I was going through a bad time in life, and unable to translate it myself.

The Super-gang of Super-heroes

In American comics, the figure of the Italian mobster rules. But a new stereotype could surpass its record ….

Roberto Saviano’s dedication [in his latest book] to magistrates Boccassini, Sangermano and Forno, and the following statement from Marina Berlusconi, president of Mondadori Publishing Group, who said she “feels horror” for the writer’s words, has re-opened a debate started last April. At the time, Silvio Berlusconi, while presenting data about the fight against organized crime, declared that “Italian Mafia appears to be ranked 6th in the world [in terms of organized crime factions] but it’s surprisingly the most well-known, because of promotional support that let it become a very negative element of judgement against our country.

Let’s not forget the eight episode TV series of The Piovra, [The Octopus, a metaphor for the Mafia], broadcast by way of television in 160 nations around the world, and all the literature relating to it, such as Gomorra…”.

Saviano judged the Premier’s words inappropriate and was soon largely supported by the left-winged political area and exponents to the cultural world. But from a strictly communicative point of view, as a mere mass-mediated analysis, we should say that Berlusconi is right: works of fiction influence common perception, which eventually influences reality.

Let’s analyze with objective data this sequence, using American comic-books as a litmus test. Comics have always needed strong and impressive figures, therefore from its origins, at the end of 19th century, criminals [including Italian ones] started to appear, fighting against the protagonists, who were detectives or policemen. But in spite of the Mafia setting its roots on American soil in those very years, there’s no strong medium that puts it under the spotlight. Fiction works are usually about loose criminals, or small gangs and rackets at the most.

No hint about the Mafia is given. In the first 50 years of comics life, we can only read – very rarely – about the Black Hand, but usually rather vaguely.The one and only real allusion to Italian mafia is in a story published in the first half of 1943 by Fiction House, on issue number 35 of Wings Comics. The American pilot Clipper Kirk flies all the way to Sicily to cooperate — as it is told in the story — with the brave and heroic mafiosi, strong opposition (and also martyrs) to Nazi fascism, and to start a rebellion against the German troops on the island.

After that, for more than 20 years the figure of the Italian mafioso completely disappears from comic books. In those years’, in American comics, we can see Italian actors, Latin lovers, artists, singers, even Italian communists, but no mafiosi.

The Magia makes a timid appearance under false name in the mid 1960s, in the Marvel Universe. In issue number 13 of The Avengers, there’s a criminal organization called “Maggia”. Stan Lee was interested in rooting his fictional and fabulous stories in the reality of the time, but apparently without being too specific. Therefore, he slightly misspells the name “Maffia” (the most known spelling of “Mafia” in the States) and has some “maggiosi” occasionally fight against the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and Spiderman. But this is all rather bland, there is no real association of ideas with Italy and Italians. What’s the turning point medium that deeply marks the beginning of the connection Italian Mafioso, showing that Berlusconi is absolutely right with his thesis?

It’s on, the pairing that equates Italian to mafioso grows stronger until it practically becomes a synonym for what’s Italian. And then there’s La Piovra, as already mentioned.

This show started in 1984. And in 1987, in [the re-writing of the caped crusader’s origins] Frank Miller doesn’t put him against the Joker, Two-Face or the Penguin. He will have to face a powerful mafia family, ruling over Gotham City. A mafia family that — ironically — bears the last name of Falcone [the same last name of the magistrate who became the greatest hero/martyr of the Italian war against Mafia]. In 1999, in Batman’s short series, other mafia families appear: Maroni and Gazzo.

Moving forward to 2005, in the story, Enzo Gaucci is one of the jailed mafiosi who will face the hero in the usual blood-bath Punisher-style. Names of politicians, magistrates, operators, misspelled slang, everything is mixed in the media pot of comic books and anything that’s Italian becomes mafioso.  In 2006, the [book] Gomorrah premieres. All around the world people talk again about the deep mafia and roots in Italian society.

In 2007, an issue of the comic, which is practically an up-to-date atlas of the geographical universe of Spiderman & Co., at the entry of “Italy”, it tells us that a coalition of powerful alien warlords threatened our nation, and that Enzo Ferrara was a vampire-hunter, and that (right at the bottom of the page) “Italy stays politically and economically unstable, also and above all because of the influence of criminal families such as the Mafia.”

Since the 1970s, thousands of comics pages have imprinted in the minds of readers from all over the world the concept that if you’re talking about Italy and Italians, you’re talking about Mafia and mobsters. Fortunately, in the last decade the Italian government has been working hard to deflate this stereotype and gradually replace it with a different idea of the Italian situation.

In a story dated 2002, Nightwing (alias Dick Grayson, the first Robin, Batman’s sidekick) goes on a mission to Rome. While he’s inside a hotel he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a charge by Carabinieri and he’s astounded by such an aggression in a public place, because, as you can learn from his thoughts: “Carabinieri are renowned for their indelicacy and brutality, but not for gassing civilians… well, apart from outside soccer stadiums and during political rallies”.

On April 2005, issue #4 of Ultimates V2 is released. This comic book shows a rally in the streets of Rome. The participants protest against the usage of “American Superhumans in the Gulf War”. Suddenly, the carabinieri, without anything particular happening, start throwing tear-gas at the crowd and then charge, holding their rifles by the barrel and hitting the civilians with the stock. One of the unlucky protesters cries “Please! I’m an American citizen! This was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration!”

But the carabinieri continue hitting anything and anyone. After two pages of hitting, only Thor’s intervention will put an end to the blind violence of Italian law-enforcement. To conclude this long article, we repeat: Berlusconi is right. Literature about the Mafia has deeply contributed to influence the collective imagination and make people think that Italy is full of Mafiosi.

But a good media campaign during a G8, shown on TV worldwide, is enough to slowly put other interesting figures alongside the unpleasant mobster. Excellent, no?

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