Italy is not a country for pulps.
Maybe it’s because when the pulp era was at its peak, the Fascist Regime was at its peak, too, and it enforced a strict censorship on American fiction.
Characters like Doc Savage or Conan would arrive in Italy only in the ’70s, and we complitely missed The Shadow and The Spider, and all the other heroes.
Burroughs was somewhat luckier – because his novels hit the shelves before Mussolini’s rise to power.
And movies and comics fared better, too – because they could be translated and adapted: there’s the old story about Mandrake working with the Nazis, in his Italian version.
With Mandrake, Flash Gordon, the Phantom (known in Italy as “L’Uomo Mascherato”), Tarzan and many others, pulp tropes percolated in the Italian comic industry.
So it was in original comics that Italy gave its greatest contribution to the pulp genre – with original characters like Dick Fulmine (we’ll talk about him) and, somewhat later, with Pantera Bionda.
The Pantera Bionda (Blonde Panther) series began in 1948 – and became instantly my mother’s favorite comic.
She was ten years old at the time.
And this causes some embarrassment, right now, as it turns out Pantera Bionda is considered today the first Italian erotic comic book.
The stories – written by Gian Giacomo Dalmasso and drawn by Enzo “Ignam” Magni, with significant contribution by Mario Cubbino for the character design – follow the exploits of the eponymous blonde jungle queen doing her thing in the Borneo forests – with the help of a fiancee, a Cheeta-like ape sidekick and her old Chinese mother-surrogate.
Yes, the blonde panther came equipped with a chaperon.
Her enemies were the usual assortment of evil cults, slave traders, poachers and evil explorers, the occasional “bad savage”.
Politically correct it was not – not for today standards, at least.
A classic “Jungle Queen” comic, Pantera Bionda was relatively short lived – and the weekly series ran only two years, for a total of 108 issues.
Now that the Regime was no longer a problem, other people were ready to protect the innocents from the horrors of comic-book fueled corruption.
In this case, some Catholic elements accused the series of being violent, or portraying a woman doing “manly things” (like beating the living daylights out of the bad guys) and generally being too scantly clad.
The publisher was brought to court on charges of indecent exposure and a general accusation of corrupting the young minds of the readers.
Publication was suspended, and when Pantera Bionda came back she was less assertive and featured a less revealing costume.
In an episode she found a trunk full of “girly clothes”, and she enthusiastically adopted a shirt and a knee-length skirt as the best possible outfit for swinging from tree to tree.
She even married her long-standing boyfriend, the explorer Ted.
Then the series died.
Was it really “erotic”?
I guess much depends on your definition of the term, and on the general maturity (or lack thereof) of the readership.
Certainly it was the first instance of a strong, dominant female character in an Italian comic – and paid dearly for it.
But the stories still focus chiefly on action and adventure, and the “sexy” element is always subordinate to good storytelling.
It probably influenced the later style in terms of character design – but for being “the first Italian erotic comic”, it’s pretty tame.
I find it much more interesting that Pantera Bionda had a big success with the female readership – not only my mother, but many of her friends were fans; maybe it was this, that really upset the censors: young girls playing at being jungle queens, and learning they could be tough and independent, operating on the same level of her male counterparts.
Dangerous ideas, in 1948-1950.
File under “corrupting the minds of the young readers”.
A few years after the series was canceled, Italian comic censorship slackened, and a slew of much racier, and in the end less interesting, comics flooded the market.
In these, the role of the female character was limited to that of the victim, or the temptress – all the strength and the subversive charge of the old blonde panther had been erased and normalized.
The original issues of Pantera Bionda command today extravagant prices on eBay, and are a cherished collector’s item.
A pity my mother’s complete series was scrapped in the ’70s, when my grandmother’s attic was cleared.