Masters of comics: the Giussani sisters and Diabolik

Masters of comics: the Giussani sisters and Diabolik

Candido Romano Published on 1/12/2024

Angela Giussani was born in Milan in 1922 and Luciana Giussani followed six years later, in 1928. The two sisters are best known for creating Diabolik, the pocket-sized ‘black comic’ that first came out in 1962 and quickly entered the Italian public consciousness.

Despite growing up in a comfortably middle-class part of Milan, Angela and Luciana nevertheless fought the status quo. These two creative women not only invented Italy’s most famous comic book character, they also basically came up with their own unique approach to writing and managing a title, one which combined comics with business nous.

Two very different sisters, brought together by Diabolik

The Giussani sisters’ father Enrico was a textile and footwear businessman. Angela, with an extroverted and rebellious character, was undoubtedly the most enterprising of the two sisters. She began her career working as a model for advertising and fashion shoots, before taking up writing and becoming an editor and a journalist. At a time when few women were driving cars, Angela Giussani acquired an aeroplane pilot’s licence.

At the age of 27 she married Gino Sansoni, the owner of the publishing house Astoria Edizioni, and worked on a children’s book series and many other of her feisty husband’s projects. Sansoni was a flamboyant figure with few scruples: he invented the trick of wrapping magazines in cellophane, meaning the cover could promise great revelations and sexual content on the cover, which often failed to live up to expectations once unwrapped.

However, after a few years, Angela decided to strike out on her own: she resigned from Astoria and founded a new publishing house, Astorina, in 1961 with her younger sister Luciana. She also separated from her husband, but the two continued to work together professionally.

Astorina’s first projects were a flop. The adventures of the boxer Big Ben Bolt, an American comic by John Cullen Murphy and Elliot Caplin, were pulled after just two years due to low sales. However, the turning point came not long after, when Angela Giussani had a brainwave: she found a pocket-sized copy of a novel, Fantômas, in a train compartment, and realised that the vast numbers of commuters arriving in Milan for work had particular needs.

These labourers and office workers needed an entertaining  and thrilling read in a small, pocket-sized format. Angela had identified the target audience for her next comic: she watched them every day from her house near the railway station.

She therefore set about producing a popular, easy-to-read comic with exciting stories that would fit in a back pocket. The first issue of Diabolik came out in 1962, entitled Il Re del Terrore (The King of Terror). The name Diabolik probably comes from a true crime story from Turin: in 1958, a murderer left behind a letter signed ‘Diabolich’. All Angela had to do was replace the final ‘ch’ with a ‘k’.

The comic was roughly 12 x 17 cm, cost 150 lire and had a cover that immediately depicted the character’s ‘ice-like’ eyes. It had a simple page structure, often with two or three large panels instead of the classic three strips, and although this structure did evolve a little over time, it largely retained the same basic approach. The first issue of Diabolik  also gave rise to a mystery of its own, concerning illustrator Angelo Zarcone: after delivering the illustrations, the artist disappeared without a trace, and was never seen again.

Diabolik‘s acclaim grew slowly, issue by issue: to help spread the word, the Giussani sisters even did some leafleting at Milan station, and offered bottles of wine to newsagents to convince them to place the comic in a more prominent position in front of their rivals.

In 1963, the team was joined by Enzo Facciolo, the illustrator who would give the characters their definitive appearance. In 1964, when Diabolik had reached issue 14, Luciana Giussani also got involved. She was much shyer than her elder sister, and before she started writing the scripts narrating the adventures of the black-suited thief, she worked as a salesperson in a well-known vacuum factory. Although it was a permanent position, she felt restricted constricted by the role, and wanted to share her sister’s adventures.

The two authors compared notes on everything. They would both write the script for an issue, then give each other feedback and correct unclear plot elements, dialogues and everything else related to the story for each monthly issue.

The first few years were turbulent and hard work. Many contributors to the comic noted that Angela did not even allow herself the time to go to the hairdressers. When she had to meet someone, she often wore a wig.

Diabolik, the first comic for adults

When Angela Giussani was putting together Diabolik‘s stories and characters at the start, as well as being inspired by Fantômas and Arsène Lupin, she also drew inspiration from the French feuilleton, or appendix novel, and its various narrative features. Diabolik therefore went against the grain compared to the classic heroes of mainstream comics: in the early issues he was ‘evil’; not even an anti-hero, but a merciless assassin. The knife he threw at his victims, often depicted on the front cover, became iconic. The publication’s tagline was ‘Il fumetto del brivido’ (The comic of thrills), replaced years later by ‘Il giallo a fumetti’ (The comic book mystery).

Right from the off, the comic was not well received by parents and teachers, but this only served to increase its popularity. The Giussani sisters were often taken to court, with judges threatening to confiscate copies of the work, as they considered it to be an antisocial piece of work. However, the sisters won every case.

As they matured, they decided to make Diabolik’s character less clear-cut: from the 1970s onwards he started killing less frequently, and when he did, there was always a good reason for his extreme actions.

Diabolik is an ingenious and cultured thief, who sometimes wears incredible (and subsequently iconic) disguises and masks. He is a pilot and marksman, who speaks several languages and is in peak physical condition. He has an excellent grasp of chemistry, technology, art and tools of death like weapons and poisons.

His nemesis is Inspector Ginko, who is always trying to pursue him and capture him, but never succeeds A loser who never gives up and always keeps his dignity.

At the lead character’s side is his sidekick and femme fatale Eva Kant. Together they steal priceless jewellery and lavish loot from rich families, banks and criminals. Eva and Diabolik are head-over-heels in love: they complement one another perfectly, and there is no question of them ever betraying one another. Eva often gets her partner out of sticky situations, and over the years she has become less subordinate, stronger and more independent.

As the years progressed, Angela and Luciana Giussani gave Diabolik a more human character, and he started to develop his own moral compass. Indeed, Diabolik and Eva Kant became figureheads for many social battles on paper, waging a war for female emancipation. Diabolik launched campaigns supporting divorce, the closure of asylums and especially abandoning animals.

The sisters even dedicated the inside front cover of one of their issues of Diabolik to encouraging readers to vote ‘No’ to repealing the divorce law in a referendum.

Angela and Luciana Giussani’s legacy

Angela Giussani died in 1987, and worked until the very end. Discouraged and alone, although still surrounded by numerous colleagues, including scriptwriters, illustrators and other staff, Luciana Giussani considered selling the publishing house, but then changed her mind. She did, however, give up running Diabolik in 1992. The final episode she worked on came a few months before her death in March 2001.

She left Astorina, and therefore inherited full custody for the character Diabolik, to Mario Gomboli, who had worked with Diabolik since 1966 and had been a partner and director general at the publishing house since 1999.

Angela and Luciana Giussani left a priceless legacy for popular culture and the world in general – the character has inspired cartoons, films, like Mario Bava’s 1968 movie and the more recent Manetti Bros. adaptation, action figures and much more.

Diabolik still sells millions of copies a year, proving that the thief is an immortal character who is etched in readers’ minds, and is certain to remain there for a very long time.