The method is the same you use to create a storyboard for an advertisement or any comic strip. What changes is the substance, the story. When the pencil has to describe a very recent event, there’s no room for invention. You need to be concise because you aim to a summary. It’s an effort that forces the drawer to become kind of a journalist: a reporter with the language of images. The word becomes line, the sensitivity is the colour, and the thin black lines between one frame and the other, the punctuation. The construction of a page is that struggle, both fascinating and hard, against time limits and millimetres. Those are biorhythms and restrictions that those who work with the news know well. “As time goes by, the path becomes more and more narrow”. Franco Portinari had to assimilate them when he turned 50, after a life in advertising and comic strips, which will never be as schizophrenic as the one in a newspaper.
FROM CRIME NEWS TO INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM
The illustrator from Milan has been working as a freelancer for the pages of Corriere della Sera for ten years. “It was 2006; the editor in chief of Corriere called me because he had seen some of my storyboards online, an extraordinary tool I started using nearly for fun. He wanted me to illustrate a news for which they didn’t have any pictures: a child had fallen from the third floor of a building, bounced on a curtain and was caught by a pedestrian. So, I began to draw a good deed but I quickly understood that I wouldn’t have illustrated many happy news.” Indeed, Portinari’s pencil would have soon encountered crime and judiciary news, until the massacres of international terrorism. The last being the ones of Pulse in Orlando, in June 2016, and, later on, the 9th of July in Dallas. Earlier, there was the shocking and unforgettable 7th of January 2015, the red Wednesday of Charlie Hedbo.
Armed and hooded men, gunshots in the core of the everyday life of a big European city. It could be the result of the sadistic imagination of a cartoonist, but it is reality, true madness.
Just before noon, I receive a phone call by the editor in chief who wants to inform me about what happened in Paris” explains Portinari. The following minutes spent at the phone are a brief reconstruction of the events of the blitz that becomes more precise and complete hour by hour during the day, thanks to the information given by the correspondents. Franco is in Milan, in his silent office, sitting at his desk. He, together with Giovanna Carbone, his wife and colleague since 1990, has to start his personal journey into tragedy: the arrival of the van, the movements of the command, the Kalashnikov shots in the editorial office of the satirical newspaper and then on the road. He has to take everything into account, even the position of the 12 dead bodies. At 10:30 pm, the page on which the illustrations will be published is still open because there could be further developments in Paris.
IT’S LIKE I TOOK A PICTURE
It’s like I went there and took a picture. With my point of view.” What you have to do is create this point of view, identify yourself with it and feel the places where the action is set. “In the meanwhile, the images on the internet give you an idea, you start to understand what you have to describe essentially – he continues. At the same time, the editor in chief has already made you talk to the reporter that will follow the events. It’s often the same journalist that sends you a sequence of email with notes, hints and updates”.
That’s how it worked during the main moments of the capture of Bin Laden, on the 2nd of May 2011, “when the reporter in Pakistan was telling me on the phone the position and form of the compound in Abbottabad”. Those elements had to be enough for the creation of the first rough sketches on the tablet that had to be sent the the editorial office. The digital tablet has been a fundamental upgrade for “those who do our job: once, I used to work in a 50 square metres studio with loads of magazines, printed material and encyclopaedias; if you had to draw a Harley 120 Mexico you had to find it there and accurately reproduce it – remembers Portinari. It was a far more romantic but difficult world. Nowadays, this kind of activity sped up a lot. I was impressed about every aspect of the digital world. I remember how hard it was before to go around Milan with very heavy folders full of paper and take them to the art directors of newspapers and magazines”.
THE CHARM OF A COURT ARTIST
From 2010 to 2013, Franco Portinari worked for Il Fatto Quotidiano (Il Misfatto). “Stefano Disegni told me: we need you – he explained. He had found some of my comic strips online and he liked them a lot. But I saw political satire as a hobby and I wanted it to remain that way”. In 2011, the first Mills trial took place: the English lawyer was accused of perjury together with Silvio Berluconi. Marco Grillo, the editor in chief of Corriere della Sera, accredited Portinale in the court and asked him to illustrate the main moments of the hearing. “I felt strange being there” he claimed. “I remember that the in service officers looked at me strangely: they were probably wondering what on earth I was doing there”. In court, and then for Corriere della Sera, he collaborated with the judicial journalists Luigi Ferrarella and Giuseppe Guastella. “The seat they give you in the court is not always good”, he continues, “the journalists often help me, texting me who is the accused or to point out who the magistrate is”. He worked on Michele Misseri’s trial for the murder of Sarah Scazzi “In 2010, as I couldn’t attend the evidentiary hearing, I asked for a description of the disposition of the judges and the prison guards”, and on Massimo Giuseppe Bossetti’s one, sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Yara Gambirasio last June. “The figure of the court artist attracts me a lot” he concludes, “also because I love to do live painting”.
THE STYLE OF GRAPHIC JOURNALISM
When you have to describe an event, the drawing is fast and you need to summarise as much as possible, expressing effectively the sequence of events. The common sense draws the guidelines. Portinari explains: “Simple colours, never too bright nor intense, especially when you talk about proper disasters you need to remove any shiny effect from the drawing. Because we’re not drawing a comic strip”. You need homogeneity of colours to work quickly and be tight on time. The black and white is instead for comic strips and caricatures only, a passion that Portos shares every day on his Facebook page or on the home page of www.portoscomic.org, digital albums that express all their author’s irony. A portraits’ gallery of self-important politicians, played down by a pencil that can laugh at itself and at the world.