Know Thy History: Diabolik
Sometime last week, I was at a spy-themed party. Most everyone decided to go the sunglasses with a shirt and tie. I decide to go as something flashier. After all, when you own a black balaclava, you got a ton of options. So I dressed in all black and had only my eyes showing.
So someone went, “Hey, are you going as a ninja?” I said, “I was trying to get a Diabolik thing going.”
I came to the realization I had no idea what I was saying. I had never, ever picked up a Diabolik comic. I would be rather remarkable if I did, since very few were ever translated into English and hardly any of those even made it stateside. (A search on Amazon will yield you the movie, a TV series, some comic called Satanik and an anime called “Diabolik Lovers.”)
The basic idea, though, is easy to pick up through osmosis. If you love the series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and I do — in fact, the origin of my online handle comes from one of the episode), you’ll remember that the very final episode riffed on the movie adaptation called Danger: Diabolik. X-Men readers remember a character created by Grant Morrison called Fantomex, a dude who totally dressed like Diabolik only he was clad head to toe in white. And, of course, there’s the Beastie Boys video for “Body Movin'”, a direct parody that all people who write about Diabolik are legally obligated to post.
The origins of Diabolik are as mysterious as the character himself, whose true identity and name have never been revealed. Diabolik was created in 1962 by two sisters: Angela and Luciana Giussani of Milan, Italy. In those days before cellphones — let us call them The Before Times — bored commuters had to find their entertainment in books, specifically pocket sized ones that were great for traveling. (The Diabolik format, as it would be called, was 12 cm by 17 cm… which is way bigger than my cellphone. I’m guessing pockets were pretty big back in the day, too.) One story says that Angela did a survey and found out people liked mystery novels. Another story says that Angela got the idea for Diabolik when she found a Fantomas novel abandoned on a train. (Fantomas, incidentally, also wore a trademark black hood and outfit, which replaced the mask and top hat from earlier books. He also comes off as being a horrible jerk.)
Diabolik is a master thief who is always one step ahead of the authorities, namely an Inspector Ginko of Clerville. His skills make him sound like a Renaissance man: criminal and scientific genius, knife mastery, chemist, master of disguise, photographic memory, pilot, and polyglot. Also he’s suave and drives a cool Jaguar. And we’re supposed to cheer for him. Visually, he was based on actor Robert Taylor. The black bodysuit look is pretty iconic, though Diabolik does spend a lot of time in the comics wearing plain clothes suits or in disguise.
Diabolik was raised from an orphan by a criminal organization at a super secret island hideout. He took his name from a panther that the organization’s leader, named King, had stuffed and mounted. (Diabolik would eventually kill King.) Though the early appearances had Diabolik being more villainous, the character was eventually softened to a”Robin Hood” style vigilante who stole from other criminals and rarely killed innocent people or the police. Being a stealthy guy who looks like a ninja, Diabolik doesn’t use fire arms and prefers using knives. He also has some sort of hang-glider built into his suit… as if the guy wasn’t a lot like Batman already.
Another great weapon: chloroform, which Diabolik uses on plenty of unsuspecting women. Bad Diabolik. Bad, bad Diabolik! Then you have the plot-specific drugs: truth serums and amnesia drugs and whatnot.
Diabolik is aided by fellow female thief and lover, Eva Kant, who he meets in issue #3. She, like Diabolik, is a master of disguise… and by that, it usually means covering up your face in a photorealistic latex mask.
This raises some questions. Sure, the face is covered… but how about the rest of the body? Does Eva basically target women with the same supermodel build that she has? (Angela Giussani, incidentally, was a former model. She got into comics after marrying her husband, who was a publisher.) I’ve checked out a few Diabolik comics, and Eva disguising herself as another woman is a common plot point. Unless Clerville attracts a lot of slim women of the same height, shouldn’t the disguise aspect have limited effectiveness?
I guess that’s why Diabolik and Eva are master thieves, and I’m just some schlub writing a blog.
It’s really not hard to see the appeal: sexy escapist adventures where two good-looking leads evade the law in swanky European settings and steal anything they want, sometimes while wearing a sweet looking ninja outfit. The timing, too, could not have been more perfect. This was the early ’60s, after all, and James Bond was just starting to take the world by storm. Bond had the Aston Martin market covered; Diabolik was rockin’ the Jag. The Diabolik site estimates that 4,000,000 copies are sold a year.
The site, incidentally, publishes a few of the Italian language comics (called “fumettis”) online. There’s also a Diabolik app. Diabolik’s in the 21st Century, yo! If only I could read Italian. (I did download it, by the way, and it seems to be mainly news.)
The stories themselves are pretty lightweight, so it’s amazing to see how many permutations this humble little thief has gone through. I mentioned the movie, which was directed by Mario Bava and starred John Philip Law. There was a live action TV show in the works back in 2012, though that doesn’t seem to have gained any traction.
Finally, Saban International produced an animated series for Fox Kids in Europe. I’ve only watched the intro, but it implies that he keeps the mask on a hell of a lot more often… as he should. That’s the coolest part! The show lasted 36 episodes. Plots include Diabolik and Eva saving the integrity of soccer and searching for golden idols. And apparently there’s one where Diabolik’s personality reverts to that of an 8-year-old, which sounds fantastic.