Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Point Pleasant on the Edge of Darkwood Forest

Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is a small city but rich in history and folklore. It is the site of what some people consider the first battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Point Pleasant (also called the Battle of Kanahaw), which took place on October 10, 1774, between Virginia militiamen and a force of American Indians under Chief Cornstalk. The Shawnee chief and his warriors were defeated in the battle. Long after his execution by his American captors in 1777, people claimed that Cornstalk had pronounced a curse upon white men. The first sightings of Mothman in 1966 and the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967 are said by some to be the fulfillment of Cornstalk's Curse.

Point Pleasant has other claims to fame. Karl Probst, designer of the Jeep, was born there. Brigadier General John McCausland of the Confederate army lived and died there. Few in America know it, but Point Pleasant also lies at the edge of the la Foresta di Darkwood--in English, Darkwood Forest, a creation of an Italian writer named Sergio Bonelli and the setting of Bonelli's long-running comic book feature Zagor.

Born in Milan, Italy, on December 2, 1932, Bonelli was the son of a writer, Gian Luigi Bonelli (1908-2001). To avoid confusion, the younger Bonelli adopted a nom de plume, Guido Nolitta. He began his career as a writer of comic book stories in 1957. In 1961, he created, with artist Gallieno Ferri (b. 1929), the comic book character Zagor. As Guido Nolitta, Bonelli wrote nearly all of the Zagor scripts, from Zagor #1, dated June 15, 1961, to Zagor #187, published in 1980.

Zagor, created by writer Guido Nolitta (Sergio Bonelli) and artist Gallieno Ferri for the character's self-titled comic book, published since 1961 by Sergio Bonelli Editore.

Zagor is an adventurer on the American frontier of the early 1800s. Like James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking, he inhabits a romantic world that never was. Clad in blue pants and a red, sleeveless shirt emblazoned with a yellow and black insignia, Zagor has the look of a superhero. Agile, strong, and indefatigable, he runs, jumps, swings, paddles, shoots, and punches his way across a fantastic landscape inhabited not only by woodland Indians and white frontiersmen but also by cowboys, cavalrymen, a tribe of uomini pipistrello--Batmen--and even a Ming the Merciless-like villain named Marcus. Zagor's sidekick is Felipe Cayetano Lopez Martinez y Gonzales, nicknamed Cico (pronounced Chico), a short, round, mustachioed Mexican in a green suit, string tie, and sombrero. (He's in the second and third panels of the comic book story below.) A comic character in the mold of Sancho Panza and the Cisco Kid's sidekick, Pancho, Cico is often in need of rescuing.

In 2012, the Italian firm I Fumetti di Repubblica-L'Espresso published the first volume in the collected adventures of Zagor. The first story in that collection is called "La foresta degli agguati," or "The Forest of the Traps." The first page appears below:

And what are the first words of that story? None other than the name of the town cursed by Cornstalk and visited in the 1960s by Mothman--Point Pleasant, West Virginia! The caption, freely translated, reads:
Point Pleasant, a small cluster of huts, a necessary staging place for all shipments going upriver to Fort Henry and Fort Pitt . . .
Fort Henry and Fort Pitt were real places. Residents of and visitors to Point Pleasant can attest that it's a real place, as well. As for the forest, Signor Nolitta confessed:
No, Darkwood [the forest of the title] does not exist; I have made it up myself. And I would add that I have invented it only little by little (in fact, in the first issues, the idea was only hinted at) as it became more and more necessary to have Zagor act in a "closed" setting but at the same time "open" to all possibilities of adventure.
In 1964, Guido Nolitta gave Zagor's forest home a proper name. He called it "la Foresta di Darkwood"--Darkwood Forest--and located it in the area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. (West Virginia did not become a state until 1863, of course, but compared to Signor Nolitta's other anachronisms, that one is pretty mild.) The artist Cortez mapped the forest:

Despite the fact that Zagor's first comic book adventure began in Point Pleasant, that "little cluster of huts," as it was described, lies beyond the bounds of the forest as mapped by Cortez. In fact, it's outside the red circle drawn on the map, in the second loop of the Ohio River below and to the left of Darkwood Forest. Never mind that, though. Point Pleasant is where we meet first Cico, then, somewhere along the Ohio River, the hero Zagor.

In later adventures, Guido Nolitta populated Darkwood Forest with mad scientists, vampires and vampiresses, medieval knights, prehistoric men, and fantastic creatures. In 1966, another fantastic creature visited Point Pleasant. I wonder if that creature--Mothman--is a remnant of the strange and mysterious Foresta di Darkwood.

Sergio Bonelli, aka Guido Nolitta, died on September 26, 2011, in Monza, Italy.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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