Michele Rech is uncomfortable with success. The shy 38-year-old comic book artist, who works from a modest apartment on the outskirts of Rome, does not use the word “fame” but refers instead to his rise to national prominence as a “thing” he struggles to manage.
In the art world, he is known as Zerocalcare and is the cartoonist’s equivalent of Hunter S Thompson. Rech’s graphic novels are a form of gonzo journalism – inspired by his own adventures as a protester on the frontlines of police violence in Italy, and in Syria, where he was embedded with Kurdish forces.
This year, Netflix released an adaptation of his most well-loved cartoons, in which Rech struggles with grief and job insecurity, all while a giant armadillo represents his imaginary conscience. Last month, the series topped the streaming charts in Italy, ahead of South Korea’s hit show Squid Game.
Rech’s career began in 2001 when he chronicled the bloody riots during the Genoa G8 summit in which the Italian police severely beat anti-globalism protesters. He was just 17 at the time and was among the demonstrators.
“That experience was overwhelming,” says Rech. “I sensed that anyone with a uniform wanted to kill us all. A year later they arrested 25 protesters who were accused of vandalism. The brutality wasn’t enough; they wanted to put behind bars those who took part in the protests. I needed to tell what happened. That’s where it all started.”
The aim of Rech’s first short comic book, La Nostra Storia alla Sbarra (Our Story in the Dock), was to use proceeds from its sales to offset the legal costs of the young Italians arrested during the turmoil in Genoa. He used for the first time his pen name, Zerocalcare, meaning “zero limescale”, inspired by a catchy jingle for a TV commercial for a descaler solution. He chose the name in a rush – it was the first thing that came to mind.
“I never thought that being a comic artist could be my main source of income,” said Rech, who used to work as an after-school tutor. “Also because many people told me I didn’t have enough talent to become a cartoonist.”
In 2010, Rech began working on his debut graphic novel, The Armadillo’s Prophecy. In it, Zerocalcare recounts mourning the death of a classmate, interspersed with Italian cultural stereotypes, in the presence of the giant armadillo. It was turned down by dozens of publishers but one startup company, Bao, believed in the concept and in 2012, 500 copies were printed. The book went on to be reprinted 24 times and has sold more than 150,000 copies. It was Rech’s first step toward renown among Italian cartoonists.
The second was a 3,600km journey, when in 2014, Islamic State launched an attack in northern Syria. Rech, who was supportive of the Kurdish cause, made several trips to the city of Kobani in northern Syria to recount the resistance of the female fighters against IS. The result of those experiences culminated in his 2015 book, Kobane calling: Greetings from Northern Syria.
His success has continued to build and now on Netflix there is his offbeat animated series, Tear Along the Dotted Line, which follows the existential vicissitudes of a socially awkward cartoonist (Rech’s own avatar) with his armadillo-cum-conscience reflecting on his life’s path.
“I was obsessed with the idea of creating an animated series,” says Rech. “First of all, for the music. I had always mentioned my musical suggestions in my comics, but I knew many people would never listen to them. So I wanted people to listen to my things. I sent Netflix hundreds of emails, until they finally caved in. They allowed me free rein to decide the content as I pleased.”
The series, in which Rech performs the voiceover for all his characters, except for the armadillo, which is performed by the Italian actor Valerio Mastrandrea, has become the most-watched show on Netflix in Italy. The Turkish didn’t like the inclusion in the series of the PKK Kurdish flag, deemed outrageous by Ankara, which considers the organisation a terrorist group.
“Those are the flags of the people who liberated northern Syria from IS,” says Rech, “of those who gave their lives to fight Islamic fundamentalism.”
Today Zerocalcare is one of the most trending hashtags on Italian social media. The crowds that gather at his book signings resemble the queues outside concerts and can last hours.
“The last time I signed copies of my comic books it lasted 14 hours,” he says. “It’s extenuating, but I want my relationship with readers to be as transparent as possible. Some people say I should hire an agent who says ‘no’, and that I should only sign the first 40 copies. I’d feel like I’d be delegating dirty work to someone else. But it would be an injustice and I’d feel guilty.”
Rech follows a strict subculture of hardcore punk called “straight edge”, whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and says it helps him to deal with the recent barrage of success.
He is glad things are going well but adds, “I just have to learn that things aren’t the way they were a month ago. And maybe it’s not easy for someone like me.”
For a good understanding of Rech’s personality, there is a scene in the TV series that represents the artist’s philosophy of life. Returning home after a night with his would-be-love, Zerocalcare finds the armadillo, his alter ego, sitting on a chair while sipping a herbal tea. Before Zero closes the door, the armadillo asks him if he has had sex. “No,” answers the protagonist.
The armadillo replies: “You’re a black belt at dodging life.’’