Michele Rech is uncomfortable with success. The shy 38-year-old cartoonist, who works in a modest apartment on the outskirts of Rome, doesn’t use the word ‘fame’ but rather refers to his rise to national prominence as a ‘thing’ he struggles to manage.
In the art world it is known as Zerocalcare and is the designer equivalent of Hunter S Thompson. Rech’s graphic novels are a form of gonzo journalism – inspired by his own adventures as a frontline protester of police violence in Italy and Syria, where he was integrated into the Kurdish forces.
This year, Netflix released an adaptation of its most beloved cartoons, in which Rech struggles with grief and job insecurity, while a giant armadillo represents his imaginary consciousness. Last month, the series topped the streaming charts in Italy, ahead of the South Korean hit show Squid Game.
Rech’s career began in 2001 when he recounted the bloody riots at the G8 summit in Genoa in which Italian police severely beat anti-globalization protesters. He was only 17 at the time and was one of the demonstrators.
âThis experience was overwhelming,â says Rech. âI sensed that anyone in a uniform wanted to kill us all. A year later, they arrested 25 protesters accused of vandalism. Brutality was not enough; they wanted to put behind bars those who participated in the protests. I needed to relate what had happened. This is where it all began.
The goal of Rech’s first short comic, La Nostra Storia alla Sbarra (Our Story in the Dock), was to use the proceeds of its sales to offset the legal costs of young Italians arrested during the unrest in Genoa. He first used his pseudonym, Zerocalcare, meaning “limescale-free”, inspired by an eye-catching jingle for a TV commercial for a descaling solution. He hastily picked the name – that’s the first thing that came to mind.
âI never thought that being a comic book artist could be my main source of income,â said Rech, who worked as an after school tutor. “Also because a lot of people have told me that I don’t have enough talent to be a designer.”
In 2010, Rech started working on his first graphic novel, The prophecy of the armadillo. Zerocalcare tells the story of the mourning of a classmate, interspersed with Italian cultural stereotypes, in the presence of the giant armadillo. It was turned down by dozens of publishers, but a start-up, Bao, believed in the concept and in 2012, 500 copies were printed. The book has been reprinted 24 times and has sold over 150,000 copies. It was Rech’s first step towards the fame of Italian designers.
The second was a 3,600 km journey, when in 2014 ISIS launched an attack in northern Syria. Rech, who supported the Kurdish cause, made several trips to the town of Kobani, in northern Syria, to recount the resistance of female fighters against IS. The result of these experiments culminated in his 2015 book, Call from Kobane: Greetings from northern Syria.
Its success has continued to grow and now on Netflix there is its quirky animated series, Tear along the dotted line, which follows the existential vicissitudes of a socially awkward designer (Rech’s own avatar) with his armadillo-cum-conscience reflecting on his life path.
âI was obsessed with the idea of ââcreating an animated series,â says Rech. âFirst for the music. I had always mentioned my musical suggestions in my comics, but I knew a lot of people would never listen to them. So I wanted people to listen to my stuff. I sent hundreds of emails to Netflix, until they finally gave in. They gave me carte blanche to decide the content as I wanted.
The series, in which Rech voices all of his characters except Armadillo, played by Italian actor Valerio Mastandrea, has become the most watched show on Netflix in Italy. The Turks did not like the inclusion in the Kurdish flag series of the PKK, considered scandalous by Ankara, which considers the organization as a terrorist group.
“These are the flags of the people who liberated northern Syria from ISIS,” says Rech, “of those who gave their lives to fight Islamic fundamentalism.”
Today, Zerocalcare is one of the hottest hashtags on Italian social networks. The crowds that gather at his signing sessions look like queues in front of concerts and can last for hours.
âThe last time I signed copies of my comics, it lasted 14 hours,â he says. âIt’s grueling, but I want my relationship with readers to be as transparent as possible. Some people say that I should hire an agent who says “no” and that I should only sign the first 40 copies. I would feel like I was delegating the dirty work to someone else. But it would be an injustice and I would feel guilty.
Rech follows a strict hardcore punk subculture called “straight edge”, whose followers refrain from consuming alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and says it helps him cope with the recent barrage of success. .
He is happy that things are going well but adds: âI just have to learn that things are not as they were a month ago. And maybe it’s not easy for someone like me.
To fully understand Rech’s personality, there is a scene from the television series that represents the artist’s philosophy of life. Back home after a night with her lover, Zerocalcare finds the armadillo, her alter ego, sitting on a chair sipping herbal tea. Before Zero closes the door, the armadillo asks him if he has had sex. “No”, replies the protagonist.
The armadillo replies, âYou are a black belt to dodge life. “