Last week, Italian illustrator Antonio Lupatelli passed away in Cremona. He was 88. The international press only picked up the news of his demise earlier this week when it came to be known that “Tony Wolf” was no more. And though Lupatelli was known in Italy and France as an illustrator extraordinaire of children’s books, as Wolf, he was known to the world as one of the co-creators of Pingu, the lovable little penguin who lived in the South Pole with his parents, his little sister Pinga, his best friend Robby the seal, and a cast of other penguins who populated his colony. For a bird that cannot fly, Pingu travelled from the UK to Germany, to India, from Malaysia to New Zealand, as his adventures played out on television sets all over the world during the ’90s till the mid-2000s.
Lupatelli was born in 1930 in Busetto, Parma. Not much is known of his early years but in 1958, he began his career as an illustrator in France. In addition to Lupatelli, he began to sign his work as Tony Wolf. He became a master at bringing magical creatures such as dragons and goblins, fairies and gnomes to life in hundreds of children’s books that were published all over Europe, including the famous Italian children’s magazine, Corriere dei Piccoli (Children’s Courier). But, it would be a little round penguin, with a bright red beak and big eyes, that would bring the Italian global fame.
Created by German producer Otmar Gutmann and written by Silvio Mazzola, Pingu premiered on Swiss TV in March 1990. It became an instant, worldwide hit, and why not? In order to be understood by anybody who watched the show, Gutmann did away with any recognisable language, and employed actors who made a variety of sounds that stood in for dialogue. Soon, “Noot noot!” became Pingu-speak for anything: a hug, a sleigh ride to meet Robby, popcorn to share with Pinga, or just hello.
When news of Wolf’s passing broke on Twitter, fans shared their favourite moments from the show. To watch Pingu today is not only to walk down memory lane to a time when we had fewer possessions, but also to the children we used to be, and how we made sense of the world around us.
If Pingu, Pinga and Robby mirrored our innocence, zest for play, and love for popcorn, then Pingu’s parents embodied what it means to be a parent and a spouse. Father was a postman who quit smoking when Pinga was born; and most importantly, he shared the chores with Mother, finishing her knitting, putting out laundry, and sitting on the egg before Pinga’s birth. Mother was firm but loving, every lesson learned was taught with a hug and pat on the head. In Pingu, we hoped to see ourselves, and the people we could become if we treated each other fairly and with kindness. Thank you for the noots, Mr Wolf.