The obsessive normality of being special 

Komikazen 8° Festival internazionale del fumetto di realtà, Ravenna 2012

The obsessive normality of being special.

Wake up! Leave your infancy.

Immanuel Kant (1784)


If we had to find a lowest common denominator in attempts to represent and recount the History of Italy we could say that it lies in having continual recourse to the category of exceptionality. The exception of having become a nation state considerably late in life and without a shared language, the exception of the south, the exception of the mafias, the exception of bomb outrages, the exception of the Italian Communist Party and other such pleas. In considering itself special the normality of Italian historiography and its offshoots takes shape. I mean the forms of historical narration which may be traced back to the desire to narrate History but which employ forms different from scientific research. Such as comics.

Literature and the arts have often shored up the drift of a historical reality which apparently cannot be handed over to the present: from the verism of Verga and De Roberto to the literature of reality and the neorealism of the cinema there is a thin line that links these expressions. In all, the aphasia, the impossibility of recounting the exceptionality of Italian history, was turned into a trace that vindicated the possibility of taking the floor, of representing Italy without the aid of idealism, tradition, and without suspicion of science and technique. These three ingredients, idealism, tradition and mistrust of science are de facto the three ingredients we find in much of our country’s cultural production. There have been however models and choices that have kept their distance therefrom, even if they did so by remaining themselves the exception.

Even the brief end of the century had delivered us into another narrative landscape: with the demise of ideologies, of the “grand narratives”1, the postmodern condition had turned into a permanent condition, perhaps unawares, but actualised precisely in the reality which it refused itself to acknowledge. The theories that had animated intellectual circles, filled the bookshops of the upcoming cognitive unemployed, had become the weapon with which mediatic populism was preparing itself, from Bush to Berlusconi and Putin, to become the new system. A system which envisaged no alternatives and was based on the assumption that the real world is a fairytale and that the future is already here only we don’t see it. And there is no sense in seeing it because reality is an opinion and as such can be expressed on a talk show but cannot be verified. The political and social realisation of the postmodern2 was manifested by what the postmodernists had only thought; and art in its various forms became the interpreter of this vision.

The comics of those years also stumbled into cultural and artistic relativism, experiencing in fact a period of redefinition, repetitiveness and retreat that seemed almost to mark their end. The world of the 80s was over and nobody knew what the new future would be or if it would arrive. It nevertheless happened that the incorrigibility of the real3, meaning its being there even if we contentiously do not want to know it or believe that we cannot grasp it or that it simply does not exist, returned to the artists’ pencils, especially those of the new generation, infecting their cartoons and becoming the sign that distinguished much of their production. Not that the world of the fine fairytale does not exist: indeed anybody who frequents the big comics trade fairs cannot fail to be dumbfounded by the bursting transvestism of the cosplayers, role game enthusiasts, hordes of young and not so young people fascinated by the pop ideology of the mythologizing of representation. Of course in this field there’s also a huge market and an economic fallout that is hard to quantify. And yet. And yet the new does not lie in this phenomenon, easily assimilable to other forms of entertainment that range from Disneyland and its emulators to fake mediaeval festivals. But the element of novelty and reconstruction of the medium came from the birth of the so-named Graphic Novel, which may be recognisable substantially by the change in format from comic to the more traditional book, and in particular for Italy by the proliferation of narrations of stories of reality arising both from classical episodes of national history, especially recent, and narrations of micro-stories singular for the reconstruction of a history of the excluded. And the encounters between stories and authors may be surprising.

And surprising indeed is the encounter between a Risorgimento hero like Garibaldi, by now high-flown and frozen in marble statues where pigeons flutter and adolescents kiss, and Tuono Pettinato, whose nom de plume (Well-combed Thunderclap) already certifies his delightful irreverence. Garibaldi isn’t new to these encounters, he’s already had to do even with animation4 and plenty of films. He’s one of the most important icons of the idea if Italy who was very soon transformed into a name that recalls the thing itself without need of going farther into it. Tuono’s approach, which deliberately demythicizes yet without creating a caricature, also has explicitly educational intentions. Garibaldi’s defects and limitations are highlighted, restoring humanity to the busts and commemorative plaques that frame him like a stone in our memory. And the dramatic Giuseppe Palumbo has also come to grips with the Risorgimento: an artist from whom we might expect the risk of laying hands on the part of History that is most mistreated and least beloved in schoolbooks. Palumbo’s sign, which becomes dazzling and melancholic when he frees himself from the constraints of series production, suits the thoughtful reflection of his approach to the narration of origins. An approach we also find in the story dedicated to the poet-mayor Rocco Scotellaro, in which the theme of origins intersects with the biography of Palumbo himself.

Paolo Bacilieri with Sweet Salgari also moves on the ambiguous borderline between narration of the other and of self: the biography of the great adventure writer, still today one of the five Italian authors most translated worldwide, who wrote of seas and mountains while never leaving his home, is a sort of alter ego for Bacilieri who however does not avoid philological representation of the newborn Italy which a few years later would be soaked in the blood of the First World War. From the conscious yet nonetheless dramatic end of Salgari to the biography of another who lived in Italian literature as a nomad, a dispersed and alienated figure: Rocco Lombardi and Simone Lucciola have produced a Campana which, in the figurative tension supplied by the style of Lombardi’s engravings, carries the singular trait of dedication to the word that sculpts the soul.

Ultimo. Storia di ordinaria guerra civile [Last. Story of ordinary civil war] by Gianluca Costantini, Andrea Colombari and Saturno Carnoli, deals with the tragic epilogue to the Second World War which someone has defined as “civil war” and not only war of resistance: the aim of this book is the recovery of a repressed story, of the murdered dead “mourned by no one” because they were troublesome to both sides. It deals with the killing of Leandro Arpinati, a very well known member of a fascist action squad, and his childhood friend Torquato Nanni, socialist and antifascist. Costantini also drew Cena con Gramsci [Dinner with Gramsci], taken from a theatre text and therefore an interesting adaptation from stage to pencil.

The life of a man and his legacy lie at the heart of Pietro Scarnera’s Lo scrittore necessario. Una biografia di Primo Levi dal 1946 al 1987 [The necessary writer. A Biography of Primo Levi from 1946 to 1987]: a programmatic title, bringing together only a portion of the years, the lesser known ones or those not directly narrated by Levi.

And once again at the centre of the narration, the life of a man who carved out a piece of Italian economic and cultural history at the height of industrial recovery: Adriano Olivetti. Un secolo troppo presto [Adriano Olivetti. A Century Too Soon] by Marco Peroni and Riccardo Cecchetti already in its title somehow reprises the historiographic interpretation of Eric Hobsbawm who sets the historical reality of the twentieth century from 1914 to 1991. Furio Colombo5 called it perhaps the best contemporary political text and in this imaginary interview the space of investigation is re-conquered by means of a narrative form which previously demonstrated its fertility in Toffolo’s Pasolini. Un incontro [An encounter]. The possibility precisely of setting out from the encounter with history to go over steps and ask for truths, to open avenues in search of answers.

This interweaving of time planes, present and past, in an ongoing dialogue that directly stages the implementation of historical research, also characterises the felicitous In Italia sono tutti maschi [In Italy They’re All Males] by Luca De Santis and Sara Colaone. A collective and at the same time contingent story of the homosexual community interned under fascism, the centre of the narration is silence, dismissal of the memory of detention and authoritarian moralism. Colaone returns to individual stories that become collective with Ciao, ciao bambina [Bye-bye Little Girl], which grew out of the wish to put together her own family history of emigration. It finds its strength precisely by stepping outside biographism and becoming an exemplary tale that speaks of a Country which has become many Countries, quickly forgetting however just how hard it is to leave. Palacinche. Storia di un esule friulana [Crepes. Story of a Friuli Exile] by Caterina Sansone and Alessandro Tota also grew out of situations all in all similar: Sansone’s family experience, the need to recover a tangle of words, images and individual stories in order to reconstruct if possible the frame of a repressed collective history, that of the Istrian exiles. A piece of history with which, for reasons that are ideological and linked to its time, it is still hard to deal and which reappears through the use of madeleines: music in the case of Colaone’s book, crepes and therefore food in Sansone’s journey back.

With Il mio Vajont [My Vajont] by Marco Pugliese and Paolo Cossi we face instead an event which has become, thanks in particular to Marco Paolini’s theatre narration, an almost paradigmatic episode of our country’s stories of catastrophes, of its abnormality: the two authors, Cossi in this case as scriptwriter and Pugliese as drawing artist, have produced an urgent work, of the present, which does not overlay historical reconstruction but aims at verifying what there is today in the valley of disaster where 1,917 people died.

Space that is still inhabited, the community that was there with the bit-actors, childhood memories that intersect with capital H History: this is the living material of Davide Reviati’s Morti di sonno [Dead from Tiredness]. The use of the child’s eye dilutes and apparently masks the sense of loss of a world, the workers’ quarters of the 60s and 70s which constituted the new urban village in place of the rural one that the workers came from, yet without traditionalist nostalgia. A history which precisely due to its being only covertly autobiographical succeeds in telling the many stories of these communities.

Circumstantiated by and bound to an event that became the subject of songs, slogans and films, Pinelli e Calabresi. Una storia sbagliata [Pinelli and Calabresi. A Mistaken Story] by Bepi Vigna and Mattia Surroz sets itself the task of independently interpreting the episode that marked the beginning of the ‘years of lead’. The two main figures, the anarchist railwayman and the police superintendent, became victims and symbols of a period which has yet to be either ratified or told with historical truth. Well, never mind that Italian cinema versions of the years of lead seemed unresolved, and the Pinelli and Calabresi affair in its dichotomy, in its being easy to manipulate from a symbolic viewpoint, was taken on as an icon, but it is also particularly risky.

Piazza della Loggia. Non è di maggio [Piazza della Loggia. It isn’t like May] by Francesco Barilli and Matteo Fenoglio is a work that reprises their previous experience with a book on Piazza Fontana: to recount history, knowing that it is not always from the court’s sentence that the truth emerges. Because the path of justice follows strange and contorted routes, whereas the facts by now are certain. Although there are no guilty parties, because all the accused were acquitted on appeal, this does not mean that we do not know who were responsible for the 1974 bomb outrage in Brescia. With this intention a job of actual historic reconstruction through consultation of archives, direct reading of trial material, interviews with witnesses and survivors, led to the creation of this book, which is only volume 1 of the authors’ research.

And there are no less than two works on 1978, symmetrical because the lives of the two protagonists ended on the same day with alchemical precision: Peppino Impastato. Un giullare contro la mafia [A Minstrel against the Mafia] by Marco Rizzo and Lelio Bonaccorso and Il sequestro Moro [The Moro Kidnapping] by Paolo Parisi. The first book aims at recovering Impastato’s humanity, his nonconformist attitudes, and at reconstruction of the young activist’s personality, whereas Parisi’s has a more suspended and less documentary slant. Concentrated on the labyrinth of reasons of the “mad splinters”, on the apparent end of a season of fire that returned with the D'Antona homicide, it employs different time levels, creating an interweave that leaves many avenues of interpretation open.

Ustica. Scenari di Guerra [Ustica. Scenarios of War] by Leonora Sartori and Andrea Vivaldo takes us once more into the putrid maelstrom of so-called Italian mysteries. Reprinted for the thirtieth anniversary of the outrage the book follows with delicacy, but also with clarity, the various investigation hypotheses. Certainly one of the most disarming aspects of Italian abnormality is that though it took place only 35 days afterwards, nobody at the time related the Ustica outrage to that of Bologna. Andrea Laprovitera and Andrea Vivaldo with Il treno [The Train] set out precisely from the bombing of 2nd August 1980, with which Boschetti and Cimmitti6 have dealt, but the former have chosen a more deliberately cinematographic narration, interweaving three events that begin in 1968 (and alas they do not help to alter the still reigning confusion about the matrix of this outrage) and find an effective coup-de-scène closure with that dramatic day at Bologna station. The idea of the need for a political balance, which recalls the conformist assumption of the need for “two voices always present”, in a situation which had a judiciary epilogue that included a sentence, seems somewhat centrifugal, even though it was not possible to clearly identify the instigators: nevertheless, if one reads the list of names of those condemned for putting the police on the wrong track, it is not hard to reconstruct the history (not the legal question) of this series of events.

Il caso Calvi [The Calvi Case] by Luca Amerio, Luca Baino and Matteo Valdameri comes under the bedlam of noir mysteries that unfortunately infest the pages of Italian history, and not only over the last century. The apparent suicide under Blackfriars Bridge in London had all the features of a genre film, yet reality had once more exceeded fantasy. The complexity of the material involved in the suicide banker’s biography did not scare the authors off: with great humbleness they have brought forth a piece of history, digging in the multiform material regarding finance, P2, Vatican, politics and those who at the time wanted to close their eyes and ears.

And we return instead to the massacred south with Pippo Fava. Lo spirito di un giornale [The Spirit of a Newspaper] by Luigi Politano and Luca Ferrara. A southern Italy which provides the setting for a considerable number of Graphic Novels produced in recent years and which, unfortunately, does not cease to be the background against which the evils of Italy play out a sort of mortal bullfight. The courageous journalist of the paper I siciliani, killed in 1984, aroused the passion of Politano, he himself a journalist who still believes in seeking the truth: at a time when the son Claudio Fava is a candidate for governor of Sicily, it is not out of place to once more recall the father, to open the wounds and the questions on the reasons behind this unbalance, more moral than political.

Antonino Caponnetto. Non è finito tutto [It isn’t all over] by Luca Salici and Luca Ferrara and Un fatto umano. Storia del pool antimafia [A Human Fact. History of the Antimafia Pool] by Manfredi Giffone, Fabrizio Longo and Alessandro Parodi take their place in this reconstruction, loving, tenacious and tough, of the story of those who stood up against the inevitability of the mafias. The title of the first book references magistrate Caponnetto’s words – It’s all over – as he left the morgue where he had just seen the destroyed body of Borsellino: following his distress at the murder of Falcone and Borsellino, Caponnetto in point of fact did not give in but chose the road of spreading awareness, of dialogue with the young generations, to keep not only memory alive but also and above all civic conscience. Still on the subject of the Antimafia pool, but with a slant that is more philological and at the same time interpretive, is the work of A Human Fact: fruit of considerable research in the field and a choice that reflects the intentionality of semiotic intervention on the sign (which is to say the choice of representing the figures of history by means of animal faces, almost as if to say “this is our Maus, this is the hot material of our memory”), the voluminous job on the script by Giffone is also one of research and collation of sources.

Then came twenty years of Berlusconi: of this period, still balanced between past and present, Riccardo Mannelli X-rays the anthropological mutation: it isn’t a humorous work of comment on the news but rather a drawing and word that become a tool of information and, above all, of analysis. In this sense his satire may coexist with the book-format narratives in the exhibition. Also because nobody has so far dared to leap onto the slippery slope of the world’s most famous Italian premier.

Apparently out of the running, but nonetheless dense in unresolved aspects, the disturbing end of an Italian cycling myth is the fulcrum of Gli ultimi giorni di Marco Pantani [The Last Days of Marco Pantani] by Marco Rizzo and Lelio Bonaccorso. Based on the investigative book by French journalist Philippe Brunel, it raises doubts, perplexities and unclear points: here we have a mixture of mythology and the social importance of sport in Italy, especially cycling (together with soccer of course, and this reminds us of Il ribelle granata on Gigi Meroni7) with the theme common to many of these works, which is to say the inability to know the truth. And again we find Marco Rizzo, together with Nico Blunda and Giuseppe Lo Bocchiaro, in the project dedicated to a figure who truly passed through various phases and contexts. They recount a good slice of Italy between the 70s and the late 80s in Mauro Rostagno, prove tecniche per un mondo migliore [Mauro Rostagno, technical rehearsals for a better world: the biography of the eclectic and tireless Rostagno ranges from the founding of Lotta Continua to the creation of Macondo, one of the first autonomously run social centres in Italy, from the Saman community in Sicily to his death at the hands of the mafia.

And here we are, crossing the threshold of the new millennium which already smells of end: Carlo Giuliani. Il ribelle di Genova [The Rebel of Genoa] by Francesco Barilli and Manuel De Carli marks the end of the relationship of conflict, while still maintaining dialogue, among a multiform movement with many souls like the anti-globalists that met in Genoa for the G8 summit. Reading it while also taking into account the verdict on the Diaz School may in effect clarify what took place during those days, over and above the death of a twenty-three year old whose shared biography is set out in this book through the eyes of those who knew him. Again on the G8 summit, the only strictly autobiographical participant in the exhibition is ZeroCALCARE who was a very young eyewitness of those days in Genoa. His comics artist’s stroke does not cancel out the intensity of someone presenting his own story, the fact of having been there in flesh and blood and now re-presenting the events: we well know just how much of the anti-historical there can be in direct eyewitness accounts of history, yet in these times of the Realityzation of life, a bit of reality without media fiction does no harm.

Thus also in Alessandro Tota’s Yeti, which closes the show, we once more find the bewilderment of having to speak of something irremediably linked to our living experience, our own life story, in this specific case that of a young man who sets out for miraculous Paris and runs into the difficulties of the precarious, of the relatively different: and how to tell such a story without becoming narratively fragile? So behold Yeti, the Barbapapa of the new millennium, bright, soft and cuddly yet troublesome: a figure that comes into the sphere of tenderness, like the category of the “young” whom everyone spouts about and wants to help, support and understand. His sweet appearance will not prevent him from living the distance, filling the emptiness, finding the space that welcomes him in the strange breeze that stirs today in this strange Europe, consoling but certainly not welcoming.

In this Europe then, full of new ghosts that pay court to the old ones, always ready to emerge from the cupboards, there’s an Italian New Wave which, in the renewed energy of international comics, with comics experimenting in ways never before attempted and seeming to have definitely left their infancy behind, steps forward with its own singular features. Pioneering publishers who devote themselves exclusively to the production of reality comics, also infecting the big publishing houses (for example Rizzoli Lizard and Mondadori), journalists and researchers who try their hand at scripts, actual investigations that take the form of sequences. A post-realism manifested in an Italy which appears to have taken an irrationalistic and burlesque turn, and which I believe still has much to recount and to draw.

Elettra Stamboulis

1J. F. Lyotard, La condizione postmoderna. Rapporto sul sapere, Milan 1981.

2M. Ferraris, Manifesto del nuovo realismo, Laterza Roma-Bari 2012

3Central concept of the interesting reflection by Ferraris in op. cit.

4 'L'eroe dei due mondi [The Hero of Two Worlds]' by Guido Manuli (1994), animated film with a strong educational intent by an artist, director and scriptwriter who had long collaborated with Bozzetto and with Nichetti.

5 Furio Colombo, L'Olivetti dei sogni perduti, in Il Fatto Quotidiano, 27 November 2011.


6Alex Boschetti and Anna Ciammitti, La strage di Bologna, comic with foreword by Carlo Lucarelli. Becco Giallo 2006

7Marco Peroni – Riccardo Cecchetti, Il ribelle granata, Becco giallo 2010