Italian comics auteur Gipi’s novel Land of the Sons feels at first like something of a small revolution for the post-apocalyptic story. “On the causes and motives that led to the end, entire chapters of history books could have been written. But after the end, no more books were ever written,” reads the epigraph, and though this very novel would seem to contradict Gipi’s own insistence (for what is Land of the Sons if not a kind of history book of this place and time?), for a time he seems to be actively trying to refute literary critic Jame Woods’ insistence that the post-apocalyptic story is “necessarily paradoxical… As long as language can be used to recount the worst, then the worst has not arrived” by presenting a story that exists post-language.
Yes, it’s true that the father of the titular sons keeps a journal, but from the opening portion of the novel he and his sons – our protagonists – move through their post-cataclysmic wasteland of bayous using little else but barked monosyllables when they deign to speak at all; it is not rare for a page or two or even three to pass in total silence. And why shouldn’t it be, when the boys’ own father refuses to teach them how to write even though he himself keeps a journal, when he communicates with them almost entirely through violence and threats that seem designed to beat the language out of them entirely?
Gipi’s art – as gorgeous as ever – seems similarly employed to beat back language, his distinctively sketchy, loose linework and scratchy inks now used to convey not clearly defined and lived-in spaces that feel drawn from his own life so much as to reinforce the idea that the world has come undone. Nothing overtly suggests this at first: the swamps the brothers inhabit may be gorgeous, but they are also nondescript, so much so that one might think their father’s threat that the world beyond their home has been obliterated is a lie meant to keep the boys under yoke. Only in time does it come to feel as if Gipi’s failure to sketch out a clear horizon when he draws a vista or his inability to establish a sense of connection between scenes is actually a decision meant to lend these environs an eerie quality that suggests these spaces exist not merely isolated from the rest of the world, but separate entirely from it. One’s early skepticism easily morphs until one has no trouble believing that the boys would take for granted their father’s declaration that there is nothing “(beyond) the(ir) lake...(but) dead people and poison.” Words may be right that so long as we can render sensible and explicable what we most fear, so long as we have the faculties to trap it in language – so long as we are still alive – it is not the end; apocalypse has not yet truly come. But if attempting to convey the true horror of apocalypse through art is a futile endeavor because art is itself a language, at least the combination of minimalist dialogue and ethereal art direction Gipi presents here creates a disorienting enough fugue that one can, for a time, buy the illusion that we are witnessing a story at the literal and figurative end of the world.
At least, that is, until the rest of the world comes crashing in and disperses not only the boy’s illusions but everything the author has been developing until that moment. It is easy to believe Gipi is building towards something deeply unsettling and utterly unique when he presents readers an apocalypse that seems total, less so when he reveals that the only thing lurking in the wastes he’s tried to convey as ineffable are the same gangs of cannibalistic subhuman rapists and lump-headed mutants that have plagued the wastelands of the genre for decades. Or that his interest in language was not devoted to demonstrating how its absence might fragment our sense of reality and render the world uninhabitable and uninhabited so much as sending his characters on a journey to translate their father’s diary that ultimately reiterates the tired truisms that absent language we are incapable of suppressing barbarism or communicating love, that most powerful of bindings.
Built up to, this might be excusable, if disappointing. The problem is that other developments of plot and character suggests that, in fact, Gipi had barely considered what he wanted from this world or these characters. Why have all these barbarians forgotten how to read or write and been reduced to sub-literate grumbling when photographs and the boys’ own age suggests the apocalypse was something that happened only little over a decade ago? Why, in a story about how language is necessary to keep us descending into barbarism, is so little made of the sons’ decision to murder their innocent neighbor, Aringo over a miscommunication? Neither is made to confront his monstrous decision to kill for empty revenge. Nor does it come into play when they are later forced to choose between saving the life of a slave or learning what was hidden in their father’s diary. It is never even presented with ironic nonchalance, as if the author would shock us by demonstrating how callous the world has become after the apocalypse.
The result is a book that feels ultimately arbitrary, unconvinced of its own arguments or point because they are so confused. One can understand what Gipi might have hoped to convey with Land of the Sons, one can understand how these disparate elements might have worked on their lonesome, but what these fragments end up conveying in concert seems impossible to discern. At book’s end what is most upsetting is the revelation that the stillness and quiet so unsettling at the beginning of the tale, a quiet which seemed to accurately represent the ineffable horrors of life at the end of the world, was not intended to convey the impossibility of thought after language but merely a paucity of thought.