There is an ever-growing interest for comics in Italy. Data, as approximated and biased as it usually is, shows us quite clearly a systematic rise in sales and readership; traditional print and the mass media dedicate more and more attention to the medium, while new publishers seem to ceaselessly enter the scene. Guiding this small surge in popularity is the success of the graphic novel format, which plunged comics into what seems a new golden age, reducing decades of stigma and superstition to relics of a past ever more easily forgotten.
It’s quite the time to be a comic book reader, let me tell you: never before have we had so many books, so many authors published, so much biblio-diversity, and, in more general terms, so much cultural recognition. But despite this—and despite Italy's long tradition of graphic narratives, with seminal authors like Hugo Pratt, Andrea Pazienza, Grazia Nidasio, Magnus and Gianni De Luca, just to name a few—it’s somehow striking to me that a lot of the protagonists that made possible and still keep alive this “golden age” go unnoticed. I’m not even talking about international notoriety, which for so many reasons can be hard to obtain; I’m thinking most plainly about homeland success - or, in the worst cases, simple recognition.
Apart from the big superstars such as Gipi, Zerocalcare, and, to a certain degree, Manuele Fior, and apart from the artists working in the superhero industry, such as Sara Pichelli or Simone Bianchi (again, just to name a few), many of the comic book masters of our time remain borderline unknown, both in Italy and abroad. And among them, I feel the most prominent example—the most infuriating, given the disparity between talent and recognition—is Giacomo Nanni.
I have to be honest. Part of me understands why Nanni’s variegated body of work isn’t a stable part of the general culture: his is a difficult voice to grasp, an author so unique in sensibility and formal exploration that it's hard to even compare him with what came before, or what will follow. Moreover, artistic significance and mainstream accessibility rarely go together, at least while things are still happening. Ask Van Gogh, he will confirm. So, I feel all the more compelled to talk about his work - and maybe, just maybe, do a decent job in explaining why I find him to be one the most relevant cartoonists alive.
Let’s briefly start from the top. Giacomo Nanni was born in 1971 in Rimini, the seaside city where Federico Fellini was born, not that it’s relevant. We’ll skip through his early career, but two things are worth mentioning: his first works, beginning in 1996, were published in the seminal magazine Mano; and, in 2004, he was among of the founders of Canicola, one of the most experimental and militant publishers Italy has ever seen. Their eponymous periodic anthology still is, despite the passage of years and a certain difficulty in attainability, breathtaking both in term of quality and of influence on so much that came after it.
And it’s in those pages that we find Nanni’s short story that later became the book Storia di uno che andò in cerca della paura (Coconino Press, 2006), a freeform adaptation of the Grimms’ classic "The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear". This adaptation is... well, it’s weird. It’s a staggering two-color book that, in hindsight, holds so much of the author’s voice, but in such an embryonic form that you find it only if you’re really looking for it. The multi-focal, non-linear narration is there; the constant shift between analytic and emotional sequences is there; a generally cryptic and dream-like vibe is there; the seed of what will become Nanni’s experimentation with grid and visual rhythm is there. Everything is already there, if you pay careful attention, but at the same time it strikes you as such a different book from Nanni’s later work that it can easily be dismissed as an overcomplicated first try of an author still figuring out his voice. But still, if you’re not the kind of hyper-rational reader that feels the need to approach every book as a puzzle to be solved, it’s a fascinating experience. An unripe one, no doubt, and yet so powerful! The emotional flux is almost overwhelming, heightened by the sheer strength of the drawing, with red and black colors overlapping to create a stunning, disorienting effect. I wonder what a silkscreen version of the book would look like.
A couple of years pass, and two more books are published: La vera storia di Lara Canepa [roughly “The True Story of Lara Canepa”] (Coconino Press, 2010); and the trilogy Cronachette [roughly “Little Chronicles”] (Coconino Press, 2007-09; collected 2011). The first one, Lara Canepa, is already a huge step forward in defining Nanni’s artistic direction and intention. Summarizing its story would be useless, not just because of its undeniable convolutedness, but because it’s a book that needs to be experienced more than read. Time moves forwards and backwards, and its seemingly superficial plot about a couple and a secret involving love, infidelity and a child that maybe isn’t there (but still exists at least as an ontological being), proceeds more through strong emotional innuendos than clear cause/effect relationships. What I find most interesting about Lara Canepa is the constant shifting in point of view and narrator—which can be Lara itself, and then her lover, and then a pregnancy test—which deepens the author’s identity as a synchronic narrator of all things, as if they were a unicum. The line separating the human from the inanimate becomes thin. And, despite the title pointing explicitly at a character, the compresence of the dreamlike and the rational, the intimate and the choral, strengthen this feeling that one is reading something universal. And I use the term “universal” not in the usual, belittling meaning of the word, as in “something everyone can relate to”. With “universal” I mean “something that encompasses everything”, as if a story could never be “just one story” but the constant and unavoidable entwining of multiple stories, passions, point of views, compulsions, states of being... I think, together with the book leaning decisively towards the pointillistic style that would later become the staple of Nanni’s aesthetic, this is the truly first recognizable expression of his grandeur. A grandeur that would become utterly manifest less than a decade later with the publishing of his masterpiece, Atto di Dio [roughly “Act of God”] (Rizzoli Lizard, 2018). Just a couple of additional, preliminary steps and we’ll get there.
If Lara Canepa is somewhat the start of Nanni’s aesthetical and narratological experimentations, Cronachette is the clear proof of his philosophical depth. Once again, summarizing this book is nearly impossible. To be blunt, it tells the story of the relationship between the author himself and his cat, Esterina. But it’s also the story of a man overcoming grief and his sense of loneliness following the death of said Esterina. But it’s also the story of grief itself. And it’s also a story about self-expectations, about identity, about how other lives (human, non-human or even inanimate) interact with our own, about time-travel. And, it’s also a postmodern treatise on the concept of narration and reality, and an essay on the difference between author and narrator, and a manual on how cats live.
It's genuinely one of the most difficult comic books I have ever encountered, its philosophical depth on par with something like Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions but with a more radical, experimental and cryptic approach; with a lot of toying around with the conventions and grammatical rules of the comic book language, to see if and when they break. I’d argue Cronachette should be considered among the heights of comic book literature so far, but somehow I’m not surprised it’s not that well known, even among what is left of professional critics and academics in the field: it’s a long and hard and sad book, while at the same time being “that book with the cute kitten on the cover”.
The last step we need to (finally!) arrive to Atto di Dio is a thematic one. Following the universal and multi-focal narration of Lara Canepa, and capitalizing on the depth of thought in Cronachette, Nanni published two stories that—at least in my mind—cemented him as a modern ecological and post-human philosopher. The first one is Prima di Adamo [roughly “Before Adam”], published in 2015 by Canicola as a small book with pages so thick it’s hard to discern the cover from the inside. A child has recursive dreams of apes - but more than dreams, they are memories of a past never lived and yet inherited throughout countless generations. One is all and all is one; the child is one with everyone that came before since the beginning of time. In a sense, the child is every one of us, even though we don’t have his astonishing unconscious memory. Everything is the direct product of its ancestors, and their memory is in everything - in a way, they live in everything, bending the line between present and past, between animal and human.
The other story is a digital one, a webcomic that experiments with the possibilities offered by the digital format in a way we don’t see that often anymore, content as we are with the static Instagram strip format or the newly rediscovered infinite canvas of webtoons. Tree Climbers was part of a huge project of science communication called ERCcOMICS, created by Massimo Colella and Fiammetta Ghedini, funded with European research grants, and developed with the guidance of two masters of webcomics art and programming: respectively, Lorenzo Ghetti and Carlo Trimarchi.
Among the more fringe and experimental stuff produced for the project, Nanni’s Tree Climbers can appear quite vanilla - a simple mix of animation and parallax effects that sets out to talk about the planet's climate as an intertwined whole of elements. Nothing revolutionary, at least at first glance. But please do check it out (it’s completely in English): Nanni’s use of pointillism and lines and colors—a defining visual style at this point completely mastered by the author—combined with this soft animation approach, creates an unparalleled mesmerizing effect. But more striking is Nanni's ability to voice the silent and inanimate, a proficiency in keeping multiple points of view under control to coordinate a comprehensive story.
From his first steps, through the cryptic Storia di uno che andò in cerca della paura, passing by the amazing complexity of Lara Canepa and Cronachette, approaching modern post-human philosophy with Pima di Adamo and Tree Climbers... Giacomo Nanni is finally ready to craft his undeniable masterpiece. The year is 2018, and out of the blue from Rizzoli Lizard, a publisher with which he’d never worked before, comes Atto di Dio. Again, and for the last time (I promise), it’s a hard as hell book to summarize.
In the first pages we meet our first protagonist, a roe deer that gets lost and ends up in a small park near a traffic junction and a supermarket. The humans’ curiosity for this incursion of Nature inside their domain quickly turn into hostility: the animal is at best an unnecessary distraction, and at worst and hazard for motorists. We hear this from the deer’s words directly [my translation, so please be patient!]:
A deer, an emissary of Nature that speaks as a child, repetitious, ends up among the humans. It’s not normal, they say.
A couple of pages later there is another voice, another point of view. It’s Mount Subasio, one of the biggest mountains in central Italy. Maybe something speaks for it, maybe it refers to itself in the third person:
This second character is still a natural, non-human one, but this time it is something that is not alive by the usual meaning of the word. Human characters have had a couple of lines of dialogue at this point, but never once have they narrated, never once has their point of view been the one that mattered. At this point, Nanni is exploring the relationship between humans and “the rest of everything”, between what is cultural and what is natural - and he is focused on the latter, with civilization reduced to “the thing that decides what’s normal” when the deer is speaking, and to “something so small it has to hide when it snows” when the vast and imposing Mount Subasio is speaking.
It's an ever-lateral way of telling a story that is comprised of multiple separated entities that nonetheless cannot be fully taken one at a time, because the true meaning of their existence lives in that same story, in their relation to one another. And, more than that, Atto di Dio is a story that shifts focus in a non-anthropocentric way. We’re not the center of everything; maybe we never have been. Reading these first few pages is a somewhat destabilizing experience: a collection of points of view that couldn’t be further from anything the reader knows first-hand, that couldn’t be more different from their life; and yet here they are, natural as they can be, speaking our language, using words we can understand but with meaning and motives that aren’t necessarily our own. Few authors, very few in the comic book world, are this brave in depicting otherness without using metaphors, without the artifice of anthropomorphism. Nilsen again comes to mind, Jérémie Moreau’s Le discours de la panthère also... but there are few others.
Already we can see something we rarely see in contemporary graphic novels: an unusual attention to lettering, with different narrators using different lettering styles (or not, so as to suggest closeness or affinity), and an even more unusually careful use of linguistic styles. Every narrator speaks differently, in a way I have tried to preserve in my precarious translation some lines before. So often we pay no mind to this, focused as we are on the visual storytelling of comics - but how satisfying it is to read a book from an author who not only is a great artist, but also great writer! But I’m wandering off topic.
A few pages later, other characters are introduced: a thermal camera, and a hunter's rifle that, as it cares to highlight, is something separate from the gunsight mounted on it... until at last something changes. We’re somewhere over halfway through the book. Everything goes silent and turns red, then a lamp starts oscillating.
And then there is a new voice, speaking in an ornate font inside yellow boxes:
Again another narrator, again another non-human voice, this time something that not only is not alive, but strictly speaking is not even a “thing”. An earthquake isn’t something that exists. It’s an event, something that happens to something else. Ontologically speaking, it is a momentary quality of another object, a temporary state of being. Not an object in itself, nor something that should have a voice, that should “know things”. As someone who didn’t lose anything in those days, but still well-remembers that event and the tragedy it was for so many, these pages strike particularly hard. I cannot fathom how they might be for somebody that was there, that lost somebody in that moment, or their house...
They strike hard specifically because of the manifest lack of empathy—or, more in general, of human emotions—in the words of the earthquake. Once again, we understand the words, but they’re distinctively not-human in tone, in motive, in the knowledge that transpires from the cracks. And again, humanity is not the focus. This time the focus is nature’s effect on humanity, in a somewhat animistic but detached way - of depicting a natural kind of event that we force ourselves to think of as extraordinary, as a disturbance of order rather than something that simply... exists. We are used to assign moral values and agency to natural disasters such as earthquakes or tornadoes or tsunamis or avalanches. We say “it killed this many people”, sometimes even “it murdered so many people”. We think of natural disasters as villains in our story. Here is the earthquake admitting everything. “I buried them, I wiped out those buildings. It was me”. But in those words there’s not guilt nor pride, nor any lack of morality or the presence of a misguided one - just its own complete inexistence as a product of human structures. This is not our story, it’s us that’s the extraordinary presence in an otherwise still-existing and functioning world. Even though we have appointed ourselves protagonists, thinking of what is natural in a deer living near a traffic junction, and running to our little houses when it snows.
With Atto di Dio, Giacomo Nanni perfected everything he had been doing since his first short stories, and found a way to channel it in a meaningful, impossible-to-forget piece of literature that I sincerely hope will endure for years to come. His latest book, Tutto è vero [roughly “Everything is True”] (Rizzoli Lizard, 2021) follows the same structure: it’s a direct progression of the formula, this time applied to terrorism, disparity and anthropology. But “formula” and “applied” are not the right words; they’re belittling, they make it as if Nanni is following a method or a recipe. It’s not a method nor a recipe; it’s a way of looking, of thinking, maybe even of being - of putting things into words and drawing without the arrogance of being the center of everything as a person, as an artist, or as a human being.
Starting with Atto di Dio, Nanni refined his voice, setting aside the complicatedness of Cronachette without losing an ounce of depth and complexity; putting behind him the evocative but at times confused plots of Lara Canepa without forgetting its emotional values. In a world so obsessed with graphic novels, but which often and conveniently forgets what “novel” means in order to produce overinflated umbilical short stories that serve little more than the distribution system and the ego of authors, we have a lot to discover from Nanni’s work. From its complexity; its multi-focus narratives; its non-linearity; its linguistic proficiency; its meaningfulness. The more I think about it, the more I feel this is the true graphic novel.