Fantastical. Hilarious. Neurotic. Pop-cultural. A truly unique look at family history and relationships, as well as one’s inner self, as the author attempts to come to terms with the death of his grandmother. And yes, that’s right - even given those circumstances, it is indeed hilarious, and irreverently so much of the time. But at no point do you feel anything less than love from Italian comics phenomenon Zerocalcare. It’s just that there’s now so many feelings to both block and sift through.
The timeline of Forget My Name—among the breakthrough works of the author, published in Italy in 2014—lasts from a few hours before the aged woman's death until the morning after the funeral. And while there’s an overarching linear narrative, the story jumps all over the place in the most wonderful ways, dragging out so many mysteries—Who is "Iris"? What is this fox doing here? Who is "the illegal child"?–that you sense Zerocalcare could have extended the book by hundreds of more pages if he had wanted to, while still keeping it all just as entertaining. This sense of controlled chaos is evident in the comic’s presentation as well - panels can have borders or not, and text flows freely within and between them. While Zerocalcare himself and other people in the story are drawn as humans, there is never any outright explanation why members of his family are portrayed as birds: his sparrow-like grandmother, his mother as an imposing hen, and his father as a duck. And right away on page three, we’re introduced to a talking armadillo, Zerocalcare’s projected conscience, that from a young age shows up in stressful situations, voicing concerns and offering guidance - the perfect example of the author’s blend of humor and caring. This won’t be the only time animals depict psychological structures or are used metaphorically. Particularly funny, though also poignant, is the ‘Anti-Dolphins’ chapter, making the point that people love dolphins because no one can actually understand ultrasound communications, whereas “we shout at each other for every single matter.” Immediately following this is ‘The Tree’, an analogy for growth, ending on a full-page panel representing the terrors inherent to having fully matured.
Within all these memories that come flooding back, Zerocalcare does a great job evoking the precariousness of childhood and youth. How quickly a kid’s mind can turn anything into a grand tragedy, and then just as easily have it all be made right again, illustrated thusly with a small sentence at the bottom of a page. On the other hand, and again very funny, he shows the difficulties and ridiculousness of imposing adult order on a child’s sense of wonder and terror, depicted mainly through the travails of Zerocalcare’s put-upon mother. And then there’s the fact that even after we’ve become supposed adults, most people remain self-centered children. It’s here that Zerocalcare’s acerbic and irreverent wit shines, as characters make light of the world’s horrors that don’t concern them - the deaths of thousands considered mere trifles in the face of their own personal difficulties. Dealing with all this stuff is a major theme of the book, as facing the death of someone who has been with you all your life forces you to grow up. This is difficult to do when everything is so confusing and sad and you know you’re not ready. There is a beautifully revelatory sequence of panels in the late chapter ‘Tunas’, regarding myopic self-pity and the awareness of how much pain others might be carrying around in comparison to our own paltry burdens.
Despite their avian-like qualities, the author's family–as he says in the ‘Gilbert’ chapter–is “a complex question deserving a complex answer,” which also sums up the book very well. While Zerocalcare confesses that he never feels comfortable outside his native Rebibbia, a suburb of Rome that he would prefer never to leave, the story of his ancestors extends far beyond the Italian border. Exiled Russian aristocrats end up adopting his grandmother after her stepmother sends her and her sister to an orphanage. His red-headed great-grandfather, meanwhile, shows up in the British isles. Here is a man who is truly not what he seems. To anyone. And the color of his hair is the only pigment used throughout the otherwise entirely black-and-white book. Little hints like this lead you to believe the mysteries will deepen even further, but there’s so much in the immediate present that you don’t want to miss out by conjecturing ahead. And besides, some of Zerocalcare's imaginative twists you’d never see coming anyway.
But that’s not to say that these fantasies aren’t anchored in the real, the everyday. They all spring from powerful feelings raging inside. Growing up in the late '80s and '90s, pop culture is bound to infiltrate your thought processes, here even inextricably bound to Zerocalcare’s own psychoanalysis, which he uses to great effect. Situations morph into scenes from history, fairy tales, tv shows, comics, and video games. One chapter is entitled ‘Downton Abbey’, while the chapter where he finally finds the ring his grandmother wishes to be buried with–the search for which has been driving the action of all these memories–is called ‘Level Complete’. Grandma’s wicked stepmother is, of course, drawn as the one from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And there’s quite a few panels of family members' likenesses carved into rocks a la the Sphinx and other monuments. All of these vividly counter fear and its minions lurking in the shadows. Zerocalcare doesn’t shy away from darkness, entering the story on page eight in a scene at the hospital, not for the last time.
Forget My Name as a whole is proof of the author’s growth, and it is a testament to his artistry that he doesn’t gloss over less-than-admirable human qualities–especially ones arising in the face of death and other’s grief–to moralize about how one is supposed to live. Instead, he tells the story his way: full of flaws, laughs, and criticisms, and the reader is all the richer for it.