“I think that was when I started loving hating comics” Gipi handwrites, with the one word crossed out to give the indication of a first draft hastily edited in favor of the truer meaning offered by saying the opposite thing. The majority of My Badly Drawn Life adopts this journal-keeping mode of handwritten intimacy and sketchbook immediacy. The lettering, the line crossing out, and the drawings themselves all share the same spindly lineweight, creating the impression that it’s all made by the same tool, potentially a widely-available ballpoint pen. The skillful drawing the artist is capable of is worked up to, so that the landscapes displaying a mastery of shadow come off just as casual as the doodles introducing characters, the better to time jokes with, all in the authorial voice of the raconteur. The purpose of the memoir is not to explicate the complicated relationship Gipi has with his chosen medium. Instead, he aims to tell the stories of his shithead youth, and unpack the love/hate relationship he has with own past self. The underlying subject is masculinity, the brotherhood that binds Gipi together with both his best friends and the worst people to ever enter his orbit.
Appropriately, the book takes a darkly raucous tone. My Badly Drawn Life was a hit in Europe when it was released 15 years ago, and it’s easy to see why. The sense of humor isn’t intellectual or arch, it’s stories told by the life of the party. Acid is taken and a period of temporary insanity follows. Men get naked at parties but are embarrassed at the doctor’s office. Ten days are spent in jail. Vomit piles up. A reread reveals how considered construction provides the necessary economy to quell any accusations of self-indulgence from the autobio averse. Gipi deploys a skilled comedian’s approach to callbacks and extended storytelling despite digression. This is just as much the story of a young man’s fucking around as it is a middle-aged man’s melancholic reverie, with youthful hijinx and aging’s indignities united by their shared theme of humiliation. There’s more to the book than just laughs and juvenilia, but the points emerge organically from this approach. The misadventures of wayward youth speak to a general failure on the part of adults to provide them with less self-destructive alternatives, while the ambivalent treatment of the middle-aged by the medical establishment they rely on speaks to a problem with a shared root cause, endemic disinterest in anything without an easy solution.
Rude humor of the type that characterizes this book is always going to edge into the “be forewarned” zone. Be assured we’re not dealing with the compulsive idiocy of someone whose main motivation is to provoke, but a sensitive-enough person using humor as a coping mechanism to deal with the unbearable. It’s not the work of someone seeking refuge in the juvenile, but the work of a frustrated adult whose despair is genuine. Gipi identifies his obsession with death with an incident from his youth, when he, at the age of ten, was in the same room as an older man, potentially armed with a gun, attempting to sexually assault his 18-year-old sister. Gipi recalls, with disgust, his own politeness in begging for his life while his sister fights her assailant off. This scars him for life and gives him a reason to commit to rudeness as ethos. This grounds the humor, even if one doesn’t actively laugh at it, in its attempt to make sense of cruelty and thereby develop a resilience to it. Entering adulthood afterwards, Gipi is somewhat disgusted by male sexuality even as his own self-image is tied up in the health and function of his dick. The book is interested in the fears and insecurities that feed the fantasist, which is always going to include racist stuff, as this is closely tied to sexual insecurities in the European imagination.
Folded within the book’s black and white narration-driven bulk are watercolored sequences broadly parodying the genre of pirate comics, a synecdoche of the relationship between Gipi’s comics work (as seen in books like Notes For A War Story, awarded best album at Angoulême) and his actual life, as represented by the journal comic format. This pirate comic provides its own metaphor for an artist’s career, as the POV character, taken prisoner by the pirate gang, has his sad little notebook of scribblings, and so has his life spared, provided he can play Scheherazade to a seafaring gang of potential rapists. Within this metaphor, it’s made clear that being a comics artist working in genre means performing masculinity for one’s audience in order to make stories that are going to be appreciated and rewarded. Besides the book’s two main visual styles, there’s a one-off image appropriated from a porno comic, with all-caps typographic lettering and a lifeless line, in turn juxtaposed against the shadowy form of the attempted rapist laughing along with it. “You like it? You can keep it” says the polite young boy version of the artist.
The cover to the Fantagraphics edition has the abbreviation of the title “MBDL” in far larger lettering than it does the title itself, and while that probably stems from an insecurity on the part of the publisher to label a book they seek to sell as “badly drawn,” it is perhaps a productive misreading to think of the BD in the center of the abbreviation as referring to “bande desinée,” the French term for comics. Within the context of the book’s structure of reminiscence, Gipi lives in France as a working cartoonist, though he himself is Italian. In Italy, comics are known as fumetto, due to the visual association between plumes of cigarette smoke and word balloons. The first image of the book we see is the artist smoking, with “all I want to do is smoke” written in both the smoke plume and the narration immediately underneath it, drawing its own parallel between the artist’s self-destructiveness and the medium he uses to tell stories. This is not primarily a comic about comics, but a dark comedy about life in general. By focusing on the life and work of an artist, the self-replication of cultural dysfunction emerges as one of the book's subjects.
“Comics” in English has its own double-meaning, referring to both sequential art and the stand-up performers whose extended sets I have already noted the book’s structural similarity to. The appeal of stand-up comedy is in how it feels like a direct form of communication, and this is the appeal of My Badly Drawn Life as well. On the pages of black and white art, without any watercolor, the reading experience comes off closer to a zine than a slick bookstore-friendly graphic novel. This is a good thing, although the packaging of the Fantagraphics edition, with its abbreviation rendered in a godawful typeface, does not do the book’s contents any favors. Still, the dimensions of the book do emphasize it as a reading experience rather than as a deluxe artbook object to be stared at, and the sturdiness of the thing should allow it to stand on library shelves for a long time to come, where it will hopefully find the widest possible audience. It is well-drawn and funny, rich in incident and character detail, and deeply human: a comic I expect anyone whose taste I find remotely comprehensible would enjoy.