By Nicole Rudick
The appeal of some translated works lies in their ability to relate specific events to a broad foreign audience. Others operate in reverse, projecting a nonspecific vantage that can be claimed on an individual scale, as a sympathetic experience. The comics of Italian writer and artist Gipi fall into the latter category.
Born Gian Alfonso Pacinotti in Pisa in 1963, Gipi has been creating comics for more than a decade. English-speaking readers may know him best from two graphic novels translated last year, Notes for a War Story (2004) and Garage Band (2005). (2007 also saw Fantagraphics's publication of a pair of shorter works, The Innocents and They Found the Car.) Brought out in quick succession by his American publisher, First Second, these books had already garnered enormous attention in Europe: In 2005, Notes for a War Story received the René Goscinny Prize for Best Script at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and, the following year, Best Book of the Year. As the story's three young men—Giuliano, Christian, and Little Killer—navigate a land ripped apart by war ("A village was there at dinnertime, and in the morning it was gone," Giulano coolly observes), they must also maneuver across the terrain of early adulthood, plotting their way in relation to such characters as their thuggish and cynical mentor, Felix.
Garage Band borrows some of these same tropes—namely, friendship and late adolescence, as well as class tension—to describe the relationships between four young men and their families, in particular their fathers. In this story, which is divided into four "songs," Gipi presents a less harrowing account of growing up, exchanging the field of war for familial turf, but he likewise offers no map and no neat conclusions for his struggling young protagonists. His wistful, subdued storytelling and the evident joy with which he draws the bandmates during practices elicits the same sense of collectivity that Notes for a War Story creates through the shared experience of war.
Gipi currently resides in Paris—one of the side effects of his success at Angoulême, he explains. This interview was conducted in January, as he finished work on his latest comic, stories taken from his own life, along with the odd pirate tale.
Nicole Rudick: Let's begin with your most recent book, Notes for a War Story, which follows the exploits of three young men in a war-torn country. How did you choose this setting?
GIPI: I intended to place this war in any European country. In the Italian version of the book, the name of the villages are Italian names, in the French version, French names. I didn't want the reader to think, "This war happens elsewhere, far from me." My intention was to make people think about the possibilities of a war suddenly arriving in their own home.
NR: The story is meant to be universal, set in no specific time or place?
GIPI: The time is now. The place is everywhere. This was my plan. But I discovered that readers often need to place a story somewhere other than their own country and to shift the time to the past. I imagine this is a normal reaction. No one wants to imagine his home bombed out.
NR: Did you originally write the story with Italy in mind?
GIPI: Yes, I wrote the whole story with Italy in mind. It is placed in the countryside near my town.
NR: Are there echoes of Italy's past in the story?
GIPI: There are a couple of things about modern Italian politics. For instance, I used the name of two members of Berlusconi's government for two bad characters. And the lack of any sense of social responsibility is typically Italian. For many years now, the laws in Italy have been almost completely ignored. Our Minister of Justice was charged with corruption just yesterday. The "smarts" [those who know how to work the system] rule. I applied this way of thinking to the character of Felix.
NR: Felix works by instinct, a desire to survive and prosper by crime.
GIPI: Yes, that's right. And instinct is what remains when you remove law and a sense of community from society. But I didn't want to do a political graphic novel. I've been inspired by the Italian atmosphere, but the book is about other things, too. Like fate. Each of the three main characters has a different fate. I always wondered what it is that can save or damn your life. This comes from my adolescence, when I saw many of my old friends—people just like me—fail. I'm not concerned with success but with living or dying. Your life ends either in prison or doing graphic novels.
NR: How, then, did you end up where you are, while many of your friends didn't make it?
GIPI: I grew up in a pretty harsh environment, in a band of little thugs. But I saved myself, yes. I think this is due in part to family and, in my specific case, to art and a love of storytelling.
NR: How autobiographical are stories like Garage Band and Notes for a War Story?
GIPI: Very autobiographical. I always used to say that I had no imagination. This is not completely true, but I am inspired by real life events.
NR: Is one of the characters in like Garage Band and Notes for a War Story more heavily based on you, or do you see yourself in each of them?
GIPI: There is always a character who is dumber than the others. This is me. It's Julien (Giuliano) in Notes for a War Story and Julien again in Garage Band. I'm the dumbest character, the one who observes, who acts a little less than the others do.
NR: That's funny, because I found both of those characters the easiest ones to relate to.
GIPI: Because they tell the stories, they're the narrators. It's my voice. That's the difference between Julien and the others characters. Julien watches the action; the others do things. Julien is never really living.
NR: Was this the way you felt growing up?
GIPI: Yes. I would watch my friends doing things I was unable to do because there was always a point that I didn't have the courage to go beyond. I come from a pretty rich family too. I think this was the other important difference, because many of my friends came from poor families, with enormous problems. So, I can say that in Notes for a War Story there is a political level: war and, on a deeper level, social differences.
NR: Each of your books that have been translated into English—The Innocents and They Found the Car by Fantagraphics and Garage Band and Notes for a War Story by First Second—tell stories of a small group of male friends whose relationships are defined and changed by sometimes subtle, but always powerful, external forces. In the case of Garage Band, it's social class, and in Notes for a War Story, it's the war. In each story, too, the young men sit on the cusp of adulthood, feeling the pull of responsibility and the desire to resist it.
GIPI: This comes from autobiographical inspiration too. I lived my adolescence in the streets, feeling immortal. And I lived the strongest experiences of my life during that time. Now that I'm older, I look back with compassion and a desire to tell those stories and describe those feelings.
NR: We seem to live a lifetime in that small window just before full adulthood. When anything is possible.
GIPI: Yes, that's right. I'm pretty happy to have become an adult, but in these years of adolescence, I always found a different, stronger force, one that I love to relate in stories. It's a stronger force, but it was also a terrible weakness. My friends and I really didn't know who we were. I had no idea of my "self" when I was younger. We were running, but none of us really knew where we were running. Nor why.
NR: Do you think you have some perspective on that time now? Some understanding of what you were doing and feeling?
GIPI: Yes. When I was young, all the bad things happening in the streets (drugs, for example) seemed normal to me. Now I look at eighteen-year-old guys and I see them as children. I see them as young people who need guidance and help. We were completely alone. This was normal for us then, but it's sad to think about it now.
NR: Why was Notes for a War Story in black-and-white and Garage Band in color?
GIPI: Partly for production reasons. In Italy, there wasn't a big market for graphic novels at that moment. Now I'm pretty much a star here [laughs], but at that time, the publisher wasn't sure he could invest in a full-color book. But really, because of the war setting, I wanted the look of some kind of plain diary without splashy pages or beautiful effects.
I'm pretty modest when I tell stories. I set lot of rules for my work. I call them "ethical rules." Like in the book S., which I wrote in the past year, about my father and his life and death. In S. I forced myself to write the text directly on the page, without any script—120 pages of improvisation without the possibility of corrections. It is a tribute to my father, so I don't want to be "good" at telling his life. I was looking to create something, maybe badly made, but true.
NR: What was the rule in Garage Band?
GIPI: Garage Band is an exception. I did the book right after the loss of my father. I was really weak, so there are no special rules. It was difficult enough to work, I couldn't also put an ethical limitation on my shoulders.
NR: Garage Band is very much about sons and fathers. Did you realize this when you were writing it?
GIPI: My intention was to tell a story about a loss. The first version contained the death of one of the characters, but I removed it. The only loss now is that of the music room. I was writing about losing something important and continuing to live. It's a pretty simple argument. But I find Garage Band to be my weakest book.
NR: I thought the story in Garage Band was much subtler than that of Notes for a War Story. The practice space seems to hold the boys together—it allows them to express themselves wordlessly. Reality exists outside of that space, and there, they must deal with problematic relationships with their parents, particularly their fathers, some of whom are present and some of whom are absent.
GIPI: This was, I think, the first story where I used a "father" character. Now I know why. And maybe, yes, I felt a need to talk about relationship between fathers and sons. Also, I like to think about the moments of my own band, when there wasn't anything but guitars and noise. And this great energy, that I hope I convey in the mute pages with the band playing.
NR: Those are some of the best scenes in the book. How did your drawing style develop?
GIPI: The scenes with the band playing were sketched directly with the pen, without pencil. There are a lot of errors on those pages. But everybody seems to think that these mistakes are some sort of attempt to create a sense of movement.
NR: Has your style changed since you first began drawing comics?
GIPI: Well, I change style whenever I start a new book. It's like the form and style of drawings are "inside" the story, and they come out only with the first drawings of the first page. Often, I do some kind of study before starting the work, but the studies are always useless, because the drawings change in the first scene on the page.
For Notes for a War Story, I started drawing without any idea of what I was doing. I did the first fourteen pages by improvising completely. I didn't study the characters. After fourteen pages, I told myself there was a story there, and some good characters too, but I didn't know too much about it. So I stopped for a month and tried to discover if I felt a motivation inside me to tell this story. And I found it. Only after that did I write a real script. Again, I changed a lot on the pages. I really love . . . well, I'm a slave, of improvisation.
NR: How did you start writing comics?
GIPI: I started doing political drawings for the satirical newspaper Cuore (a very popular newspaper that doesn't exist anymore) in 1994, after the triumph of Berlusconi. But I didn't think I was honest in doing this, because I was criticizing a system without any idea of a different and better system. So I stopped. And I told myself that telling the stories of my friends and their wasted youth was a political activity, too. For me, telling the story of a guy that died at twenty from a heroin overdose was something political. My intention was to point out that something was wrong in Italian society if so many young people could find themselves dead or in jail.
NR: Have you been influenced by other comics writers?
GIPI: Yes, there was an Italian comics writer that died in the '90s. His name was Andrea Pazienza. He was my master. I studied with him when I was eighteen. He was pretty much a junkie—a genial one—and me, too, at that time, so we became friends.
I worked with him for only one month, but I was such a fan of his work. I studied with him because I loved his work, and has been really hard to clean my hand and my voice from his influence—that took about ten years to achieve.
NR: What did you like most about his work?
GIPI: He taught me that in real life there is plenty of drama and beauty to draw and tell stories about. This is not easy for a young man to understand.
NR: Do you feel that you're working within a comics tradition in Italy?
GIPI: I really don't know. Someone in Italy wrote I'm leading Italian comics to their death. I was pretty happy to read that [laughs]. I don't know much about Italian comics anyway.
NR: Are you aware of comics produced in the US? Are there many that are translated?
NR: Have you been influenced by their work?
GIPI: Maus taught me that you can tell any story with comics. Nilsen showed me different ways to work with time and silences and feelings, and Clowes, I love his pretty pop American way of drawing. It's something impossible to me.
NR: Contrary to the claim that you're ruining Italian comics, you've been hailed as "the greatest Italian comics artist alive today." It's interesting that you've been placed at both ends of the spectrum—the best and the worst.
GIPI: I imagine that the critic who dislikes my work prefers stories with great adventures and muscled guys with big guns.
NR: How did you feel about winning the Grand Prix at Angoulême for Notes for a War Story?
GIPI: That changed my life. I started earning money. I found a French love (that I lost a week ago) and moved to France. Also, in Italy, the public discovered my work as the result of the prize. It's a typical Italian process.
NR: In the United States, comics have only recently begun receiving attention in the mainstream press. How are comics treated by the Italian literary community and by book reviewers?
GIPI: The situation is still difficult. Comics are only now published as books and are sold in bookshops. My books are there, with the works of Igort and David B. and Joann Sfar and so on. Before, there were only commercial comics in newspaper shops and in specialized comics bookshops. In Italy, when you says you are doing comics, everybody thinks it's something for children.
NR: Are there many other Italian comics writers? What is the scene like there?
GIPI: There is a very strong commercial sector—stories about muscled men—and some authors are working on graphic novels, but not too many. In France, it is completely different. Notes for a War Story gets reviewed by literature magazines. In one magazine, it was named among the best twenty books of the past year, and it was the only book with drawings inside. This to say, in France they don't distinguish between comic books and "regular" books. Something impossible in Italy, at the moment, I think.
NR: Were you hoping to have your work translated into English?
GIPI: I was a little scared at first, because all my stories are little stories that take place in an Italian neighborhood. But I'm really happy to see the reactions of American readers.
NR: What sorts of responses have you gotten?
GIPI: I saw some reviews on the web. Someone did a short film of They Found the Car, and I received some offers from American movie producers for Notes for a War Story and Garage Band. That's good. It also scares me, because I always write stories and try to remove things. For a movie, you need to put things in the story.
NR: Well, you've conquered the international market and it looks like film is soon to follow. What's next for you?
GIPI: The new book. I'm only thinking about it, right now. Oh, and I have to find a new love too [laughs].
NR: What's the new book about?
GIPI: It's a really crazy puzzle of stories taken from my life—and a part with a pirate. There is a moment in the story where I should be talking about love and women, but I was unable to do that, so I escaped into a pirate story. But, I'm not completely crazy, so it does make sense with the rest of the story. The pirate represents the dark side of me, which will always destroy the love stories I live...
Nicole Rudick is Managing Editor of Bookforum