Niente di nuovo sul fronte di Rebibbia – Zerocalcare

I am exactly the kind of fool who would really love to do everything in life. Taste everything, study everything, have an opinion on everything. This will lead to madness and, worse yet, failure. It also leads me to weird rabbit holes where I get it in my head that I need to do more of something. Recently, I found myself thinking ‘I should really read more comics’.

I have no idea why I should do this. I have no idea how this will make my life better. But this line of thinking took me to a bookstore, where ‘Niente di nuovo sul fronte di Rebibbia’ (Nothing new on the front of Rebibbia [an urban area on the outskirts of Rome]) grabbed my attention, for two stupid reasons:

  • I used to live in Rebibbia
  • I spent last Christmas watching the Zerocalcare Netflix series with my mother, and enjoyed it immensely.
Lontano dagli occhi, lontano dal cuore - Zerocalcare - Internazionale

For those of you who have no idea who Zerocalcare is, he is a comics artist from Rome. Rome very specifically, as opposed to Italy (more on this below). The myth goes that the artist (who just goes by Zerocalcare) chose his nom de plume because he was on the john when making a twitter account, needed a handle to use, and found a bottle of de-calcifying powder, and went with that (ZERO CALCARE – No calcium). I think there is something we can read into this story about modern Italy, and the general apathy (menefottismo) of the disaffected youth who, having no prospects, kind of phone everything in. The style occasionally feels lazy, but in a way that a person could politely inform you is the point.

I had no idea what I was getting into with this collection. A lot of it was closer to Joe Sacco style journalism. The first ‘story’ here is about how Italian prisons handled covid-19. The second was the artist explaining cancel culture to his mother. The third revolved around a meeting with a Kurdish freedom fighter.

I like the politics expressed here. But I am not sure politics is what I was looking for here.

I think the last story redeemed the collection for me, at least somewhat. It was a personal tale of the process of getting the above mentioned Netflix show off the ground, and the sort of ‘demons’ the author had to face – ‘arrogance1, censorship, collaboration, fear of failure, etc. I think this is more akin to what I was expecting. The story here again is non-fiction, but there is more of the brand of humor and creativity I was expecting – like how Netflix is represented as an Eye of Sauron.

I have a major criticism and a half regarding the book. One is that the calligraphy can be rather bad. I believe that in the comics industry there is frequently a division of labor, where the person who does the drawings doesn’t also do the lettering. I have no idea who is doing the lettering here, but it isn’t all that great of a job. There were more plenty of occasions where I had to reread some words because what I thought was a ‘d’ turned out to be a ‘cl’. It doesn’t help that this is Roman. It is all very Roman. Years ago, I had an expat friend in Rome who was gearing up to rage quit his adventures in Italy. After spending years learning the language, he found himself greatly annoyed that to be functionally literate in Italy, not only do you need to know the language, but you need to be passingly familiar with the 20 or so major dialects. Dialects in Italy are pretty important, and rather distinct. Zerocalcare writes not in standard Italian, but in Romanaccio, the bastardized new dialect of the city of Rome. Years ago, I was pretty competent at reading it. Right now, it is a bit of a challenge. On its own, this wouldn’t be an issue, but when you add it to the poor calligraphy and it does make the reading a lot harder.

All in all, I enjoyed it. I am not entirely sure I will keep going with them. I think I was looking for stories proper, something more akin to fiction than what I got. I will give another one a go, but then I may switch gears

1 In today’s episode of ‘translation is hard’, protervia, rendered here as arrogance. Is that good enough? Specifically, this chapter was about him wanting to do the whole damn project by himself – a fool’s errand.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

2 thoughts on “Niente di nuovo sul fronte di Rebibbia – Zerocalcare

    • Zerocalcare has a few translations around, but not this addition. I have seen English and Spanish. Not sure how well they will do. I read a couple other volumes – reviews forthcoming – were I briefly touch on that. Mostly, I wonder to what extent a lot of these italian-centric cultural references would hold.


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