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Italy’s found a storyteller to describe its zeitgeist and he’s a cartoonist

Bestselling underground cartoonist Zerocalcare captures Italy's unusual mix of disillusioned youth, a globalized culture, radical left-wing politics, humdrum daily life and support for anarchist-democratic experiments in the Middle East by Kurds and Yazidis.

PALERMO, Sicily (CN) — Among the usual suspects on Italy's bestseller lists this holiday season – mysteries, thrillers, romantic novels, pop science books – a curious exception jumped out: The new graphic novel from radical left-wing underground cartoonist Zerocalcare.

Italy's fallen under the spell of this hilariously ironic, quirky and politically charged 39-year-old Italian-French graphic artist who's immortalized himself as a fast-talking, obsessive, perceptive and doom-struck punk rock kid from Rome's suburbs.

“Every time Zerocalcare comes out with a comic, you will find it among the 10 most sold books on Amazon and in bookshops,” said Silvia Vari, a literature scholar at the University of Warwick in England who's studied and written about Zerocalcare.

Zerocalcare – the cartoonist's real name is Michele Rech – has given Italy something it was missing: A bestselling underground cartoonist.

He is capturing Italy's zeitgeist of disillusioned, bored and globalized younger generations cocooned inside their homes on computers and smartphones. But there's a twist: He's using his success to speak out on social and political issues.

Portrait of Michele Rech, an Italian cartoonist known as Zerocalcare. (Photo courtesy of Bao Publishing via Courthouse News)

Zerocalcare is anchored in Rebibbia, a middle-class suburb in northeast Rome known for its communist leanings, underground culture and a massive prison.

It's a Brutalist-inspired landscape of concrete high-rise apartment buildings, fits of busy traffic, lonely straight streets and graffiti-covered walls enveloped by an everywhere-and-nowhere culture cluttered with Pokemon and Star Wars characters, supermarket chains, brand names, Karl Marx quotes, post-modern pastiches.

“He's been compared sometimes to the term hikikomori,” Vari said, referring to Japanese youths who bury themselves at home. “Italy is actually following in a bigger trend of a sense of depression, a lack of projection into the future.”

In Zerocalcare's case, his delusion may be traced back to the traumatic events of July 2001 when anti-globalization protesters were brutally assaulted in Genoa by Italian police during a summit of the Group of Eight, a gathering of world leaders from rich countries.

Just 17 at the time, Zerocalcare joined others from Rome and traveled to Genoa to take part in the protests and he was beaten up by police, as he recalls in his comics.

As a schoolchild in the 1990s, he missed the euphoria that permeated the decade that preceded the police violence in Genoa, said Valerio Bindi, an author, cartoonist and founder of CRACK!, a major international underground cartoon festival in Rome. His festival helped Zerocalcare emerge as a cartoonist.

“He found himself telling the story of a deluded generation that had kind of lost the possibility to hope things would get better,” Bindi said. “This idea of failure is at the base of his writings and it's an idea shared among his generation.”

Bindi said many people born among Italy's Millennial generation became precariats struggling with unemployment and a lack of prospects.

“They can't even think about buying a home, having a future and a way out,” Bindi said. “He's one of the few who's been able to create work for himself, find an identity through his work.”

The cover of Italian underground cartoonist Zerocalcare's 2022 graphic novel "No Sleep TIil Shengal." (Image courtesy of Bao Publishing via Courthouse News)

Zerocalcare's caught Italy's imagination with his diary-like works that include a blog, graphic novels and animated television series that depict an existence of quotidian – and very relatable – tragedies: There are the constant miseries (and joys) of being tied to smartphones, social media, computers; there's the comfort in the inertia of his mounds of junk and personal possessions on his sofa, in his car, on his bathroom shelves; there's the horror of finding himself with a bit of down time to only discover that being idle actually unleashes a hell of dark thoughts.

His ironic style and focus on the everyday were a perfect match for describing daily life during Italy's prolonged and excruciating coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

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He made an animated TV series during the pandemic and it became a smashing success. Suddenly, the punk kid from Rome's underground scene had become a household name.

“He talked like someone in lockdown, like someone who was waiting in line at the supermarket. As usual, he spoke simply, in this spoken language,” Bindi said. “And it went over well.”

His cartoons are packed with speech bubbles, expressions, allusions. They're smart, caustic constructions full of references to cultural, political, societal and philosophical icons and symbols. Throughout, he uses a technique where French philosopher Rene Descartes, Karl Marx, Socrates and an armadillo pop in and out and talk to him as his conscience.

And all of this is delivered in “Romanesco,” a crude, slangy, garbled, profanity-laced Roman mode of speech.

A page from Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare's graphic novel, "Niente Di Nuovo Sul Fronte Di Rebibbia," which translates in English to "Nothing New on the Rebibbia Front." (Image courtesy of Bao Publishing via Courthouse News)

“He works a lot with language,” Bindi said. “He really wants to be an old-time storyteller. He's not looking to make neat, well-done drawings just as he's not looking to write in well-formed Italian. He's looking to do works that express the everyday.”

Zerocalcare grew from out of Rome's left-wing circles centered around unused public buildings, such as abandoned schools, that were squatted and occupied by activists. The CRACK! festival takes place in a former Roman fort that was occupied in 1986 and turned into the Forte Prenestino social center.

Through this left-wing network, Zerocalcare came into contact with groups of Kurdish exiles and activists in Rome and that opened the way for him to go on expeditions into the war zones of the Middle East.

Through his comics, he's revisited the tragically ignored stories of genocide and massacre committed against Kurds and Yazidis and taught Italians about their armed struggles to create anarchist-socialist-democratic experiments at self-rule, a model known as “democratic confederalism.” Kurds are doing this in Syria's Rojava region and Yazidis in northern Iraq's Sinjar, also known as Shengal, area.

In his comics and media interviews, Zerocalcare argues the West is hypocritically doing nothing to support these democratic experiments in the Middle East and instead permitting Turkey, a NATO ally, and other powers in the region to squash them.

In his newest bestseller, “No Sleep Till Shengal,” Zerocalcare goes on a dangerous – and sleepless – trip into Iraq to reach Sinjar. To get there, his group of travelers is frequently stopped by menacing machine-gun-wielding soldiers, encounters thuggish intelligence agents and speaks with Yazidi victims of Islamic State group atrocities.

Photo of Italian underground cartoonist Zerocalcare's 2022 graphic novel "No Sleep Till Shengal" on the best-seller shelf at a Feltrinelli book store in Palermo, Sicily, in December 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Vari said Zerocalcare's ability to turn the stories of the Kurds and Yazidis into bestsellers is remarkable.

“Who the hell talks about the Kurds, right?” the literature scholar said. “That is not something average Italians deal with. It is not information we are fed through the media.”

The world of Zerocalcare can seem both vaguely similar and yet so unrecognizable to what most Americans know.

Most of his books have not yet been translated into English, making it difficult for non-Italian readers to appreciate the universe he's created. However, a 2015 book about his trip to visit the Kurdish struggle, entitled “Kobane Calling,” has been translated into English and in 2021 Zerocalcare made an animated Netflix series with an English translation called “Tear Along the Dotted Line.” The six-part series is the tale of Zerocalcare's crush on a girl in high school – a punk rock fan just like him – who years later ends her own life.

Zerocalcare is reinvigorating an underground comics tradition with roots in Italy's student movement of the 1960s and the turbulence and ferment of 1970s when the country was convulsed by student riots, terrorized by the Red Brigades, a communist paramilitary group, and rocked by discontent as the country's working class demanded better living conditions.

“It was a general atmosphere of literally counter information though zines, through comics, through radio – Radio Alice, Radio Onda Rossa,” Vari said. These radical left-wing radio stations were founded in the 1970s. Radio Onda Rossa is still on the air.

“The underground in Italy has always been one of the most prominent underground movements together with, I would say, France and the United States,” Vari said.

A page showing a group of Yazidis in Sinjar (also known as Shengal), Iraq, as portrayed in Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare's 2022 graphic novel, "No Sleep Till Shengal." (Image courtesy of Bao Publishing via Courthouse News)

Just as America honors its counterculture cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, Italy too can look back at a rich history of fringe cartoonists, such as 1970s-era cartoonist Andrea Pazienza and others whose works appeared in Cannibale and Linus, left-wing comics magazines.

Zerocalcare's success is injecting new life into Italy's comics scene, long overshadowed in Europe by the vibrant traditions of comics in Belgium and France. With a French mother and his school years spent learning French, Zerocalcare was steeped in that Franco-Belgian tradition.

“It is playing a role in general in putting comics back in the forefront and saying this is a cool medium that we can use to talk about current issues,” Vari said.

His success, though, hasn't been easy for Zerocalcare ,who is known for being very protective about his personal life.

“[Fame] is not something to be proud of if you come from the radical left or from social centers in which you are very niche,” Vari said. “He's adopted a certain system of values – for his own survival in a way – and so he has a very difficult time with his own popularity. He's trying not to betray his values and I think he's doing it quite well.”

Bindi doubted Zerocalcare will stray from his principles.

“With comics in general, one of the biggest elements is sincerity,” he said. “This was how it was for Crumb and the American underground. It's been this way during the entire history of comics. He's very sincere.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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