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.
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.”
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.