While Fun is not Paolo Bacilieri‘s first book, it is undoubtedly his most accomplished one so far in terms of complexity and even size, as well as the first being translated into English (a few French translations are also available), expanding thus the potential readership. Moreover, and for that reason, readers will be here introduced to the author’s recurrent character, Zeno Porno, who has appeared in a number of previous titles.
Bacilieri does not work on the serial principle, in the sense of creating multiple books in which we could follow “the incredible adventures” of a character (or a constellation of characters, as secondary ones reappear here too). Zeno Porno just happens to star on a number of differently-oriented storylines, which put him into different degrees of importance in relation to the plots. In fact, and in many ways, Porno does not act here, in Fun, as the instigator of the events, but as a sort of observer, pivot, and deuteragonist to the main action.
Purportedly, one could say that Fun is a comic book (at almost 300 hundred pages and with hard covers, it is an imposing, hefty tome) about the history of the crossword puzzle. And we do learn about that history by reading it as the subject of a book being researched and written by Professor Pippo Quester, a fictional and known novel writer from Milan, where the story takes place. Quester has more than a passing resemblance to Umberto Eco, as his fame, intelligence, variety of interests and output are also equivalent to those of the famous semiotician. One of Quester’s previous novels will become paramount for the thickening of the present plot, as the young Mafalda Citicillo comes abruptly into their lives, but the whole structure is caus ed by the intellectu al’s ongoing research on this history of the crossword. A haphazard encounter on the street with Porno, who is a much younger writer for the Italian-based Disney comics magazines, puts them in a sort of collaborative relationship, allowing a focus on Quester’s story and research from Porno’s perspective.
There is, then, an underlying, more or less straightforward, linear, plot-centered story in Fun. Well, not really, as the events that involve Porno, Quester, and the young Mafalda are a convoluted, twisted tragicomic story filled with layers of interpretations, illusions, and rewritings that involve literary misprision, family sagas, and crimes of passion. Quester’s inquiry into the history of the crossword puzzle is but the motto of the whole structure of the book, and snippets of his research, his writings, and loose ideas about the subject “interrupt” the flow of the main story, as do other short episodes triggered by Zeno’s own additions, in the form of memories, short stories, cultural annotations, or otherwise apparently unrelated events. Most of Zeno’s inflected “interruptions” are rendered in a second color, while most of the book is in black-and-white.
All of these stories, however, are interlocked, in both a vertical and horizontal relationship. By the former, I want to refer to the shorter pieces that are embedded and that either explain or “illustrate” a previous or subsequent point, and by the latter things that contribute to the ongoing topics of the book. The truth is that every single excursus is yet another part that can and should be integrated to the overall, final image, just like in a puzzle. More to that point, every single page, whether constructed in small panels that seem to scatter one’s attention in multiple dimensions and references, or a splash page filled with details, present complicated, multi-layered “clues” that can be interpreted as being filled with a sense one should uncover later on or that have a constitutive power just for being there. In a spread showing Zeno’s and Mafalda’s talking in a prison, a corner filled with children’s toys present several puzzle-like games (e.g., Cluedo), as well as a carpet in the shape of a puzzle. They are not to be interpreted as something with hidden meaning in themselves but at least as metaphors of clues and parts that can bring accretion to the overall meaning.
Bacilieri creates very interesting visual dialogs between the crossword graphic structure and the comics grid, taking full advantage of the meaning-making possibilities of comics page composition. By exploring as many variations as possible of the organization of panels, he elicits from his readers a constant attention to detail that is not very common in most narrative comics. If it does slow one’s reading, it is balanced by the richness of its completion. Some of the pages include a staggering amount of references to books, comics, or films where characters interact with crosswords, show objects that could make up the thematic matter of a given puzzle, or point out people that have been in one way or another involved in the creation or consumption of those puzzles, such as the inventor himself, Arthur Wynne, a number of the most known compilers and writers of its history, literary authors such as Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov, Georges Perec, and many others. Even Marvel’s villain Hammerhead makes an important cameo, but he is just one of the comics-specific references that appears in Fun, making this a book open to a certain metatextual degree, not to mention a possible intermedial reading of comics and crosswords. In any case, and going back to the idea that there may be “hidden clues” in the included non-diegetic images of the pages, they can sometimes make us think that we are seeing rebuses, and that the combinatory power of reading the tiers and columns in a multitude of ways could make us accomplish a striking, unexpected discovery.
Somewhere along the pages of this book, one finds Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela/Hopscotch novel, yet another reference, echo, metaphor for the structure of Fun. We can read it in one go, in order to appreciate the “central” plot and the thematic “history,” but we can always revisit the pages time and again and try to perform ludic, interpretative readings of each and every “puzzle” page, as it were.
Fun is also a book about the proverbial bustling life in the city, and ostensibly New York and Milan act a twin role throughout the book. Curiously, issues about Milan’s industrial identity are played out by showing repeatedly Torre Velasca more than any other of the city’s known monuments, buildings or urban landscapes. We do visit cemeteries, public gardens, public transportation, and so on, but there is a concentration on these modern facilities that emphasizes the very material and social dimensions of the world in which crosswords emerge, as if the purpose was to make clear that it could not have possibly appeared in any other context. It is both a product and an provoker of this modernity. An academic essay reading Fun under Walter Benjamin’s lessons would herald great results. A good counterpoint to Fun could be found in Meags Fitzgerald’s Photobooth: A Biography, which, bringing a autobiographical and reporting dimension to the table, discusses how inquiring into the origin of a technology/cultural practice unlocks wider social and identity issues as well.
Bacilieri’s drawings are quite clear and legible. His figures are elegant, his line work solid, and he plays an extraordinary balancing act between a realistic approach and a more loose, comicky approach, reminding us of both classic examples such as the quoted (above, first image) early Dick Tracy work by Gould and many more contemporary European references (from Moebius to Pazienza). Another comparison could be a possible crossing of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez‘s distinctive styles in one go. His sometimes obsessive stippling, hatching and cross-hatching create strong shading and texture effects, pertinently used throughout the action. And, as we’ve seen, his page compositions are incredibly varied: sometimes baffling yet never jarring, very often demanding a second reading that may reveal secrets, but always dynamic and appropriate.
A dense, and at one time intellectually and emotionally rewarding book, Fun is truly a masterpiece of comics contemporary storytelling and I really hope this means the first of Bacilieri’s books in English.
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