The New Life Of Comics And The Zerocalcare Effect

Zerocalcare's cartoons give a voice to an entire generation. The 1980s, the 1990s and the G8 events strongly influenced his experience and the style of his cartoons.

ActuaLitté / CC BY-SA

Zerocalcare’s comics give a voice to an entire generation, with the 80s, 90s and the G8 events strongly influencing his experience and writing style.

Zerocalcare is the alias of Michele Rech the Italian best-selling comic artist born in 1983 in Cortona and then, landed in Rome. There, he lives in Rebibbia, an area in the northeastern part of the city. This neighborhood is also central in many of his stories. Since he was young, he has been a voracious reader of every genre of comics. He is fascinated by them and their stories, from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to DragonBall and the Japanese mangas. Growing up, after attending a French high school he decided to study foreign languages but his mind was focused on something else.

Starting with comics

At the end of high school, he started drawing flyers and posters for music groups and local events. Then, the end of the 1990s was characterized by social mobilizations and riots on a global scale. Michele found himself influenced by the revolutionary ideas, especially because he hung out in social centers, and a final blow arrived in 2001. The Genoa mobilizations and the G8 violences heavily affected his perspectives about politics and the police. As a result, those circumstances pushed him toward a more sensitive form of comics, allowing him to express his point of view better.

His style is unique and extremely rooted in the local and social context of Rebibbia. Since his youth, he has been influenced by the Roman dialect and this is heavily reflected in his work. He voluntarily decides to use the slang and to insert his personal perspectives in each comic. Friends and family become the characters of many of his stories, often helping him achieve what he is looking for and reduce his paranoid behavior. Secco, Cinghiale, Sarah, Katja, Deprecabile and Giuliacometti are stereotypical comic figures of friends that all of us may have. His mother is transformed into Lady Cocca from Robin Hood, a constant presence in his comic strips. Moreover, some comic figures become metaphorical representations of the feelings of the author. Polpo represents the difficulty to breathe when we feel guilty. Panda is the selfish feeling that turns you into a cynical and sluggish person. Finally, Armadillo is the guiding spirit of Zerocalcare, impersonating the lazy and more paranoid side of his character.

The comic artist’s capacity to discuss real life problems using comics attracts comics fans, but also youngsters, young adults, and those who experienced the sketched events in person. Using his sharp strokes and supported by his personal and political views, he is able to strengthen the voice of the generation born in the 1980s. As a consequence of his personal experiences, he is able to perfectly describe the uncertainties and worries of young adults under 40. Finally, thanks to the format of the comics, he successfully offers a direct analysis of real challenges, without worrying about being too exposed to the critics.

The beginning of his successes as a comic artist, is his blog and his first attempt to share with the public his work and his thoughts. As a result, it started to get more recognition around 2011 when the number of readers greatly increased day after day. At the same time, his first comic book The Armadillo Prophecy arrived in 2011. First, it’s self-published with another well-known Italian comic artist, Makkox, and then, with BAO Publishing. The book suddenly became a great success, turning into a movie released in 2018. In it, on the background of the death of a friend, Zero and Secco experience interconnected humorous stories trying to accept the dreadful news. The particular and innovative style of this comic has earned him wide popularity and more than seventeen reprints. The positive trend continued in 2012 and 2013, first with publishing Tentacles at My Throat, then with Ogni Maledetto Lunedì su Due and Dodici.

The year 2014 represented another milestone. It was the publication of Forget My Name, where the true story of his grandmother’s passing triggered his curiosity to know more about his family history. Forget My Name is a touching metaphorical travel story of the author, together with his friend Secco, to discover the unknown about himself and his past. However, one of his widely known publications is Kobane Calling, published in 2015 on the Internazionale. It includes the experiences of the author himself during his trip to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The theme is in stark contrast with the past ones and, this time, the result looks more like a report. From Rebibbia to the not-so-famous Kurdistan, Zerocalcare decided to document the resistance of the Kurdish population in black and white against the ISIS. The result is a vivid description of the fragile situation of families, soldiers and local people, thriving to have a better life.

Zerocalcare is a prolific author with three other comics published from 2017 to 2019. Firstly, the release of Macerie Prime and its sequel Macerie Prime Sei Mesi Dopo. Both of them are a real generational story about the difficulties and struggles that he and his friends experienced. Then, La Scuola Delle Pizze in Faccia del Professor Calcare combines a series of short stories about the behavior of a judgmental public. As a matter of fact, his comics tend to become a manifesto for those young generations often stuck in limbo, unsure of what the future will bring them.

New cartoons during the lockdown: Rebibbia Quarantine

In 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Zerocalcare was stuck in his house like the majority of the world population. From his apartment in Rebibbia, surrounded by video game consoles and plumcake, he gave birth to a unique cartoon series called Rebibbia Quarantine. Once again, 10 episodes of around three minutes each characterized by a unique and homemade format. From the first sequences, it’s clear it’s made with an artisanal touch and handwritten scenes, filmed with the smartphone and self-dubbed. Thanks to this new approach, the author found the right style to be widely accessible, especially during quarantine.

In each episode, he illustrates different daily struggles connected to his lockdown in Rebibbia. He narrates the frustration at the long lines at the supermarket, the doubts arising when new restrictive measures were implemented and the feelings connected to the forced isolation. He is able to go from a light, playful tone to a more serious and concrete one, especially when he introduced the figure of Lele, an underpaid nurse who tells him how hard the situation in his neighborhood is.

In this series the irony and intention of the author to share a different message each time is palpable. His success was immediate, also thanks to the visibility given by the TV show Propaganda Live. The mix is the same: personal experiences and the quarantine frame and contextualize the stories. As a result, this short series strengthened the reputation of Zerocalcare taking him out from the niche of written comics and going online.

So, what now? On the one hand, the Rebibbia Quarantine cartoons are officially finished. Nevertheless, Zerocalcare decided to use that format one last time to address the issue of social mobilizations in the USA. On the other hand, the quarantine is over in Italy and many restrictions have been lifted. Along with many others, Michele, AKA Zerocalcare, must go back to work and he may have a surprise for his readers this fall.

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