by Alex Valente

The chance to talk about a piece of Italian media that makes it onto the international stage, especially through a platform such as Netflix, is rare to come by; even rarer is for that media to be of any actual quality. It was with pleasure, then, that I sat down to watch Strappare Lungo i Bordi (Tear Along the Dotted Line), written and directed by Italian comics superstar Zerocalcare.

Zerocalcare started his comics life with an irregularly updated series of strips on his blog, Zerocalcare.it, covering topics and events from his life as a 30-something somewhat-unemployed white Italian living in Rebibbia, the neighbourhood of Rome that houses one of the bigger prisons in the country. Most of his blog strips have subsequently been collected into books, tied together by a running story, and his first full-length book La Profezia dell’Armadillo (The Armadillo Prophecy) was published in 2012. The appeal and success of his work has been enormous in italy, and still there are queues which last up to 12 hours for his signing events. Zerocalcare’s comics captured the perfect millennial experience of too-old-kids-who-never-grew-up in the forgotten side of major cities, while still being politically savvy and engaged.

Attempts have been made to bring his written work, all comics – mostly slice of life with what would be called magical realism if he were from South America – and Jamie Richards’ translations have done an amazing job at conveying the dialectal irreverence, the squarely millennial angry ennui, and the rebellious nostalgia and inertia of one of Italy’s most prolific comics writers. Unfortunately, a combination of arrogance, ineptitude and lack of understanding of Zerocalcare’s appeal in Italy, mostly from the Italian publisher, have made it so that even his magnum opus, Kobane Calling – a piece of comics journalism a la Joe Sacco or Guy Delisle about the Kurd resistance in Rojava against Daesh – had very little impact on anglophone audiences since its release in 2017. As the Netflix series was released, Ablaze publishing announced that his first three books will be published in the US in English translation (though at the time of writing, no translator’s name has been made public, so I guess it’s just magical robots again). Three of the four books are already available digitally via Europe Comics.

The Netflix series is a good adaptation of his comics work, especially in a world of anglo productions that churn out mediocre transmedia adaptations. This is partly due to Zerocalcare’s direct involvement in the writing, storyboarding and direction for the mini-series, though he made sure that the entire cast and crew were recognised for their achievements too, something which reviews so far seem to have forgotten about. The story is almost exactly that of La Profezia dell’Armadillo, updated to 2021 and including easter eggs and references to his other books and work since. Production is by Movimenti Production, and the animation studio is DogHead.

The formula is the same as most of his books: seemingly unconnected tangents and observational pseudo-comedy that eventually tie together into the connecting story that runs throughout the text. In this case, the central narrative is the train journey that Zero, Sarah and Secco make from Rome to Alice’s hometown of Biella, accompanied by Zero’s conscience, an even more apathetic, cynical, and neurotic armadillo, the only other named voice cast for the series (Valerio Mastandrea, all other voices are Zerocalcare himself) in promotional material. [There is actually a crucial point about the story, and an example of how well Zero has employed the new medium that informs my phrasing here, but it’s also a spoiler I’d prefer viewers to enjoy for themselves.]

The story itself is nothing incredibly original, but it is told with warmth, understanding, humour, and dotted with references to contemporary Italian realities

Each episode is presented as a tangent of sorts, a short series of rants and vents about the author’s life experiences and neuroses as the train journey takes place, all tying into the main story, which is fully revealed in the last two episodes. In an incredibly refreshing break from the main trend in adult animation, this is not just another sitcom with deeper themes – Zero’s work is an effective, original slice-of-life comic, that mixes politics, comedy, drama, personal growth, and self-reflection, and this is all capably adapted to the medium of the animated series. Zero is self-aware, Sarah’s character is the best conscience (sorry, Armadillo), Secco is an excellent source of deadpan ‘comic relief’, and the techniques used to reveal some of the major plot points are entirely created for the animated medium, mirroring the way that many of his comics only work in the graphic medium. The story itself is nothing incredibly original, but it is told with warmth, understanding, humour, and dotted with references to contemporary Italian realities, from racial and class disparity, to fluidity of language, to the rich-kid to neofascist pipeline, to forgotten suburbs and estates, all sprinkled with some generational pop culture nostalgia. The soundtrack by Giancane is also very good, spanning Italian, English and French electronic, punk, and rock tracks.

This is not the story of Rebibbia, or Rome, or Italy – this is a story that Zerocalcare chose to tell about someone else, placing himself along the way as he watches it happen, to grab viewers and readers and bring them into his world. That world is entrenched in Rebibbia, in ’90s culture, and in a political system that forgets about you, meaning you either turn out a cop, a nazi, or both, or you’re being punched in the face by forest rangers during a demo. This is a story of how no one is alone in not knowing how to follow the dotted line placed in front of them, by society, by expectations, by families, by peers, but how everyone has to face it in their own way – realising along the way that the world does not revolve around you, even if (and especially when) you are the one telling the story.

Addendum: I feel like, on thinking more about it, I should point out two jarring notes in the series, which have more to do with Italian sociolinguistics than actual intention from the author, but still become microaggressions to those watching. First, an anecdotal character is referred to as ‘Zingara’ / ‘Gypsy’, both terms not being the accepted form of the various ethnicities that they purportedly encompass; second, towards the end a character is referred to as ‘mezza lella’ / ‘half gay’ by a lesbian character, which can be seen as a form of bi-erasure. Again, the author has been more than receptive towards criticism through the years, and I do not see a malicious intent here – but it felt remiss not to mention.

Featured image via Netflix

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