It Was the War of the Fringes

Notes for a War Story

This will be one of the first releases of First Second’s fourth wave of books, hitting the shelves in a few weeks. Yes, it’s already time!

It’s from writer/artist Gipi (full name: Gianni Alfonso Pacinotti), a 128-page monochrome color softcover for $16.95, deluxe hardcover also available. The First Second schedule, in case you were wondering, calls for this and Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams in August, Nick Abadzis’ Laika in September, and two sequels for October, Lat’s Town Boy, the follow-up to Kampung Boy, and Emmanuel Guibert’s & Joann Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space Vol. 4, which I believe is the last of the series produced with Sfar’s participation.

You’ll also recall First Second having released a prior Gipi book, Garage Band, last wave. Fantagraphics & Coconino Press have released two of his shorter works as part of their Ignatz line under the blanket title of Wish You Were Here - The Innocents and They Found the Car.

That’s all there is for Gipi in English, but even among those four works there’s some obvious continuing concerns - every one of these stories focuses on groups of male friends, often from the perspective of a primary or narrating character made to somehow confront their past, examining the camaraderie that builds between them as a means of reacting to or avoiding tremulous outside forces. Familial bonds are always important, especially those between boys and father figures. There is always some element of crime involved, with the individual’s relationship with the paternalistic structures of law and society essentially made a child-parent interaction writ large.

And Notes for a War Story represents the largest writing of those themes and motifs yet seen from Gipi in English. Originally published in 2004, it’s probably his most acclaimed work, having won no less than the Grand Prix at Angoulême in 2006, among other honors. It certainly focuses on the most traditionally ‘important’ subject: the wartime experience. But it’s also very much one of a piece with the rest of the Gipi catalogue (as seen thus far), filled with a longing for stable houses that transcends the immediate possibility of literal houses actually exploding.

The story concerns three boys: sensitive narrator Giuliano, who comes from a monied and educated background, excitable Christian, abandoned and passed through orphanages and never valued, and Stefano, dubbed “Little Killer” by his friends, who watched his own father fall from a high window and insists he didn’t feel a thing. The trio wanders through their unnamed country as war rages, sometimes around them. At first they try to peddle stolen items to folks holed up in the still-standing villages, but they quickly fall in with Felix, a charismatic militia operative who offers a new way of life to the boys: shaking down debtors, running shady items to shadier people, waving guns around and wearing slick clothes, and waltzing into towns like they own the place. Hell, in war, they practically do. There’s money, adventure, and family. But, inevitably, each boy’s life experiences come to inform their future path.

Despite its punchy subject matter, this is actually a slightly dryer work than Garage Band, prone to long spells of conversation, and largely cautious of depicting the violence inherent to the subject matter. Instead of wispy, varied color, everything in this book is rendered in an oily dull green, save for certain panels where all shading drops out to leave Gipi’s line art nude. But it’s fitting, in the obvious way - while the boys of Garage Band may have known trouble of various stripes, it’s nothing compared to the bleak world these kids have to face.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest of the book’s strengths is that it does not hesitate from depicting the life of crime and violence as maybe what is genuinely the best deal some of these boys could realistically hope for. Gipi never romanticizes the brutish deeds that these kids engage in, but he also posits that people who have been pushed to the fringes of society can achieve a temporary state of thriving when war comes to rip away the parental guidance of law and order. In steps someone like Felix, a new type of father, and surely a more interesting and immediately caring one than what some of the boys have ever known.

As such, poor Giuliano is set apart in more ways than merely his status as narrator. He suffers a recurring dream of his friends confronting him in headless form, accusing him of not really being like them. And its true that Giuliano has something to gain from the restoration of order, in that his biological parents have money and have raised him with respect for social niceties. Yet he also craves adventure and life experience as his country explodes around him, all while he doubts if this war is really ‘his’ - there is no such question with his friends, because war has offered them a place to thrive, if only as cogs in a machine of exploitation.

It is this conflict, one of class and parentage and money, that drives the book through its episodic system of encounters and chats, and Gipi refuses to paint any party as totally right, even through murder itself. Christian desperately tries to save a cottage from detonation, since it reminds him of his ideal of a ‘home.’ Stefano mimics Felix’s mannerisms in doing violence, because he truly is Little Killer to his quasi-father’s Big Killer. Giuliano drifts through it all, eventually reaching the prospect of putting his experiences into a narrative (the book’s title is duly explained), and finding out how prophetic his dreams can be. Nothing is fully resolved, though, since a war's end can only signal the continuing lives of those not rendered casualties.

It’s a low-key book, but filled with fine, observational character moments, and all the vivid cartooning you’ve come to expect from Gipi (the usual meaty First Second preview is here), with none of the too-pat narrative wrapping that marred Garage Band - maybe a subject this big couldn't stand any sort of neat resolution. Those who wished there’d been a little more context for Garage Band, however, will be pleased to know that First Second translator Alexis Siegel has provided a short Afterword, detailing some of the historical inspirations behind the work, as well as providing a good deal of thematic analysis. Just make sure you don't flip over to it first - this is a work you'll want to mull over on your own, in its abstract state of children with guns in burning places, anywhere.