by Nicoletta Mandolini, Alessia Mangiavillano, Giorgio Busi Rizzi and Eva Van de Wiele
From Monday 12 July to Thursday 15 July, the third edition of the AIPI (Associazione Internazionale Professori di Italiano) Summer School took place in Ghent. For the first time, the Summer School was dedicated to the study of comics. The edition was sponsored by AIPI; the Italian Cultural Institute of Brussels; the Dante Alighieri Society of Ghent; and the research groups COMICS and SnIF.
Lecture by Prof. Mara Santi
The first day started with an opening lecture by Mara Santi, associate professor of Italian Literature at Ghent University and chair of the Ghentian section of the Società Dante Alighieri that co-sponsored the event. Santi opened the Summer School Ricerca a fumetti with a talk on the specificity of the Italian graphic novel and its capacity to effectively address social concerns that contemporary Italian literature has, in her opinion, lost. Santi’s introductory lecture offered an overview of the most recent trends in Italian literature, which, even in its most engagé products, seems to be characterised by the weakening of its authorial posture. This absence of authority is, according to Santi, deeply connected to the negative and defeatist dimension of Italian contemporary literature’s authorial practices and results in the failure to exploit the utopian possibilities of art (which could be done instead, for example, by developing a constructive imagery driven by politically innovative stances). In other words, it results in stagnation. In this context, the graphic novel seems to offer an interesting alternative to traditional literary practices of social criticism and political engagement. This role is embodied by Santi’s main example, Zerocalcare, by far the most renowned fumettista of the Italian contemporary comics scene. In his non-fictional works, that often flirt with but refuse to homologate to the genre of graphic journalism (e.g. Kobane Calling, Bao Publishing 2016), Zerocalcare presents himself as a robust and reliable author who offers clear explanations about his own narrative practice, thus proposing himself as a guide for the reader. Despite avoiding relying on the old-fashioned idea of truth, the comics artist neatly outlines his own subjective stances, which permits the enunciation of explicit social criticisms, the creation of a specific behavioural model and the consolidation of an imagery connected to the community of people to which both the author and the readers belong. Drawing on this example, Santi proposes reading graphic novels and the comics scene as pivotal in contemporary Italian culture. No better opening could be provided for a Summer School dedicated to the Italian fumetto.
Lecture by Dr Emiliano Chirchiano
Dr Emiliano Chirchiano, who teaches sociology of media at the Naples Academy of Fine Arts, sees comics as an inherently transmedial medium. In his lecture, he illustrated how comics have their own space in the current mediascape, within what Lev Manovich called the “metamedium”. Chirchiano referred to Roland Barthes’ idea that the ability to narrate is intertwined with the history of humankind (1966). This led Chirchiano to ask the question: “Does every narrative have a transmedial potential?”—which can be answered differently according to the historical period one is researching. All narratives, once they move within a media ecosystem, have the ability to influence and connect to each other. Chirchiano referred to Henry Jenkins’s idea of storytelling as a part of the imagination, where “imaginary” is the only way to know reality. In this sense, different forms of culture are forms of collective imagination. Having presented his theoretical framework, Chirchiano situated comics within the wider mass media environment, investigating how comics begin to influence and get influenced by other media forms and transtextual narratives that interact with each other. More specifically, he mentioned comics based on or as a basis for cinema movies, TV series or radio programs, all part of a ‘cultural industry’ with a clear economic function (such as making profit with the merchandising of objects and other collectibles). He also discussed both ‘tie-in’ and ‘spin-off’ possibilities and then provided a few examples of transmediality. Most notably, he discussed how Mickey Mouse, in the 30s, travelled through the media of the time, proving to be a character with narrative autonomy and a significant commercial influence. Chirchiano furthermore touched upon the Star Trek comics illustrated by Alberto Giolotti, quite far removed from the TV series created by Gene Roddenberry. Chirchiano likewise discussed the features of Osamu Tezuka’s Star System—where characters are like movie stars in a studio—and concluded by touching upon the Marvel cinematic universe, a creation that takes advantage of the whole available mediascape (mirroring what Janet Murray called the “encyclopaedic impulse”). The lecture ended with an open question: what role do traditional comics have now?
Lecture by Prof. Maaheen Ahmed
Prof. Maaheen Ahmed critically engaged with her own book, Openness of Comics (University Press of Mississippi, 2016), more specifically with the idea of an open work, also defined as a “work in movement” by Umberto Eco. Works such as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) or Alexander Calder’s Mobile sur deux plans (1962) are constantly moving and hence seem impossible to read, but there is an underlying element that holds them together. In a way, the limited containment by their author or artist leaves room for the reader. Ahmed applied these ideas to a corpus of comics from the late 1960s to the 2000s. Examples as diverse as Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, Olivier Deprez’s Le Château, Edmond Baudoin’s Le Voyage, Reinhard Kleist’s Lovecraft, Enki Bilal’s Nikopol trilogy, Robert Crumb’s Kafka, Tardi’s La Guerre des tranchées, rely on different degrees of openness. To explore openness in comics, Ahmed proposed three aspects to consider—suggestiveness, subversion, ambiguity—and emphasised the problematic nature of terms such as subversion.
She focused in particular on collages in comics such as Kleist’s Lovecraft that set the work in movement through the combination of paint, text, sketches, captions and printed material, all of which offer the reader the opportunity to read more or skip. This also illustrates Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle’s claim that discontinuity is intrinsic to the comics medium. Furthermore, she engaged with the medium’s self-reflectiveness and the presence of auto- or metafiction. She also showed how comics visually show openness, by discussing examples such as the open head of the main character in Baudoin’s Le Voyage. In her discussion of comics adaptations of literary works, she stressed the openness of references that comics interact with, which demands interpretational work on the reader’s part and challenges artists to visually transpose complex stories as in the case of Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. A lovely symbol from her talk and book was Gianni Colombo’s Strutturazione fluida (1960), where the mechanised steel bands are in constant movement within the square frame containing the work: interpretations are left open, in movement within a containing structure.