Zerocalcare tells the drama buried under our ridiculous imagery

Dominator of sales rankingssavior of the Italian literary homeland, the now almost forty-year-old Michele Rech in art Zerocalcare he returned to the Middle East, in a scenario not far from the places he had already told in Kobane Calling. In his new graphic novel, titled No Sleep Till Shengal, the cartoonist places in the spotlight the story of a forgotten people, the Ezidis (so called in Kurdish language, Yazidis in Arabic), based in northern Iraq, survivors of the ISIS genocide and therefore decided to try an experience of democratic self-government like their Kurdish brethren. For this reason, the Ezidi are subjected to threats from neighbors (Iraqi Kurdistan, allied to Erdogan’s Turkey), who would like to regain control of those lands.

Zerocalcare therefore decided to tell about their heroic resistance and left for a journey that turned out to be less simple than expectedwithin the fragmented territory of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, amidst the threats of small local leaders who impose their own rules and defend unclear interests and the long waits to present documents and receive the necessary authorizations to continue the journey.

All the first part of No Sleep Till Shengal it is in fact the attempt by Zerocalcare and his group to reach the desired destination, alternating moments of real terror (like the one described on the cover) with others of exhausting – and, at times, very funny – stasis. The second part instead leaves the word to the Ezidi, the true protagonists of this story: figures worthy of respect and tried by immense tragedies, such as the women who survived the massacre of the ISIS who have decided to take up a weapon to defend themselves, the elderly people who do not want to cede sovereignty to a government that has abandoned them, young idealists who aspire to a more open and democratic society.

In the story of this complicated journey, what could be identified as one of the thematic nuclei of Zerocalcare’s poetics is revealed: the apparently contradictory coexistence between moments of laughter and drama. The relevance of the theme addressed and the space narrated stands in sharp contrast to the point of view of the narration, which always remains that typical of the Roman author, with his consolidated imagery, his well-known linguistic formulas, his exasperated anxieties. But this contrast is only apparent, or rather finds a balance in the style of the story, and therefore becomes a reflection on the imagination of us readersaccustomed to a variegated and superficial personal schedule.

Thus, during the narration, the events of the ISIS are equated with a hypothetical season of The island of the famous and they share the same space as the puppet Uan, Morgan and Bugo; the army militiamen show the same hair as the members of One Direction; and an old Iraqi spy who forcibly joins the convoy has the exact same face as actor Giancarlo Giannini: he accumulates a series of observations and details that sound as strident in that dramatic context as perfectly aligned with our point of view as users of Western media and consumersto our television imagery full of frivolous clichés and vacuous catchphrases, to our very provincial and banal habits.

Zerocalcare, with its exhibited superficiality, with its (apparently) unresolved difficulty in entering adulthood, reflects the state of its unarmed readers in the face of a reality increasingly confused with the imaginary. Behind the free and easy Roman dialect jokes of the Armadillo, Zerocalcare does not renounce to think seriously about the contemporary world and its contradictions. He had already made it clear in the short story Layers appeared on The essential: the “fact” is something unknowable, all we can do to tell it is to remove all those layers that our stereotyped imagery has placed on it.

Back into No Sleep Till Shengal, the author feels the need to look the protagonists of the story he wants to tell in the face, before turning them into drawings. He needs to hear their voice, before his own voice – like it did in the TV series Tear off along the edges – take their place in the story. As if, to counter the self-reported superficiality, we must rely on the importance of the theme, on a more real reality. And there is nothing more real than a war.

In his desire to understand, to grasp the fact, it is reflected our inability to recognize the real, that sense of guilt that redefines the meaning of history, that makes us laugh when we use the term “revolutionaries”. In our imagination, the concept of revolution has now become a parody of itself, a term suitable more for fiction than for reality. We dream of revolutions elsewhere, beyond our television series and our social network irony. Thus, it is not surprising that, while an Ezidian leader recalls the Shengal agreement of 2020, with which Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad sanctioned the need to dissolve the autonomy of the region, to his rhetorical question: “Do you know who has not been consulted? “, the Armadillo can only answer in the most obvious and inevitable way: Stocazzo.

The tone of the speech falls and then rises again, the drama is continually brought back to the concrete reality of its readers. Just as it really happens to each of us while having lunch in front of the news, participating for a few seconds a day in the dramas of the world and a moment later being already captured by the irresistible lights of a new advertisement, accustomed as we are from birth to bringing together the our anxieties and our feelings of guilt with our little daily tragedies and our silly, unavoidable desires. Thus, in the eyes of the young Ezide soldiers, the determination of those who no longer want to suffer injustices coexist, but also the carefree youth, with its frivolity and laughter.

Here you are, Zerocalcare expresses this apparent contradiction through itself, first of all. Character and author together, designer and sketch to dedicate, Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese in the same cartoon, but also Paolo Villaggio and Ugo Fantozzi in the same tragic routine, at the same time superficial and profound as life often is, Michele Rech-Zerocalcare continues to make us laugh at ourselves, at our weaknesses, at our clumsy attempts to find meaning: to seek the truth of the fact, beyond our narcissistic voice. A Shengal who does not want to give up, heroic space buried under the layers of our ridiculous imaginary time.

No Sleep Till Shengal
by Zerocalcare
Bao Publishing, October 2022
hardcover, 208 pp., B / W
€ 23.00 (buy online)

Read also: Zerocalcare broke TikTok

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Zerocalcare tells the drama buried under our ridiculous imagery