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Andrea Pazienza's Zanardi is Foul, Rude...and Not Wholly Without Merit

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Andrea Pazienza's <i>Zanardi</i> is Foul, Rude...and Not Wholly Without Merit

Writer/Artist: Andrea Pazienza
Translator: Alberto Becattini
Publisher: Fantagraphics 
Release Date: June 28, 2017

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Zanardi is a book that inspires surprisingly complicated feelings. Usually, when I don’t like a comic, I put it in a pile of things destined to leave my house, and I don’t look back. Zanardi has been sitting in a box for weeks, mostly because I hated it, and yet it’s still here. These comics, focused on the titular character, appeared in Italy between 1981 and 1988, after creator Andrea Pazienza died of a heroin overdose. They are foul and rude and nihilistic, full of drug use, misogyny, casual violence, crime, manipulation and general rotten behavior. Zanardi screws over his friends because it amuses him. The attitudes demonstrated throughout are decidedly retrograde. The stories also don’t hang together particularly well; instead, they have a vaguely pornographic feel, with panels strung on the most basic whiffs of narrative—but each plot thread leads to a simple obsession with debauchery.

What makes this different from something like the work of Simon Hanselmann, which also features young people being terrible to each other? Hanselmann also manages to express a love for his characters and an understanding of their motivations, without either moralizing or defending the things they do. His actors seem to have things going on in their heads. Johnny Ryan is probably more transgressive in his content than Pazienza, but his work manages to be reliably hilarious despite (maybe even because of?) its juvenile need to offend. It’s possible Ryan’s comics spring not from nihilism, but from a deep and well-secreted sense of moral outrage, a horrified superego secretly enjoying the chance to let the id romp around. Even Matt Furie, of whom I am no great fan, has an underlying sweetness to his tales of idle youth. No one’s hurting anyone just for the fun of it. If you only know Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, you might bring it up, too, but Burgess’ book is nothing if not structured, and its points are more complex than the “all kinds of violence are equal” philosophy the movie espouses.

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Zanardi Interior Art by Andrea Pazienza

Maybe it’s a function of the time in which Pazienza drew these comics. Manuele Fior writes on the impact of coming across a page of Zanardi’s in 1988: “In the reigning hedonism of the ‘80s, sheltered from TV conformity, comics were able to carve out an independent space where the contradictions of the age could be unleashed.” Maybe. Reading these works in 2017, without being in the time and place in which they were created, they don’t seem all that different from many of the mainstream entertainment being made at the time, when action movies were often just as thoughtlessly violent and cruel (although anti-drugs, for the most part).

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Zanardi Interior Art by Andrea Pazienza

All that said, Pazienza’s art is somehow compelling, at least in its multifariousness. Some pages are colored; others are black and white. Some are full of subtle lines, rain effects and patterns. Others are done in a cartoonish pen with plenty of white space. Still, others seem set down in a hurry, with thick lines and weirdly placed dialogue balloons. Even the way the characters’ exaggerated facial features are rendered varies, with Zanardi’s beak of a nose sharper, finer, wider, more cartoonish, depending on the page. If they didn’t all have a similar kind of energy, you might think this was a compilation of comics drawn by different people, revolving around the same focal character. The stories that end the book, including a long unfinished one set in medieval times, are strong and beautiful, but no less sloppily told or morally empty. Maybe the answer is that you shouldn’t bother to read this book, but just flip through it for its art. Or maybe I’ll pick it up again later and find something redeeming.

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