Why is a specific focus on Italian graphic narratives on gender violence necessary?
Updated: Feb 21, 2020
As a researcher working in the Belgian and Irish academia, where the influence of Anglophone cultural models is paramount, I am often asked why I have decided to dedicate a specific section of my project on gender violence in graphic narratives to Italian graphic novels and comics. My background in the field of Italian Studies and the consequent tendency to consider this an obvious choice always prevented me from articulating a satisfying answer. So, please, let me try again.
The Italian 'fumetto' is, together with the American comics, the Franco-Belgian 'bande dessinnée' and the Japanese manga, one of the most prolific and internationally renowned traditions in the area of graphic narratives. Authors like Guido Crepax, Milo Manara or Hugo Pratt and characters such as Tex, Valentina, Corto Maltese, Diabolik or Dylan Dog (just to mention a few) are famous among comics lovers and experts worldwide. The crucial position occupied by Italian comics is confirmed by the publication, in 1969, of 'Poema a fumetti', an illustrated story by the literary author Dino Buzzati, which is now considered by scholars an antecendent of the graphic novel format. It is not a coincidence that, back in 1964, the semiologist Umberto Eco was one of the first to pay scholarly attention to the medium of comics in his 'Apocalittici e integrati', a collection of essays on popular culture. Nowadays, Italian graphic narratives are experiencing a second Renaissance fostered by the growing popularity of the graphic novel. Contemporary Italian comic artists such as Zerocalcare, Gipi are now national superstars and comics festival are blossoming all around the peninsula (among other, Lucca Comics & Games, BilBolBul, Napoli Comicon, Etna Comics, Cartoomics, Romics, Ratatà).
This long list of male names and characters (with the exception of Valentina) shouldn't let us think of the role of women in the Italian fumetto as marginal. As the names of Angela and Luciana Guissani (the creators of Diabolik), testify, women comic artists were and are actively contributing to the success of the medium in the country and beyond. Cinzia Leone and her legendary Gilda, Cinzia Ghigliano with her Solange, the erotic comics of Giovanna Casotto and Vanna Vinci's normal heroines are only a few of the names that could be made here. Nowadays, creators such as Fumettibrutti, Zuzu, Cristina Portolano, Rita Petruccioli, Barbara Baldi, Alice Milani, and Giulia Pex are at the forefront of thematic and stylistic innovation in the field of the Italian graphic novel. Almost needless to say, in the past as in the present, women comic artists have relentlessly worked on the description and critique of gender roles, hierarchies and discriminations, thus offering an alternative model to the often stereotyped and objectified representation of the gendered body proposed in comics. If part of the richness and central positioning of Italian graphic narratives on the topic of gender-based violence is undoubtedly connected to the success achieved by Italian comics and Italian women comic artists, feminist activism and the popularisation of discourses on the issue of sexist abuse did the rest.
The persistence of a strong patriarchal culture hasn't prevented Italy from welcoming, with the beginning of the new millennium, the mainstreaming of feminist debates related to sexual violence, harassment and femicide. With the mainstreaming, the problem of gender violence has emerged (though in waves) as a crucial national topic that feminist movements continue to denounce with the aim of challenging the chronic inability of the ruling class to produce actual social change on the matter. The growing influence of groups such as Non una di meno, the Italian network of collectives who organised their struggle against sexist abuse and discrimination in wake of the Argenitinian Ni una más, demonstrate the strong commitment of Italian feminists to the issue.
At a cultural level, a surprising number of literary, theatrical and filmic works on violence against women have emerged in the country, which is a promising indication of the effort to engage with artistic production's potentials to tackle the patriarchal symbolism that legitimises sexist aggressions. Although underresearched, the role played by comics, graphic novels and vignettes is also essential when it comes to the circulation of feminist ideas on gender violence in Italy. 'Io so Carmela' (Beccogiallo 2013), 'Piena di niente' (Beccogiallo 2015), 'Il massacro del Circeo' (Beccogiallo 2015), 'P. la mia adolescenza trans' (Feltrinelli 2019), 'Lara' (Canicola 2019), works of graphic journalism such as 'Il mondo di Aisha' (Coconino 2013) and 'Pensavo fosse amore' (Graphic News 2016) or comic-based handbooks like 'Ti amo da (farti) morire' (Donna CETERIS 2015) and 'Eva Kant. Quando una donna deve difendersi' (Idealibri 2001) are examples of how the sector of graphic narratives is contributing to the national storytelling against the phenomenon.
In light of this, Italian comics and graphic novels on gender violence occupy an important position in the transnational tendency to use graphic narratives as a medium to make feminist stances accessible. Let's think at the relevance of graphic novels in the context of the #MeToo (the anthology 'Drawing Power' and Erin William's 'Commute' being just a couple of references), in the ongoing denunciation of femicide in Mexico (see, for example, the project 'Jalisco', 'La Lucha' by Adam Shapiro and Jon Sack, or 'Luchadoras' by Peggy Adam) or in the cultural struggle against rape in India (have a look at the amazing transmedial comic project Priya's Shakti). A study of such a corpus of works, then, is necessary because it allows us to complete the picture, so to better understand how the representation of gender violence works globally. Isn't this what Cultural Studies should, despite the presence of tendencies that resist de-centralisation and marginalise research on non-Anglophone material, do?