Europe is where comics are thriving at the moment. Where US superheroes are stagnating in the face of cinematic franchises and endless crossovers, European authors have continued to produce works packed to the brim with invention, wit, and depth. These comics rarely make it overseas, but thanks to small presses like Nobrow, Drawn & Quarterly, and with reference to this particular book, SelfMadeHero, English audiences get a chance to track down some of these titles for themselves.
Paolo Bacilieri isn’t a name I was familiar with before reading FUN, but the Italian writer & artist has been a mainstay in European comics since the 80s. FUN may be his English debut, but the ambition and artistry on display make it clear just how long he’s been working in the medium.
If FUN is about anything, it’s about the history of the crossword. From the gestation of the first crossword puzzle in New York in the late 1800s, tracing its growth throughout the subsequent years, including some tangents involving WWII spies, and the crossword setter who revealed his diagnosis of cancer within the clues of a particular puzzle. But FUN is more than that. Really, it’s the story of Pippo Quester and Zeno Porno (the latter a reoccurring character in Bacilieri’s work). Quester is a novelist working on a book about the history of the crossword, who teams up with Porno.
But then it’s not really about that either. FUN becomes, in its second half especially, a quite brilliant mystery. There are femme fatales, spies, and a mystery involving one of Quester’s own novels. Interspersed amongst all this are odd tangents and anecdotes about our main characters’ lives, and sometimes about completely unrelated subjects (one such chapter involved the Spider-Man villain Hammerhead).
It helps that Bacilieri is a masterful artist. His characters are expressive and his cityscapes in particular are incredible. Meticulously detailed, they would be worth the price of the book in and of themselves. He also has a great eye for layouts and structure. Understanding how people read the story that is being told is a tough one to get right, but just look at the way Bacilieri transitions from the snow falling in 1800s New York to the snow-white boxes of a crossword. Absolutely masterful.
From the outside, FUN can look like a mess, a jumble of unconnected threads and subject matter. It is in that way very similar to a crossword. With each story, each chapter slotting in to the wider narrative in its own peculiar way. For those used to the linear narratives that are usually on display in graphic novels, FUN can appear to be an oddity, at times frustrating, but those who persevere will find something very special within its pages.
Any Cop? Most definitely. This is a beautifully drawn, fascinating puzzle box of a story that’s well worth your time.