Book review

This thrilling graphic novel about crossword puzzles and spies is a little too clever at times

With subtext and tributes, Italian cartoonist Paolo Bacilieri spins a complex maze.

Design plays a passive role in many graphic narratives, but in Italian cartoonist Paolo Bacilieri’s graphic novel Fun, design is all. The graphic novel, originally published in Italian, is designed to create an impression of a word-and-picture game-board, and the reader is invited to “solve” a puzzle whose clues are revealed in the form of texts, visuals, subplots and characters.

The story of Fun begins after a 10-page, mostly visual, “epilogue” in which Bacilieri invents the fact that the grid of windows on the face of New York City skyscrapers was an inspiration behind the crossword grid, and thus it was natural for the puzzle to be born in the city. Such inventions are spread across the body of the novel and often act as clues to the unfolding story.

For the average Italian family on travel, the magazine La Settimana Enigmistica has always been a favourite companion. The rise of the magazine is closely associated with the growing popularity of the crossword puzzle. Before it appeared on the pages of the popular Italian magazine, how did the crossword puzzle that originated in the city of New York infect the whole world?

Fun is the reconstruction of that story, which starts in America before World War I and very quickly establishes itself on both sides of the Atlantic. Bacilieri, a master of documentation, shines with his research in this work too: every small detail connected to the crossword puzzle, however insignificant, finds a place in this saga.

Mirror, mirror

However, Fun is a lot more than a fascinating story of the crossword puzzle. It is not just a graphic novel, but a crossword puzzle by itself. The central narrative, the story of the crossword, is, in fact, reported through the writer Pippo Quester – who in the novel is seen to be writing his book on the subject – and his interactions with Bacilieri’s alter ego Zeno Porno, a Milanese cartoonist and writer working for Disney.

There are several stories here that take place almost simultaneously. Pippo’s own story, the story of the characters that appear in Pippo’s book, stories of Zeno and those connected to him, and also the dark presence of a girl who watches Pippo and Zeno on behalf of a secret organisation. The last turns at times into a spy thriller. The intent is to keep the reader’s interest alive. The clever plotting of the tale does it without much fuss. In fact, at times, it is too clever for the reader.

As if it were not enough to further enhance the narrative plurality, the main adventures of Zeno are interwoven with short stories about him and other characters – that have appeared in other stories. Apparently disconnected from the main plot – in terms of themes, narrative style and visuals – they make Fun a great game, where the comics medium is completely reinvented and adapted to suit the narrator’s will. Reading appears to be fragmented as it is in any crossword puzzle when the cruciverbalists do not know the solution rightaway and they have to take the help of other interconnected definitions to crack it.

Designing a tribute

Bacilieri’s designs, a true element of continuity within his comics, are usually of great skill. Very detailed and impressive reconstruction of historic architecture and the city, both in Milan and in New York, reaffirms Bacilieri’s control over realistic rendering of architecture in a comic strip. Every part of the comic, even the balloons, is designed to create a visual impact that is consistent with the subject being discussed.

To highlight the importance of design, even the Italian design guru Bruno Munari gets a tribute in the tale. So does celebrated Italian comics artist Guido Crepax. Interestingly, both artists feature as names on tombstones at a Milan cemetery. Nor do the tributes stop with these two.

Author Italo Calvino while talking about his book, The Castle of Cross Destinies, once said, “I thought of constructing a kind of crossword puzzle made of tarots instead of letters, of pictographic stories instead of words.” Bacilieri’s work is an intelligent example of the Calvino exercise.

That Bacilieri had the master storyteller in mind is evident from a panel where he depicts Calvino as a member of a French association, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OULIPO), roughly translated: “Workshop of potential literature”. OULIPO members have an insignificant role in the graphic narrative, but the cartoonist’s clever inclusion of the group and its members serves as tribute to Calvino.

The game of links

And it is not only the Calvino-like construction of the narrative. Bacilieri also tries to establish, almost successfully, a relationship between comics and crossword. He begins by telling the reader that Yellow Kid, the first commercially successful newspaper comic strip, and the first crossword puzzle appeared in the same daily, The New York World. This link carries on through Zeno’s discovery of crossword references in comics that the character shares with Pippo. Bacilieri extends the game further, matching the geometric structure of crosswords and the classic grid of cartoon vignettes many times over to highlight the visual similarities that link these two layouts.

A couple of downsides: at times the translation appeared to be literal and there is a typographical error on page 19 where 1871 has become 1971. These notwithstanding, it is one exhilarating ride with some moody excursions. Full of allusions and tributes, the two-part novel – Fun and More Fun – with its clever construction creates a unique reading experience.

By the way, it appears Pippo Quester looks and behaves almost like Umberto Eco. If true, then the subtext is mindboggling.

Fun: Spies, Puzzle Solvers, and a Century of Crosswords, Paolo Bacilieri, SelfMadeHero

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