Notes for a War Story
by Gipi (First Second, 2007)

Italian award-winning graphic novelist Gipi (The Innocents, Garage Band) brings us a tale of life in a Balkan war state. It's about young men living in a war zone who lead lives that are as hopeless as they are helpless. The only way out is crime, in taking what they need by force.

But, for a story that takes place in a war zone, Notes for a War Story is somewhat interesting but not terribly evocative.

While the story is most effective in terms of driving home the powerlessness of these young men and how emotionally detached they have to be to survive, there's nothing beyond that. It's a very mixed bag that is riveting in some parts and rather unexciting in others. As much can be accomplished in quiet stories as in huge epics, but there were times the story was so anemic that I felt I was waiting for something to happen.

Part of the problem Gipi faces is that the "lost boys" story is fast becoming a boilerplate literary theme in a world full of refugees escaping war zones. There isn't much to distinguish this tale from any other tale of war, and its title is actually a misnomer. Apart from on quick view of a bombed-out village, there is no evidence that these kids are in a war at all, unless it is a metaphorical one in which the dearth of proper role models for young men is being lamented. It's certainly a timely topic, but considering how much space is being devoted to the problems of young men living in a world without a rudder, the tale needs to be a bit more compelling than boys turning to crime as a means to feed and clothe themselves. That's very commonplace, sadly, but a story needs more to distinguish it from the rest of the many tales of life in a failed state that are flooding the biography market.

NFAWS does have a consistent message: young men do need a strong role model, without which they will most certainly suffer. The story has it moments, some of them bizarre and some of them painful. Mostly, though, it seems to be a tale composed mostly of poignant elements that are somehow more cliched than memorable. The only scene that's emotionally jarring is the suicide of Little Killer's father.

The dark and gloomy art doesn't help. The facial expressions never change, and there are only about three or four facial types, so most times I wasn't sure who I was looking at. By keeping every panel the same size, and awash in hand-painted blues and grays, Gipi keeps the story feeling neutral and quiet. Unfortunately, this choice seems to effectively mute any feeling that might have been summoned. There are no subtle moments or nuances to clue us in.

The dialogue is fairly ordinary, as pale as the washed-out colors. Nothing memorable leaps out from the page, which somewhat compromises the story's authenticity. Apart from Little Killer, who stands out more because of his sociopath addiction to violence, the characters are rather two-dimensional and gray. Additionally, the narrator is rather difficult to relate to. He has a home and good parents who love him, yet he abandoned them because life with them was not enough of a challenge? It seems selfish and spoiled, somehow. Yet his friends are easily discarded when life becomes too uncomfortable. He literally jumps off the truck on the way to battle. So what was the point?

NFAWS is real and raw but not unique or compelling, honest but emotionally flat. All the elements of a compelling story are there but I spent most of the story waiting for a climax to appear in a story that does not really seem to speak with its own unique voice or create an impression of any kind. The desperation of these young men is very well showcased but what makes these boys anything other than (admittedly) unfortunate, run of the mill thugs-in-training, is missing, and that gap is never really filled. The writer more or less has to tell us, in the form of a small thesis in the afterword, why these kids are doing what they are doing. From a longtime reader and fan of graphic novels: if the writer feels compelled to justify the story's existence by explaining its basic tenets as if it were a term paper, it's because those elements are absent from the story in the first place.

review by
Mary Harvey

1 November 2008

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