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Stranger Than Kindness
by Lapo Boschi


    I am on a train that will bring me from Naples to Rome. The train has not started its run yet, it is waiting on the tracks of Naples Central Station for its scheduled time of departure. I arrived at the station early. When I arrived, plastic tape on the train doors forbade the entrance: the train was still being cleaned. Today is March seventh, the first warm day of the year. I moved to the side of the platform opposite the train, illuminated by almost horizontal rays of sun. It is a little past five and the sun is already low. After a short while I and the other few passengers have been allowed on the train.
    There will be a thirty minutes wait before the train leaves. I often go to Rome on weekends because I don't have many friends in Naples, and I tend to get bored there when I am not at work. I've only lived in Naples, on and off, for about a year. My job is in the university, as a researcher. I graduated in physics from Bologna some six years ago, spent a long time abroad to do a doctorate in Earth Sciences, and eventually ended up as a volcanologist here in Naples. Naples is a good place for volcanologists, because of the Vesuvius.
    It is hard, at least for me, to write or do any kind of work on a train while it is standing still. It will become easier after the train will have left, listening to the monotonous rhythm of the wheels on the tracks. The same happens when I am on a train and I try to sleep. But I decided to start writing anyway, because I am afraid that the impressions I have now in my mind would quickly fade away, unless I make an effort, right now, to trap them on paper.
    I am often nervous when I have to write. I have difficulties choosing the right time to start, and the right time to stop. I often have the feeling of insisting for too long on projects that are in any case doomed to fail, and occasionally I am afraid of making a mistake when I give up developing some idea that I have, for lack of time or concentration, or the obvious limits of my technical capabilities.
    The images, the facts that are now impressed on my mind are those of my brief visit, earlier this afternoon, to an exhibition of the artwork of many international cartoonists and comic-book artists, which took place in Naples' Castel Sant'Elmo, an ancient fortress overlooking the whole city. It was in Castel Sant'Elmo that the Neapolitan rebel aristocracy, who had overthrown the king and proclaimed the Parthenopean Republic in 1799, stood under siege from the English fleet of admiral Nelson. The only way of getting them out of the impregnable Castel Sant'Elmo was through treachery. They were promised that their lives would be spared, so they surrendered, and were all imprisoned and, in most cases, executed by the English.
    I don't go to very many art exhibitions. I went to Comicon, the comics exhibitions, because several Canadian artists were supposed to be there. In particular, there was supposed to be a large space dedicated to artists published by Drawn and Quarterly, the Toronto company that has distributed some of my favourite comics.
    I walked around a bit, and found the hall where the original panels of a number of Drawn and Quarterly artists should be exhibited. Within the part of Castel Sant'Elmo that is usually given to art exhibits, that one is the room I like the best. It is a spacious room with a very high ceiling, and white plaster walls, while most other rooms have dark walls of raw stone. The room was empty, except for a few kids in heavy metal T-shirts, chilling out on a bench. I looked at the panels hanging on the walls. Most panels were by Seth, who, as I had read, should be there in person. His collection, "It's a good life, if you don't weaken," has recently been translated into Italian and printed by a Bologna publisher called Coconino Press. Seth is not my very favourite, but I am touched by his art. I have read his book, in its original version, some years ago, when I lived in the United States. I was curious to find pieces by other cartoonists I knew. There was nothing by Julie Doucet, though what I think is her self portrait appeared, among other drawings representative of her colleagues' art, in the big Drawn and Quarterly manifesto at the far end of the hall. There were a panel and a cover by Joe Matt, but whoever had labeled them had confused Joe Matt with some other artist. I guess Seth hadn't noticed, or he did not care. Julie Doucet and Joe Matt are not published in Italy.
    Julie, on the other hand, is quite successful in France. She is a francophone Canadian from Montreal, French is her first language, and although her comics are originally written in English (Canadian comics are sold in the U.S. much more than in her home country), she has taken care of the French translation herself. Her French publisher initially criticized her French, which was "too Quebecois". But eventually they realized that that actually made the comic more intriguing, and left the text as it was. I have read Julie's comics in English and, though not a native English speaker myself, I often had the impression that her English, as well, is not quite perfect. From what I've read about her, it appears that she became fluent in English only while she was already in college. In a 1996 interview with the French magazine Jade, she calls the language she used in her early comics "Anglais de cuisine". The comic she has been publishing with Drawn and Quarterly for, I believe, about ten years, until just a few years back, was called "Dirty plotte". "Plotte" is a Quebecois slang word, pretty much equivalent to the American "cunt."
    I left the empty Drawn and Quarterly hall and found the Coconino Press stand. I exchanged a few words with the man who stood behind the stand. I was determined, during my visit at this exhibition, to have conversations with people. I don't know why (normally I am very shy with people I don't know). Not having much to say, I told the Coconino Press man that I am also from Bologna. I asked him about the neighborhood where they are based. He told me that in about an hour Seth would be there to sign autographs.
    Across the hall from Coconino Press was the stand of a small press from Milan, Topolin, that almost exclusively publishes the work of Miguel-Angel Martin, a Spanish post-modern (I am guessing, here) cartoonist of ultra-violent, ultra-sexual comics (a la Tamburini, Liberatore, artists that died of heroin overdoses in the nineteen-eighties). I tend to like Spanish artists in general, and I had often noticed in bookstores the books of Miguel-Angel Martin, but never went as far as buying anything. A nice-looking girl with a "staff" badge was hanging out by the stand. "Can you recommend me one of his books?", I asked, pointing to the large collection on the stand. She was kind and smiling. "Sure. If you want to get a general idea of what he does, I think you should take this one." She handed me a copy of "Psychopatia sexualis". I went through it, finding it hard to concentrate because of the confusion around me (this was the most crowded hall of the exhibition, which was, with the exception of the Drawn and Quarterly room, fairly crowded), and because I was nervous from speaking with several people that I didn't know. But it looked cool. "If you come in a little bit, the author will be here to sign, and you can ask his advice as well." I said I would then come back in a bit.
    I went to the bathroom. On my way to the bathroom, I saw Seth, heading, I guess, for the Coconino Press stand. I knew right away that it was Seth, because he looks exactly the way he draws himself. He was wearing a nice gray suit, good leather shoes, a light brown raincoat and, of course, a conspicuous felt hat, the kind that has been out of fashion for, I don't know, the last forty years at least. He looked like he had come straight out of a fifties' gangster movie. I went on and had a pee.
    Seth was with a girl, obviously Canadian and obviously his girlfriend, or possibly wife (I had noticed that she wears a ring).
    It is embarrassing to admit it now, but it gave me an emotion to see Seth in person. I guess it's because his comics, and in general the comics of his generation of North American cartoonists, are very personal, both for him and for his readers. When I read his book I got the feeling that I was sharing something deep with him. When I lived in the United States there was a very good comic-book store in my town, called "The million-year picnic," and although I was a regular customer I never went to see the artists, or spend money on autographed copies of their books, when they would pass by to meet readers and promote their work. I think that, over the years, most of the authors I have mentioned above gave in-person appearances. But I was not curious to see them. Maybe I was bothered by the obvious hypocrisy of the fan-meets-star scenario; or simply I was too conceited, back then, to believe that those people, whose art I loved, could also happen to be interesting human beings.
    Another excuse for being excited at the sight of Seth: Seth regularly appears as one of the main characters in the autobiographic comic "Peepshow", by his friend Joe Matt. "Peepshow" is (was) a strange comic, its author being so open about the most personal facts of his life... to the point that his girlfriend dumped him (as reported in n.3) after learning in the comic itself (n.2) about the crush he had had on one of her friends. Despite, or maybe because of its extremely self-referential content, "Peepshow" has been remarkably successful in the world of underground comics. I loved it, and never missed an issue. I went so far as to look for it at least once a month through the shelves of Million-year picnic. Once a month might sound like not so often, but the fact is that Joe Matt is lazy and the comic doesn't come out more than once or twice a year.
    Anyway. I remember now something about the couple of days when I first read Seth's book. I remember the room where I read it (I used to move frequently. Actually, I still do.) That room had two windows, both overlooking the backyard, and, a couple hundred meters away, an old red brick factory of candies, vestige of a past era that might be demolished anytime now. I remember I later lent the book to my friend Wa Il, who was more into the "Marvel"-type comics but, although initially bored (so he told me), ended up liking this strange Canadian cartoonist. And as for the book itself, I remember a lot of very white and silent panels, the story being set in a snowy Canadian winter. In the winter, it used to snow a lot also in the town where I lived.
    I returned to the Coconino Press stand. Seth was uncomfortably sitting on a foldable chair that was too small for him. He is very tall, and very thin. He was working on a relatively complex drawing made on request for some Italian guy, probably another artist, that was crouching in front of him. No-one else was waiting for Seth's attention. Seth's wife or girlfriend, which must be about my age (younger than Seth) was standing in the middle of the hall, looking a bit spaced out. I figured because of the language there wouldn't be many people she could talk to, plus maybe she didn't care too much about comics. I decided to talk to her.
    - Hi, I said.
    - Hi, she said. We both smiled.
    - How are you? I asked.
    - Good, how are you?
    - Good. Did you just fly in from... I paused.
    - Canada, she rescued me. At this point I turned purple. Until yesterday I had long hair, but I had it cut really short. This makes me more vulnerable. My ears, which are now fully visible, must have turned a deep purple, and I was fully aware of it. I am shy, and it does not take much to embarrass me. But she was kind. She was smiling.
    - How do you like Italy so far? I asked, being purple.
    - I like it, it's nice.
    She told me about some museum they had just visited. I never believe Anglo-saxons visitors when they arrive in Naples and say that they like it. Naples is, first of all, a mess of traffic and screaming people, particularly if you are coming from the United States or, even worse, Canada. But she was being nice, and that's okay.
    - I lived in America for some years, I said, and when I moved here it was quite shocking...
    She nodded. She agreed that this could be possible. In the meantime, her husband or boyfriend had finished his drawing. He got up to leave. I approached him to ask for an autographed book. He didn't see me. His girlfriend or wife gestured toward me. He wants to talk to you, she might have said, but he didn't look at me. He went away and she followed.
    That Seth wouldn't pay attention to me, after I had been preparing for some sort of conversation with him throughout my visit at the Drawn and Quarterly exhibition, made me feel shitty, but just momentarily. I turned to the Topolin stand, and started again browsing the ultra-violent works of Miguel-Angel Martin. The staff girl was still there, and I focused on thinking of something to say to her. Before I could come up with anything, two guys in their forties showed up, one of whom had to be Miguel-Angel Martin.
    - Where have you been? Asked the staff girl, happy to see them back. The whole world has been looking for you!
    They smiled modestly. One of them had casual black clothes and long curly hair tied up in a pony-tail. The other one, also dressed in black, had short, well combed hair and a button-down black shirt. I asked the long-haired one, in Italian, Are you the author?
    - No, he replied. I am the publisher. He is the author.
    The author was busy talking with some boy from Naples, a hipster with many earrings that he appeared to have met before. I asked the publisher, If I had to buy one of his books, which one should it be?
    - Each one is a different story, said the publisher. He had a strong Spanish accent. "Psychopatia sexualis" is a set of brief, independent episodes. "The space between" is a full story. It has an end. "Psychopatia sexualis" is a good introduction to his work, but if you have to buy just one book, I would recommend that you buy "The space between."
    He spoke Italian, but conjugated the conditional mode in the Spanish fashion, saying "Te consigliaria" instead of "ti consiglierei" (which means "I would recommend"). I found it endearing. Back in the U.S. I had some friends that were from Spain, and that spoke like that when they tried to speak Italian. I realized that I had missed that.
    - Okay, I said. I'll buy both.
    - Good, said the long-haired publisher. I'll give you an extra one, as a present. And he added number two of "Brian the brain" to the two books I had already taken.
    - Thank you very much, I said. I paid the publisher, and turned around to see whether Seth was back. The Neapolitan hipster called me: Miguel-Angel can sign the books for you, if you like.
    - Sure, I said. If it's not a problem.
    - Not at all, said the publisher. Just wait a minute until he's done (he was finishing a drawing for the same guy who, minutes before, had gotten a drawing from Seth). Or you come back later, if you prefer.
    I waited. I decided to speak to the Neapolitan hipster. Since I've moved to Naples about a year ago, I have been wishing to make contact with the artistic world of the city, assuming the such a world would actually exist. This boy looked like a good specimen.
    - Are you from Naples? I asked.
    - Yes.
    - Do you also draw?
    - Yes, but not comics, he said. I draw things. Furniture, architectural objects.
    He didn't express interest in getting any information about me.
    He kept turning away from me, looking at Martin finishing his work. Then, my turn of having my book signed came. Martin asked me for my name. I gave my name and he gave me an interrogative look. I spelled it for him. I guess it's really sad if your idol misspells your name in an autograph. Martin wanted to avoid this. He did all-right, drawing a little sketch on each book, accompanied by a short sentence related to the content of the book, e.g., on the first page of "Psychopatia sexualis" he wrote "Para Lapo, best anal wishes." At the end of each dedication he added his cool, complicate signature. I gave him my most sincere thanks.
    In the meantime, Seth was back (without wife) at the Coconino Press stand. The Coconino Press guy had left. He had been replaced by a gentle lady, maybe fifty years old, who from her accent must be from Bologna as well. No one was waiting for Seth's autograph.
    - Hi, I told Seth.
    - Hello. (He bowed his head gently and gave me a faint smile. He had taken off raincoat and hat. His hair was all combed back and pomaded. His breast pocket was full of all sorts of pencils.)
    - Do you have anything newer here with you? (I pointed at the Italian translation of the book, which I had already read in its original version).
    - I am afraid not. (He has an accent that I would have classified as British. I guess it might be a Toronto accent.) I turned for a second to the lady from Bologna.
    - Signora, I went back to my mother tongue, may I buy a copy of his book so that he can sign it for me?
    It was pretty obvious that the answer would be yes. As I said, speaking to Seth in person made me nervous, and as a result I was making a fool of myself. Or maybe, I was going a bit too far in my effort to be perceived as kind, which is what I always tend to do when interacting with people that I don't know. The lady from Bologna made fun of me, she answered a dry "No" to my question... then she laughed, took me by the hand as if she had been my mother (who is also from Bologna), and said, Of course you can, and handed me a brand new copy of the book which I gave to Seth.
    Seth had thin hands with long fingers. He handled the book gently, opened it at the first page, which was plain black, and took out of his breast pocket a silver pencil. He started drawing a silver sketch of himself in raincoat and hat on the black page. It looked pretty cool.
    - So, how long have you been here in Naples? I asked while he drew.
    He stopped and looked at me for a second. Maybe with this question I had managed to turn myself from a "fan" into a human being.
    - We flew in yesterday, he said.
    There was a pause. He kept drawing.
    - And what do you think so far?
    He looked at me again. This time I think he even smiled (faintly).
    - Oh, I think it's nice, he said.
    Maybe he wasn't just being nice. Maybe he really likes it here. Toronto and Naples. I don't know.
    - Are you going to stay for a little while?
    - Just for the convention, he said. Then back home.
    "Back home." Not one of those people that consider themselves "citizens of the world," I thought. I thought he spoke just like many of the people I knew in the U.S. In the town where I lived, there are many artists and intellectuals.
    There was another pause until he finished his drawing. In the drawing he's smoking a cigarette, little puffs of smoke flying up toward the top of the page.
    - Would you like me to sign this for you? he asked, almost shyly.
    - Yes, please.
    - What is your name?
    - My name is Lapo. He moved closer, to hear better, almost stood up from his chair.
    - L-A-P-O.
    He drew a balloon above the head of his sketched self, and wrote "for Lapo" in it. He gave me the book and we both smiled.
    - Thank you very much, I said with nervous kindness.
    - Oh, no problem.
    - And I hope you have a good stay.
    - Why, thank you. (And I turned back to the Bologna lady to pay for the book. She gave me a discount.)
    Later, riding the subway to Central Station, I thought I could have tried to have some sort of actual conversation with Seth. No one else was waiting to talk to him. I could have said I was a free-lance journalist writing an article on Drawn and Quarterly comics, and maybe he would have agreed to give me a full interview. I could have asked him about Joe Matt and Julie Doucet. Julie Doucet is the one that I really would like to meet. But she wasn't there; she hasn't been translated into Italian yet (neither has Joe Matt).
    What I have written above about her might have given the wrong impression. "Dirty plotte" means "dirty cunt," yes, but then the content of her books is much less harsh that you might expect from such a title. She is gentle and kind. In the photographs that I have seen on the back cover of one of her collections, or when I read her French interview, she looks quite different from how she draws herself in her comics (not that her comic alter-ego is not gentle and kind). She went to school in Montreal, then moved to New York City for a year, Seattle for a few years, Berlin for a few years and eventually Montreal again. She drew in her comics most of the apartments where she lived; they tend to be full of all sorts of debris--broken houseware, abandoned socks, empty bottles... She drew stories of menstruation, of doing too much drugs and getting epilepsy fits as a result, of the "Petite fleur Ítre obligee de vendre son comic ("Dirty pollen"...) dans la rue car aucun librairie, aucun distributeur n'en veut." In all this, she manages to articulate a fragility, a vulnerability that most of us can probably relate to. If she ever comes to Italy, I'll go to see her and I'll try to interview her. We'll see how it goes.

Napoli, Roma, March 8, 9, 10, 2003.



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