Garage Band by Gipi
Saturday, March 20, 2010
This appraisal of Garage Band by Italian cartoonist Gipi, first appeared in Windy Corner Magazine. Thanks to Austin for letting me run it here on CC.
Garage Band by the Italian cartoonist Gipi is a remarkably deceptive comic. Originally titled Five Songs when it was released in Italy a few years back (2005), it’s a breezy read, quite enjoyable – arguably the most beautiful of his available works in English. Soft watercolor tones and thin contour lines that unite with marvelous energy and skill. Gipi has an amazing ability to capture the essence of each scene, to articulate all the important details without overwhelming the reader with such details. Yet, it’s a relatively “empty” read if one is looking for a solid story in the traditional sense. And this is what I mean by it being a deceptive comic. It’s 114 pages of strung together notes, poetic silent passages and bursts of energy. In that sense, it’s sort of like watching a great band practicing their songs. We see the stops and starts, the rehearsal of new material and the easy way in which some old songs are played effortlessly. It’s all there, but somehow, I’m left wondering if the real show in front of an audience will be better and I’ll get to see, hear these songs played to perfection. And then I wonder if that really matters, and that maybe, seeing the band practice, hearing the demo tape is closer to some sense of perfection.
The story itself concerns a group of four friends who have a band. The book opens with the band moving into a garage owned by the guitarist’s father. The condition of the loan of the garage is simply that he (and the band) stay out of trouble. We’re introduced to each band member and get a glimpse of their lives at home with their respective elders – be they parents or aunts, be they dysfunctional or traditional, or both. And this, I feel, is the most charming aspect of the story – and something that adds to the deceptively simple narrative. I find it very Italian in temperment. How one’s family, one’s home life shapes one is universal – but in Italy, the connection to family and all that goes with such a connection is much stronger than it is for us in North America (in Italy, for example, it is not uncommon for a man to live with his parents until he is in his thirties – or for married couples to live with one set of in-laws). Ever see Fellini’s I Vitteloni? This book, for me, is a little like that movie. A group of friends who spend all their time together but who each have to contend with the “dysfunction” of their home lives. The story of the friends is attached to the story of the families, one informs the other – it’s all one big stew. And I couldn’t help but think of my own Italian friends (from Italy) who have crazy families and who are always having to explain to their fathers that they are actually “doing something” with their lives.
The five “songs” that comprise the book are the five chapters that do not tell a conventional narrative. It’s more like a record – a five song E.P. – and even in the English edition of the book the chapters are titled “prima canzone”, “seconda canzone” – which translates into “first song”, “second song”, etc. It’s an interesting choice to break up the narrative this way and the reader is left with the impression of what the band sounds like somehow. And like any band or any record, some songs are better than others.
The band moves into the garage in the first chapter and each member is able to shed his “old” life somehow. There is real joy in the initial release of playing together in the garage – a new identity is forming. They finally have a place of their own to play. And the songs themselves, although we, the reader, can’t “hear” the songs, they are about the members’ lives. We’re told that the first song is about the drummer’s father and how his father’s illness changed him. And it’s also about the drummer’s mother and his aunt (two domineering Italian women who carry the drummer’s kit to the garage from the car – a priceless sequence). So it’s about purging these ties that bind – it’s about release and finding one’s own voice, about standing apart from one’s own family, alone, but as a group, a band. A new identity
The second song or second chapter begins with the guitarist (Giuliano, essentially the main character) and his girlfriend at the beach. It’s one of the most beautifully drawn passages in the book – wonderful handling of watercolor , of tone, of line. Gipi captures the subtle nuances of expression and human movement so perfectly. And the light, the air, the sand and really the light may be the main character in this book, so effortlessly does he manage to convey feeling simply with color and light and dark, it’s breathtaking. (If you’ve ever been to Italy then you know what the light is like and, for me, this memory dovetails with the depiction of it in this book and creates a synthesis in my mind that is incredibly strong) It’s as though this chapter was “filmed” at that magic hour before sundown when the sun slants in such a way that everything is golden, new.
Giuliano’s girlfriend simply asks “and then what are you gonna do?” in the second panel of the chapter. Meaning, I think, “now that you have the garage and you guys are practicing, what’s next?” Giuliano’s response is basically “we’ll get some songs ready, but who cares – now that we have a place to play everything is different, new.” It’s a short exchange, only 3 or 4 panels, but a telling one for it conveys so much. The couple silently looks off into the distance, a wave crashes on the shore. The endless expanse, the sea, the sun, the edge. An arrival of sorts, and also an end. These are the really special moments of this comic for me. And it’s these moments that can easily be lost if the reader doesn’t recognize the symbolism, the power, of the imagery. There’s no extraneous dialogue or interior narrative that holds the reader’s hand. It’s just there visually. It’s deceptive simply because it reads so quickly yet the images stayed with me long after this second chapter, this “song”, ended.
Yet before the second “song” ends, after such a beautiful quiet intro, the whole thing builds to a crescendo of power and pushes the narrative along in a new and innovative way. The sun goes down and during a lovely evening dusk, we’re introduced to the singer, Stefano, and his family. Seated at the dinner table is Stefano’s mother and father already eating when Stefano arrives home. There is a nice formal set up of panels where father and son are often making the same expression while eating. Gruff, tough, the working-man father tells his musician son that he met somebody “in the music business” who agreed to listen to Stefano’s band. The son is equally impenetrable as the father and doesn’t ever look up from his plate while his dad relates the story of giving a discount at his business to the music A&R man if the man will listen to his son’s music. It’s a powerful sequence of clinking forks on plates and silent, visual punctuation that rings true and affords a perfect segue to the introduction of the bass player’s life and their evening ‘round the dinner table.
Alberto, the bass player, in stark contrast to Stefano, is gentle and there is an entirely different atmosphere during dinner for him. He eats quietly, transfixed by the soap opera on television. His father, a model airplane hobbyist, stares out the window and talks how he might improve one of his planes. The mother lovingly dishes out the food to both of these daydreaming men. And then this glimpse ends just as quickly as it began and we’re ushered into the severe world of Alessandro (the drummer) who lives with his mother and aunt. It’s a regular henhouse, where Alessandro shuts himself up in his room and won’t come out for dinner cuz he’s just tired of all their nagging.
Are these dinner sequences ultimately necessary for the story? With the exception of the A&R man plot development, the sequences, technically, do not add to the narrative in a traditional sense. For some, I’m sure, these pages are glossed over quickly and honestly, that’s what I did at first. But then, I slowed down and realized how central these pages were to the story. These sequences are crucial to our understanding and appreciation of the band as a whole. And how then, at the end of this chapter, we see the band united in the garage releasing all of their pent up frustration during practice. It’s a stirring build up of events, of notes, with a coda that created a real emotional response inside of me, and that carried over into the next chapter.
Chapter three opens with an expanse of blue sky and with Giuliano’s girlfriend, Nina, laying in the grass staring up into it, relaxed, in love. The band is practicing and all is well in the world until one their amps goes on the fritz. And here, the band’s problems begin and paradise is jeopardized. Stefano, the singer, lets his attitude get the best of him and he’s plunged into an aggressive despair that he takes out on everyone else. How are they going to practice their songs and impress the A&R guy with a demo tape? “We’re totally screwed.” No more shutting the world out and just living in the garage practicing their songs. No more dreams of a music career if they don’t go back out into the real world and do something about fixing their equipment. But how? They’re all broke and the idea of buying any new equipment is just impossible.
So, Alessandro devises a hare-brained scheme to steal some equipment from another practice space he spies every Sunday when he goes along with his mother and aunt to visit a memorial chapel for his grandfather. He convinces the rest of the band that the equipment must belong to some church group. “The way I see it, their right to own musical instruments is zilch.” There is an expertly framed sequence of them almost getting caught by military police that is, again, beautifully articulated and colored. And again, it’s easy to quickly read over the whole scene without really taking in how wonderfully it’s drawn. The moody, spooky light. The color. Just gorgeous. And then, right in the middle of the scene, Gipi cuts away to Giuliano’s girlfriend sitting alone in the dark, at home. The contrast to the opening of the chapter couldn’t be more apparent, yet, again, the symbolism is easily missed if the reader isn’t paying attention. Gipi doesn’t hit the reader over the head with it. It’s up to the reader to realize that Giuliano’s girlfriend is “in the dark”, literally and figuratively. Nina doesn’t know what the band is up to and is home with her sister. She relates a story about Giuliano that is rather touching and which sheds light onto what kind of family he has, something the reader hasn’t been privy to up until that point. And it’s an interesting moment to inject such a story into the narrative because when Gipi cuts back to the band stealing we project this new information onto Giuliano. The information softens the scene and our feelings toward Giuliano and the rest of the band. It’s expertly done, a marvelous scene, and one that carries us to the end of the chapter where the band is now recording their demo with their new equipment. “We have stolen. We have broken the rules. But now we can play.”
Chapter four: “We thought we’d outsmarted the world.” And here, the band’s world comes crashing down. Of course, they get caught and have to return the equipment It’s a short chapter, a brutal “song” that just lets it all out. We meet the “church group” that the band stole from and here is one of the most memorable scenes in the comic. And I just can’t spoil it for you, dear reader. Suffice to say, it’s not a church group, and that Giuliano’s father is not happy. The agreement between father and son is broken. The band didn’t stay out of trouble and the garage is taken away from them. As Giuliano’s father walks away, there is another “rhyme” with the anecdote that Nina related in the previous chapter that echoes loudly. And again, there’s a symbolism that is easily missed if the reader isn’t paying attention. Also, fittingly, it’s the only chapter so far that doesn’t end with the band playing music together.
The end, or the fifth song, is another chapter full of amazing symbolism. Stefano meets with the A&R man and they talk in front of an empty swimming pool. The man offers Stefano a menial job with his company, not a record contract. Alessandro, the drummer, appears on a moped with his face painted blue (acne cream) and tells that he’s been receiving money from his estranged father for years, secretly, and that’s how he’s lived all this time without working. He’s masked his sadness with his attitude and obsessions but now he’s ready to come clean and tell the truth. This information and the timing with which we learn it is another brilliant plot device employed by the author. Alessandro is probably the most despicable of the bunch and, of course, it’s he who will ultimately save the band from ruin. He takes the rest of the band to a new garage space that he’s rented with his secret money. Giuliano’s voiceover narration tells us that the band’s next song will be about how they lost the garage. It’ll be about them stealing from the chapel, about their parents, and about how all things end and begin again.
Do I need to mention that I love this comic? As a reader, it pushed all my buttons, and made me feel like I was watching some awesome “coming of age” movie. The art and the story are simple, but deceptively so. I’ve read it front to back about ten times and each time I discover something new. The synthesis of drawing, color, narrative and symbolism is incredibly powerful. Don’t let it fool you. Like some song that you just can’t get out of your head, this book just stayed with me for days after reading it. And it continues to give back to me every time I play it, read it, again.