Translated from Italian by Jaimie Richards
(Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2018)
For some, Gipi’s latest graphic novel translated from the original Italian, Land of the Sons, may be difficult to delve into in one sitting. But as someone who is making time to read more graphic novels for leisure and work, and as a teen services assistant librarian frequently dealing with the graphic novel collection, the illustrations, sketched with detail and pen strokes as an impressionist painting is painted with erratic brush strokes, drew me in immediately. Images are combined with sparse dialog and suffused with animalistic and ambient sounds, as opposed to flashy sound effects or lengthy dialog panes, found in American comics or Japanese manga. But my appreciation of and interest in such illustrations is less from an artistic standpoint as one that is far more visceral: they evoke primal, fearful, and evocative thoughts. Reading meant turning each page in anticipation to find what will become of two adolescent brothers and their father, set in a post-apocalyptic landscape. To signal entrance into this world, Gipi prefaces Land of the Sons:
On the causes and motives that led to the end, entire chapters of history books could have been written. But after the end, no more books were ever written.
Initially, the images are quite barren, and one can almost hear the silence and sense the emptiness that surrounds the two brothers. They are often shown in relation to their environment, and in contrast to their changing relationships with one another and their father. As the boys come of age, they learn about themselves through different experiences. There is an interesting contrast between situations that are seemingly mundane, even while the weight of them holds intrigue for the reader, and those when the boys are frustrated, or when there are hints of strong dramatic irony, employed through the combination of sparse dialog and vivid images. In hindsight, the readers’ curiosity regarding setting, time, place, and ultimately, what the boys may be getting themselves into without their awareness, was building gradually all along.
Another integral aspect of this post-apocalyptic environment and its shadows is secrets that are vigorously kept, for reasons that are not always apparent. We are with the sons when they come home to their father writing in a journal, and we learn that the sons are illiterate. In several panels, spanning several pages, there are images of the father’s journal entries which, to their frustration, only appear as nonsensical scribbling. Immediately, we are left wondering why the father did not teach either of his sons to read or write, skills that were commonplace in the past—a past that is clearly distant, for reasons that we can only speculate.
Still, their curiosity regarding what remains unknown about their world is matched only by their impatience to explore further. In following the boys for an indeterminate amount of time, their world does begin to grow—though not without protests from their father, who is always questioning and demanding to know what they have been up to. By introducing characters such as the mysterious, kind witch and a neighbor, we learn that these characters are not entirely alone. Their existence is somehow less comforting once certain aspects, about the world and what may have happened to it, are intentionally being hidden in the story.
But as we come ever closer to the novel’s conclusion, this sense of foreboding, of anticipation of what is yet to occur, heightens. As in a film, when the audience is aware that there is something amiss—too much silence, perhaps—so I read Land of the Sons, and with each turn of the page, felt myself becoming slightly more anxious.
Gipi has an interesting way of creating subtle character shifts, as we automatically begin to sympathize with the boys from the beginning. Their nonchalance and curiosity are relatable, even when they gradually become antagonists as well as protagonists, in exploring their world and trying to uncover its secrets, without understanding how to go about it, or at least not having the ability to acquiesce to various situations.
Before long, the narrative takes on the quality of an adventure story—internal travels, indicated by weighted images and the irony and familiar confusion of what these boys do not quite grasp, and the external, a deal more harrowing and graphic, but somehow muted by the sketch-like illustrations. Many of the repercussions, consequences themselves, are blurry, as are morality and clarity, even while the nameless brothers toil through a landscape that has already seen its share of atrocities. When the boys are forced to confront violent outlaws, causing their worlds to expand permanently, we learn truly what Gipi has in mind for a dark, distant future.
Gabriella Shriner is currently pursuing her MLIS degree at Rutgers University, while working as a library assistant in Teen Services. She lives, writes, and knits in New Jersey.