Forget my Name | Zerocalcare enters maturity
It’s hard to understand the exact moment when one grows up and becomes an adult. With Forget My Name, Zerocalcare (Michele Rech‘s pen name) takes an entire graphic novel to figure out how and when he turned from a guy to a man. In doing so, he also faces grief for the loss of his grandmother and tries to explore some unclear points of his family’s past.
‘How could I not have noticed the end of the level? I sure forgot to save.’Zerocalcare
Forget My Name was published in Italy by Bao Publishing in 2014. The first English translation arrived one year later with Europe Comics, followed in 2022 by the American edition Ablaze. In 2015 the graphic novel ranked second at Strega Prize Young, while in 2018 it was a finalist at the Prix des libraires du Québec.
Red foxes and black holes
When Zerocalcare was a child, he used to spend a lot of time with his grandmother, Huguette. He was very attached to her, and when she dies, Zero feels as if he suddenly became an adult. He can’t even ask for his mother’s support, as she suffers more than he does. Suddenly he’s no more a teenager who can always ask for his parents’ help. The loss reawakens one of his worst obsessions: the fear of death. Memories, thoughts, and feelings rush at him, carrying his mind to reflect on details lost in his past. So, trying not to think about that, he keeps himself busy with practical problems, helping with the funeral. First of all, he has to look for a ring in his grandmother’s house.
To face the empty house, Zero asks his friend Secco to join him, even though he knows he’s the kind of guy that won’t help at all. But he starts asking questions about Huguette’s past, pushing Zero to reflect on some black holes in his family’s story. There are old photos showing people and places he has never seen before. While looking for the ring, Zero cannot help but reflect on his childhood and his relationship with his grandmother.
Fears crowd in his body, in the form of horrible black monsters, becoming bigger and bigger until the funeral. There he discovers that not everybody used to call his grandmother Huguette… And when a red fox appears in the doorway, Zero knows it can’t be a coincidence. He follows the animal with Secco as if he knew there was something bonding it to his past and fears. As hard as it could be, it’s time for the boy to face his demons and evolve to the next level.
Animals inside us
The use of anthropomorphic animals has always been frequent both in underground and mainstream comics. They are also recurring graphic elements in Zerocalcare’s works, together with strange monsters. The unreal creatures represent feelings or physical sensations, so powerful that they become tangible. In this story, the author uses both of them for situations or people he prefers to hide under metaphors.
Besides the friend/voice of conscience armadillo, who had already appeared in previous works, and the mother hen (who resembles Lady Kluck in Disney’s Robin Hood), other characters take the shape of animals. Huguette, her sister, and many other people from her past life are represented as birds. Yet, among human-like animals, some perform a more important role in Forget my Name: foxes. They initially seem perfectly normal animals but turn out to be half-human creatures. Not a half-human like Fantastic Mr. Fox, though: they’re actual foxes, living in a mysterious forest, that can transform into humans at will.
Choosing the fox Zerocalcare pays homage to Collodi’s Pinocchio and his cunning and profiteering, though fascinating, character. But it also refers to the Japanese legend of Kitsune, foxes owning paranormal abilities that increase as they become older. Kitsune can shapeshift into human form and as they can be good or evil, they can be whether tricksters or guardians and lovers. And the fox that plays a lead role in Forget my Name melds the traits of both: charming man, loving husband, professional cheater, able to attract toward his ambivalent world. But as Zero understands, maybe that’s part of becoming an adult: accepting that nothing is black or white. There can be a hint of orange. And everybody can hide a bit of fox spirit inside its soul.
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When boy and cartoonist grow up together
‘Everything I have done until now, I did to understand exactly how to tell this story.’Zerocalcare
Back in 2014, the author declared in his blog this book was “a piece of his soul”. Moreover, it was the longest thing he had ever written and the first board book. Therefore, and for the need to tell this story, Forget My Name was a personal and artistic fulfillment for Zerocalcare. Being his fifth graphic novel, it shows various and different points of contact with his previous works.
The autobiographical aspect acts as a trigger to explore the author’s inner life and the anxieties of a whole generation. There are some flashbacks about his childhood, which was also one of the main themes in Tentacles at my throat. The process of growing up remains in the spotlight, but while the latter follows three different phases of life, Forget My Name focuses on a few intense days and recollections. There’s also a hint of fantasy recalling Dodici, although the unreal element’s only purpose is to guarantee his family’s privacy. There is a sense of loss, emptiness, and remorse that follows the death of a loved person. Similar themes worked as the basis for the short stories that in The Prophecy of the Armadillo compose a bigger picture.
Forget My Name moves one more step, though. As the narration tells the personal growth, the structure and graphics reflect the artist’s progress. Despite the intrusion of flashbacks and the incursion of demons and foxes, the narration remains fluid and homogeneous. Zerocalcare balances comical and reflective scenes, creating a fast-moving narration. Chapters follow one another without time leaps, connected by the appearance of foxes. The unmistakable drawing style reflects the increasing emotional involvement, too. Sometimes lines become jagged and thicker, and shadows more evident. In a black-and-white world, the orange foxes become a visual fil rouge, signing the turning points.
Forget my Name, but not who you are
The narrative revolves around the process of adulthood, the loss, and the acceptance of oneself and one’s past. Those elements will remain an essential part of Zerocalcare’s works, both in comics and in his TV show Tear Along the Dotted Line. Similar themes can be found in many coming-of-age stories, like Stand By Me or Without Blood, that focus on a painful way of growing up. Yet, with Forget My Name Zerocalcare tells this kind of story with a hilarious tone, though rough and pungent. A language that reflects the nature of human existence: sometimes there’s something fun in tragedy.
Zerocalcare doesn’t escape the pain, nor the darkest side of the human soul, or all its flaws. His sketches want to show with no veil some of the hardest aspects of inner perception of reality. He adds no moral, nor tries to find an explanation for his grief, or his weaknesses. What results is a story in which the reader can find oneself, and anything one has to accept while becoming an adult. It also proves that if some demons can be defeated, some others will remain forever. And maybe, growing up means learning to live with them, and all the anxieties they carry along. Despite all the difficulties he faced (and the ones still to face), the novel shows that Zerocalcare completed the level, and he’s ready for the next challenge.