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If it’s a nearly 300-page graphic novel about the history of crossword puzzles, and it’s titled Fun, then it better be pretty damn entertaining. And yes, Italian artist Paolo Bacilieri delivers the fun, both narratively and visually. Also horizontally and vertically: forget strict linear structure, which is just ho-hum. This Fun is vigorous, spirited and assured in its graphic experimentation. There are stories within stories, layers upon layers, complex yet clear, weaving together a century of such disparate entities as Spider-Man, Salinger and Simon & Schuster.
Fun is also a graphic history of the funnies, because Bacilieri is also exploring several significant similarities between comics and crosswords. For starters—literally—in 1913 the very first crossword appeared side-by-side with the early cartoons that ran in the New York World’s “Fun” supplement. So crossword boxes and cartoon panels continually intersect in a variety of richly intricate page compositions. And hell, yeah it’s meta: The main characters are a Disney comics writer and an Umberto Eco–like author who’s researching a history of crosswords. And since Fun’s subtitle is Spies, Puzzle Solvers, and a Century of Crosswords, there’s also a mystery, with cryptic, coded, criss-crossing clues and investigators such as Dick Tracy and Batman.
Much of the tale is set in New York City and Bacilieri’s native Milan. He himself has been one of the most successful and beloved comics artists in Europe since the 1980s, and he recently won the Naples Comicon’s Micheluzzi Award for best designer. Already acclaimed internationally, Fun is his first introduction to an English-speaking audience, and was hailed on several of last year’s Best Comics lists here in America. His finely detailed and lovingly rendered linework is elegant and beguiling, akin to Moebius, Tardi, Manara and other 1970s and ’80s Euro comic art masters, and with touches of our own Clowes, Crumb and Bechdel. Let’s hope more translations will soon follow. Zeno Porno and the Magnificent Desolation, anyone?
Fun is fascinating, and well worth re-reading. And if you’re still puzzled, just check out these images. 17 down.
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About Michael Dooley
Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.