Andrea Pazienza, the prodigy of Italian comics, wrote the first instalment of his psychedelic debut The Extraordinary Adventures of Pentothal when he was just twenty-one. The complete graphic novel, whose parts were published between 1977 and 1981, offers the unforgettable experience of navigating the turbulent milieu of the Italian youth counterculture of that period as well as the bewildering landscapes of the author’s consciousness, for Pazienzia makes himself the protagonist of this unconventional saga. Pentothal is the notorious truth serum and therefore a fitting alias for Andrea, an aspiring comics artist and a student of DAMS (the Italian acronym for Disciplines of Art, Music, and Performing Arts) at the University of Bologna: the story is a frank testimony of his life, loves, friendships, and experiments with drugs at the end of the 1970s, which were marked in Italy by the growing influence of extra-parliamentary groups, mass protests, street clashes with the police, occupations of university premises, self-reduction of prices, and the proliferation of independent radio stations. Pentothal is both a chronicle of this time and a revolutionary artistic statement which subverted most of the established canons of the Italian comic book industry, drawing inspiration from American underground comics, the sci-fi of Moebius, William Burroughs’ hallucinatory fiction and Dadaist texts, without ever lapsing into mere derivativeness. With this debut, Pazienza forged his distinctive eclectic style of drawing and narration, which is likely to baffle any reader used to linear storytelling and the uniformity of representation techniques. Even after all these years, there is no agreement about what actually is happening on some of the panels, not to mention the difficulties posed by the pervasive erasure of the boundary between reality and the dream world, be it the product of sleeping or substance abuse.
It’s 1977 and Bologna is in turmoil. The far-left organisations clash with the far-right groups. The streets are flooded by the protesting youth. Andrea Pazienza is, for the most part, an impassive observer of these events. This lack of engagement is one of the accusations that his girlfriend hurls at him before breaking their relationship. The theme of choosing between militant political activism and bourgeois conformity runs through the whole novel. It is obvious from the very first panels, that Andrea is in favour of the third way, that of becoming an artist and dedicating his energies to the creative pursuits without looking for approval on either side of this societal divide. His everyday reality is humdrum and depressing. There are annoying flatmates, the 2-hour wait in the line to the university canteen, the lack of money, and all the political seething among the students, much of which, he suspects, is no more than putting on airs and pretending to be involved in the great revolutionary transformation: all you have to do to say that you have “occupied” a university department is just to spend a night there. However, things do get serious when the first blood is spilt. The last panel of the first instalment has become the most widely-discussed scene of Pentothal, for it metafictionally comments on the ugly turn the events were taking just as Pazienza was about to have the initial episodes of his work-in-progress published in the comic magazine Alter Alter. At the last moment, the author changed the concluding panel with a new one which referred to the murder of Francesco Lorusso, a member of the far-left organisation Lotta Continua. He was shot by a police officer on March 11, 1977, during a street riot. The first instalment of Pentothal came out in April of the same year. We learn about this hasty replacement directly from Andrea Pazienza, who has drawn himself listening to the latest report on Radio Alice, the famous mouthpiece of the youth protest movements at the end of the 1970s.
A stark contrast to the mundane quandaries of the Bologna student is his fantastic journeys. The dreams and hallucinations in which Andrea often appears under the alias Pentothal are usually depicted as brief self-contained vignettes created in a variety of styles: from faux-negligent sketchy cartoons to striking examples of elaborate draughtsmanship. One of the most interesting of those travels is Andrea and his friend Luigi’s acid trip to Naples. Of course, it’s quite difficult to extricate this journey from other events, most of them of expressly psychedelic nature as well, because non-linearity is the only prescription unquestionably obeyed in this book. There are dreams within dreams, and hallucinations within hallucinations, some of which might be episodes from a comic book at a lower diegetic level. It’s hard to tell. Out of the blue, there appear the troops of General George Armstrong Custer riding under the pennant that reads Metro Goldwin Mayer (sic!). The general and his men get into an Indian ambush because their guide Buffalo Brill (sic!) confuses the south and the north directions. Andrea and Luigi join this narrative after apparently dropping LSD tabs when their motor scooter gets a flat tire on a real journey to Naples. Additional micro-plots change one another before the friends are reunited: a computer selects Andrea as a secret agent to propagate philistine values among the political activists; the protagonist finds himself in a vast field dotted with catatonic riot policemen where he meets Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (all the while, the police officers mumble cryptic repetitive phrases ascribed here to the famous maverick psychiatrist R. D. Laing); Andrea’s felt tip pen with a big toothy mouth loses its cap and tragically dies of thirst. Then the tripping companions finally set out for Naples, but not on the scooter anymore. They are driving a steampunk contraption which is miraculously larger inside than outside. The narrative gets side-tracked again, and when we get back to the journey, the scenario and scenery have already changed. Now Andrea is driving a more conventional car and is alone, intent upon reaching Naples and meeting there his friend before Frederick Barbarossa’s crusaders sack the city. Naples in this vision is a phantasmagorical mishmash of clashing architectural styles. We never learn if Andrea and Luigi got to the real Naples, but even if this journey materialised, how could it beat their rambling across this Italian Interzone conjured up in the mind of a hallucinating artist?
A short unfinished story interrupting a larger narrative is the hallmark of Pazienza’s storytelling method. Throughout the book, there are a number of vignettes, each having its own plot and each giving us a glimpse of a whole new world lurking inside as well as the inkling of the possible ramifications of the story. These brief episodes, all taking place within the dream universe of the main character, are highly tantalising because we want to learn more. An apt, if a bit anachronistic, comparison could be made with the faux trailers in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature Grindhouse: we really want to see those non-existent movies! (And one of those trailers did become a movie, as we know.) There’s also some parodic element involved as Pazienza makes no bones about poking fun at such recognised masters of the genre as, for instance, Robert Crumb and the already mentioned Moebius. Here are some noteworthy narratives of this kind: the adventures of a fired paratrooper cat (he might be the famous Fritz!) who wants to become a circus performer; the tale of the detective without a name, who never gets paid (because if he got paid he would have a name) and Julio Cortázar’s Cronopio (or Fama?) who wants to hire his services; a story about a US general’s lascivious wife who kisses a West Point cadet on the parade ground during an official ceremony; a spy thriller about secret agents on a mission in East Germany pretending to be a family; a science fiction story about a mysterious Arzach-like stranger who anti-climactically proves to be Giacomo, a sleazy dude who owes money to Andrea and Luigi and is likely to disappear with the rise of the mysterious “Etha Betha” (whatever that means). As if to underpin this kaleidoscopic madness by a semblance of theoretical raison d’être, in one scene the naked Andrea recites to his new girlfriend The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr Antipyrine – Tristan Tzara’s famous Dadaist manifesto.
However, taken as a whole, Pentothal is more than just a collage of artistically subversive and blatantly illogical elements put together to convey the chaos and confusion of the late 1970s in Italy. Through the jumble of incongruities runs a very distinct thread: the making of an artist. Let’s not forget that it took Pazienza four years to write the whole thing. At the age of twenty-five, he firmly established himself as the leading representative of the new Italian comics scene. The eye-popping psychedelic voyages and other interventions into the main story cannot completely obscure the steady process of maturity undergone by Andrea, which culminates in the fantastic scene, which, for once, is not a hallucination or a dream featuring yet another adventure of Pentothal, but an artistic allegory that the real-life Andrea Pazienza drew about himself. In the shape of a coat-wearing tree, nature itself visits Andrea at his home and gives him as a gift a magic box which contains the talent of drawing. The young man accepts the present and, as a consequence, refuses his friend D’Angello’s proposal to become “a gangster” together with him. It is obvious that becoming a gangster here is a comic book shibboleth for joining any of the militant left-wing organisations operating in Italy at the time. Neither a terrorist nor a philistine, Andrea the artist is ready to go on a journey of his own, which, no matter how personal, will always be tied with the times and places he has lived in. He is ready to share the epiphanies he’s going to have along the way with anyone not easily discouraged by a bit of non-linear storytelling.