“Strappare lungo i bordi” (Tear Along the Dotted Line) is a popular animated TV series, in six episodes, created by cartoonist Zerocalcare, which means “no limescale” and is the stage name of Michele Rech. The series landed on the streaming platform Netflix earlier this year. It proved to be popular, especially among young people. The graphic novels behind the series are eagerly read by many young people and adults.
All Zerocalcare’s publications, as well as the TV series, use the Roman dialect, colored by typical slang and jargon, an aspect that continues to draw criticism. The main character is Zerocalcare himself, who, with his friends, is engaged in disentangling his life in the suburbs of Rome. The author explains : “They are autobiographical stories. I don’t have enough imagination to think of something different. Telling something that happened to me seems less arrogant than telling stuff I imagine or that someone else told me. If I talk about my own stuff, I have the authority to do so. If not, I don’t.”
This is perhaps one of the aspects that most attracts the young (and not so young) to read Zerocalcare’s stories: he focuses on the tough situations and anxiety of his personal experiences during the various stages from childhood to adolescence, up to the adult age of thirty; these belong to the affective and relational horizon of the readers of the graphic novels. The stories are ironically called “pipponi,” which is Roman slang for long, pedantic, tedious discourses.
Profound themes, touching on human frailty, doubt, the fleetingness of time, or the fragility of relationships, are described by the cartoonist, passing quickly from a caustic, self-mocking style to one full of lightness and pity, giving the impression that he wants to give a caress to souls that are often depicted in an abyss. Makkox, the cartoonist who supported Zerocalcare’s beginnings, says about their personal style of drawing: “In the way we work we talk about us, about what we know, what we live, small and big things. And we like to do so on the borderline between laughter and melancholy, catching the ironies, the self-ironies.”
Tear Along the Dotted Line contrasts with the actual speed of life, as the narrator, the author himself, explains: “So we went slow because we thought that life worked like that, that all we had to do was tear along the edges slowly and follow the dotted line of what we were destined for and everything would take the shape it should have… because we were 17 years old and had all the time in the world.” However, the use of the verb “to tear” has a very precise connotation, not harmonious, which metaphorically refers to the wounds of life, as expressed by the opening theme song of the TV series. On the one hand the camera zooms in on scissors that could neatly cut out the segmented edges of the sheet; on the other hand it dwells on the fingers of the character as he tries uncertainly to tear the paper following the guidelines, but soon goes off track. At the end, the cut-out, which should represent the silhouette of a strong, muscular man, that is the ideal of perfection and self-sufficiency that society envisages, instead shows the profile of the protagonist Zero, with a slender, lanky frame.
The introduction of the series
Life as such is the center of the narrative, as is shown right from the introductory frames of the animation. The words “It’s useless to live outside if you die inside” appear on a wall, while electronic music, with pounding synthesizers, accompanies a mosquito, , that flies until it impacts the windscreen of a bus at the Rebibbia stop in Rome, the suburban neighborhood where Zerocalcare lives. It is the stronghold from which he derives his identity, as shown in the graphic novel “Niente di nuovo sul fronte di Rebibbia” (Nothing new on the Rebibbia front), or in the animated episodes of “Rebibbia Quarantine,” in which the most disadvantaged social classes live together, or try to do so.
With quick animated strips, Zerocalcare shows some aspects of intercultural, popular, everyday Rome: the subway trains, in fact, stop at and leave the Ponte Mammolo station, where we see, in the foreground, an African man, a punk, an African woman with a small child and an Arab Muslim family, all waiting with a look of expectation, but without any signs of happiness. By contrast, the next shot moves to the Colosseum stop, with its archaeological beauty, while smiling “centurions” pose for a photo with tourists. Finally, there is the Circo Massimo stop, which is associated with the celebration of Roma’s soccer championship victory in 2001, a date that also establishes a bridge to introduce the dramatic event of the G8 summit in Genoa – the author was there protesting – with its violence and contradictions, which is often cited in his graphic novels.
Meet and encounter
Zerocalcare succeeds in showing, in hilarious and paradoxical episodes that focus on and emphasize the life of Zero – himself – how important relational bonds are, but, at the same time, how hard it is to build them in contemporary society, especially in the world of adolescents and young people, who find themselves struggling daily with a tortuous urban context and often adverse circumstances.
The story proceeds with a punk concert at a Roman social center where Zero meets Alice, a girl with whom, awkwardly, he tries to make friends. His psychological tensions, anxieties, doubts, idiosyncrasies, represented with self-mockery, belong to the world of adolescents and young people, who experience the difficulties of falling in love for the first time, and the restlessness of entering into relations with a new world that until then they had not yet experienced, but only knew by hearsay. When they see each other, the two young people communicate in monosyllables (“We’d seen each other three or four other times that month, and we must have said fifteen words that were mostly grammatical nuances…”), yet they communicate with each other all night long via computer, with an ease they are not capable of face to face. If, in fact, proximity seems to make them feel uncomfortable, distance, through the mediation of a PC or a cell phone, calms their anxieties, hides their fragility and allows them to express themselves spontaneously, without worrying, perhaps, about being judged: “Our virtual relationship was a fixed appointment that was so intimate that Alice was the only person in the world who knew that in life I wanted to do comics.”
But this condition remained partial, incomplete, as they themselves say: “There was this tenuous relationship where we wrote to each other but did not talk to each other. We were always sowing, but we never harvested.” Emblematic of this situation is the scene in which the two of them, united by a passion for music, are leafing through the same box of records, and their hands, although coming closer, never touch. As with their lives, their hands only glide past each other. The lack of physical contact expresses the incompleteness of a relationship, which remains deep but suspended, understood but not determined, and, in this time of pandemic in which physical barriers are more in evidence, is regarded by the spectators with even greater intensity. The existences of Zero and Alice, in their fragile and delicate beauty, cannot be fully realized, but nor is it completely true that they have not touched: for the way of being of the two characters, at that moment this was the best they could achieve.
In this emotional uncertainty and precariousness where they must learn, if not to swim, at least to float, some friends come to the rescue: they are Sarah and Secco, from Zero’s childhood, who represent the element of trust and loyalty in life. Sarah appears as Zero’s alter ego; she already has clear ideas about her future, as a professor; as a decisive character she always responds appropriately to all of her friend’s perplexities. Secco, apparently superficial with his passion for video poker, with winnings from which he pays his rent, and the constant desire for ice cream, he shows a constant closeness to Zero, in any situation. But it is the conversations between the three of them that highlight the complexity of reality, never the same, polyhedric and multifaceted, a reality that is often seen as a hostile force, into which one is thrown (as seen in the opening theme song, with the character suddenly falling into the void until he falls back onto the couch of his house) and toward which it is necessary to try to apply strategies to live, but much more often to survive.
Completing the picture of Zero’s relationships is the amusing and complex armadillo, voiced by actor Valerio Mastandrea. From the very beginning of the stories, the armadillo helps “to give a face to my thoughts and dilemmas,” facilitating “the understanding of my thoughts and lucubrations.” This imaginary but also real character appears almost as a Socratic daimon, with a defined character, who speaks in an intimate way with Zero, confirming him, but more often opposing his thoughts. It represents that part of consciousness that wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world, that perceives imminent danger in every situation, and therefore tries to warn Zero of the possibility of improbable “acolyte,” that is, situations that could turn out to be problematic from a relational point of view, thus trying to dissuade him from the possibility of exposing his ego to external reality.
To be a blade of grass
As often happens in Zerocalcare’s graphic novels, through the use of the flashback technique the TV series takes the viewer back to a period of Zero’s childhood with his friends, focusing on certain school moments that show certain traumas, such as his transformation from a model and intelligent student to one in difficulty, humiliated because he cannot understand the mathematical process of division. Thus, guilt, teacher expectations, anguish and anxieties that are typical of many students grappling with school difficulties come into play. Everything is presented with sarcasm, irony or hyperbole, techniques that provoke laughter in the face of everyday situations for many children and, at the same time, evoke a sense of compassion for the young student.
In his comic scenes, Zerocalcare is able to tear aside the veil of reality, using expressions that force the viewer not only to laugh, but also to reflect seriously. Sarah, in response to the concerns of little Zero for having disappointed the teacher because of a failing grade, replies: “But don’t you realize how beautiful it is, that you don’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders and that you’re just a blade of grass in a meadow? Don’t you feel lighter?” This in no way signifies a lack of responsibility with respect to reality, but an understanding that existence is not just a titanic effort of willpower on which everything depends.
For Zerocalcare, in fact, social commitment is important, as evidenced by the intense graphic novel “Kobane Calling,” in which the author recounts his journey to Turkey, Iraq and Syria among the Kurdish rebels, undertaken in 2015, to personally know the situation and deliver medicine; or the denunciation of the conditions in prisons in “Niente di nuovo sul fronte di Rebibbia.” Being “a blade of grass in a meadow,” therefore, means not considering oneself at the center of the world, living only in one’s own egocentric world. The metaphor from nature whose green meadow color communicates, the idea of tranquility and relaxation, also implies being within a community, in contact with others with whom one shares the situations and events of daily life. It is an invitation to the lightness of being, knowing that it will surely present crossroads, choices and situations that must be faced with responsibility, which in the animated strips will always take the form of paradoxical and tragicomic situations.
But even the metaphor of the blade of grass in a meadow, which becomes a leitmotif throughout the episodes, will eventually come under critical scrutiny and will not be sufficient to understand all of existence.
The crossroads of life
It is choices that make Zero most uncomfortable, as if every decision taken always and constantly leads to dire, apocalyptic consequences. The illustrator often represents scenes of everyday life, only to arrive, through a shift in meaning, at a deeply human level of significance, which implies a decision. By ironically taking as an example the banal choice of which pizza to eat with his friend Secco, the author introduces the much deeper dilemma on the crossroads of human existence, when he says: “This thing about choices is cruel, because the further you go in life, the more they diminish […] and any decision you have to make becomes more solemn as the years go by […] it seems to me that this thing, free will is unspeakably cruel. I would like to have a legal guardian who chooses for me, whom I could possibly blame.”
Choices, for Zero, bring with them some intimidating aspects, including the basic idea that every change in situation makes things worse and brings misfortune. He himself admits: “It’s true that I’m a champion at dodging life, but it’s because changes make me anxious, I’d like an unchanging and peaceful life,” but, at the same time, he understands that it’s not possible to never make decisions in order to survive the sense of loss in the labyrinth of life. He realizes, in fact, that there is what in Greek is called kairos, that is, an opportune time to make choices, which proceeds in parallel with, but is not identical to, chronological time, which inevitably continues to flow. From a graphical point of view, the author represents the time of decision through the appearance of a disturbing black animal with an elongated beak, called “the guardian of timing,” which brandishes an alarm clock in its claws, but it never rings.
Zero understands that every choice, every desire, every passion has a time to be realized, but that, out of fear or laziness, we often don’t have the courage to act: “If you keep the same piece of paper in your hand for ten years, even if you don’t tear it up […] the result is that ten years later you still have a piece of wastepaper in your hand, even if you played at being a wax figure.” And Zero, in the end, wonders if there is only one way to succeed in realizing oneself and finding a meaning to one’s life, that is, following the classic steps, represented by the scenario of the dotted lines on the paper. Maybe he realizes that these lines are too marked for his way of life and he has to find other ways, including other choices, to succeed in building his own existence.
Another aspect connected to choices is anxiety about the future, which is another issue particularly close to the world of youth: what to do when you grow up. By means of quick animated scenes, we see the seemingly endless series of unqualified temporary jobs that Zero has done, from dog sitting to leafleting to ice cream making, ironically flanked by the more fantastic and illusory ones of astronaut or businessman. In tune with many young people , he shows how many resumes he has sent out, almost never getting a response, except for jobs of no interest and poorly paid.
In this chaotic work jungle, where it seems that only those who have a reference can have a chance of employment, Sarah is able to ask the basic question: “Excuse me, but you who send all these curricula, what work do you do?” To Zero’s vague answer, which shows that he has no significant and concrete perspective, she counters with the sense of hope in her life and the desire for self-determination, stating that the current job she is doing and for which she feels no involvement is seen only in anticipation of the examination to become a schoolteacher: “I’ve been studying all my life because I want to do that.” In this way, two different perspectives are shown: the more vague and indeterminate one of Zero, pervaded by a sense of fatalism and the basic idea that he is hardly likely to succeed in realizing himself professionally, and the one of Sarah, who believes in the idea that her dream can be realized through commitment, study and dedication, and showing how the current situation is only a passage to reach her life’s goal.
If the first four episodes of the series touch on themes that generally accompany all adolescents and young people, the last two deal with an even more delicate topic: the unhealthy, toxic relationships that lead to the abyss of the human soul. Alice is succumbing to them, and Zero and his friends do not know how to deal with this situation. They understand that their friend is in obvious difficulty and, even when she manages to detach herself from this state, “then she always went back to it and defended it to the death.”
This episode, which also appeared in the graphic novel “La profezia dell’armadillo” (The Armadillo’s Prophecy) represents an important moment in Zerocalcare’s biography as he himself states: “I think the trigger for all this was the death of a friend. […] I was terrified that if I didn’t fix her image I wouldn’t remember her anymore, I would have lost her for good, erased from my memory.”
The sequel for Alice – another name given to his friend Camille – is the most dramatic and tragic, but it can happen when everything loses its meaning. If Zerocalcare’s approach to give a meaningful answer to death appears critical of both religious and secular approaches, the underlying question instead respects the meaning of life itself: “Or rather, why did she do it? […] There must be a reason why people kill themselves… why she killed herself.” Once again, Sarah intervenes, showing the complexity of life in the face of which, at times, not even friendship or the deepest relationships are enough; and it is again Sarah who tries to shake Zero out of blaming himself for not having done enough to recognize that sense of emptiness that had occupied Alice’s soul: “People are complex, they have aspects that you don’t know, behavior moved by intimate reasons, unfathomable from the outside. We only see a very small piece of what they have inside and outside and by ourselves we change almost nothing. We are blades of grass, remember?”
Who is the other person? How much do we know about the lives of others? We see some areas of existence that are regular and “that seem perfectly cut out,” but sometimes they are not as they appear and are “meaningless scraps, very different from what we had thought.” Yet Zero eventually asserts that one can live even with these “jagged shapes,” which have failed to follow the safe edges of existence, which are not as perfectly balanced as one would have wished, but possess that humanity capable of supporting others.
In the end Zerocalcare manages to break through that dark fog that envelops the human being, that non-sense of existence that often obscures living itself, those instances of determinism that seem to give no respite and offer no hope. Every event, even in its drama, if on the one hand brings with it a lot of pain, on the other hand can be a revelation of a sense of sharing in the relationships of friendship and community. It is no coincidence that in the conclusion Sarah and Secco change the tone of their voices. If in fact for all the episodes of the TV series it was Zerocalcare himself who interpreted his friends, in the epilogue the voices are those of Chiara Gioncardi, as Sarah, and Paolo Vivio, as Secco. This choice communicates an openness toward the other: that wall, that introverted aspect of Zero’s difficulty in opening up to the world has been broken down. In fact, there are other voices than that of Zerocalare, and they are those of his friends, of those who are on a journey with him, with the same anxieties and fears, but also with the joy of understanding that there can be a way of life that is not only dictated and pre-established by society, but is one built on a sense of fraternity and humanity, capable of embracing fragility and diversity.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.3 art. 12, 0322: 10.32009/22072446.0322.13
 S. Nucini, “Zerocalcare, dottore in impicci”, in www.vanityfair.it/show/agenda/2020/12/24/zerocalcare-dottore-in-impicci-intervista-vanity-fair
 A. Fiamma, “Storia del libro che ha cambiato la vita di Zerocalcare (e il fumetto italiano)”, in www.fumettologica.it/2021/11/profezia-armadillo-fumetto-zerocalcare
 Zerocalcare, The Armadillo’s Prophecy.
 A. Gnoli, “Zerocalcare: ‘L’armadillo è la mia coscienza, che fatica stare con le persone’”, in la Repubblica (www.repubblica.it/cultura/2017/04/09/news/zerocalcare_l_armadillo_rappresenta_la_mia_coscienza_che_fatica_stare_con_le_persone_-162568953), April 9, 2017.