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(Re)Constructing History: Italy's Post-War Resistence Movement in Contemporary Comics

Laura Perna

In his book on historical comics in America, Witek observes that comics function as particularly subversive spaces in which established historical fact comes to be challenged or viewed from alternative perspectives (Witek 1989: 48-56).  Does the same hold true in other contexts and in other countries?  To begin addressing this question, I will look at several graphic novels and comic strips published between 2006 and 2008 that take as their subject a rather contested area of contemporary Italian history, the post WWII struggle known as la Resistenza (to be defined in detail in a moment).  Focusing on comic work that treats a specific moment of the past, we can make observations and conclusions that may apply to historical comics in general; at the very least, such examination can open discussion about them.  La Resistenza as that specific historical moment will be of particular interest first, because of its current disputed status in Italian politics.  Second, perhaps related to this status, Resistenza comics have witnessed a small surge in production relative to previous decades and, more interestingly, comic artists' treatment of the topic has moved farther and farther from conventional portrayal.  In particular, I am interested in the ways comics partake in the discourse of a historical moment that is still being written.  How do the comics that treat this period reinforce or undermine established interpretations?  How are documentary sources utilised in Resistenza comics over the past few years as compared to those of the more distant past?  In the space that follows, I will first examine Resistenza comics based on primary testimony; traditionally, foundation on such a source served to support the established historical narrative but more recently, proves able to challenge it as well.  Next, I will consider how comics' artists incorporate photography into their work. This device often not only recalls to the reader a familiar context of established historical narrative, but also provides space for the comics' artists to draw attention to the constructed, subjective nature of reporting history.  Finally, I will discuss how a comic strip that is not based on documentary sources can serve as an entry point to readers' personal experience with and memories relating to la Resistenza.

Historical context of la Resistenza

To analyse comics that depict la Resistenza, the historical period itself and its subsequent historiography deserve a brief introduction.  The phrase la Resistenza describes a vast range of activity that occurred between the armistice Italy declared with the Allied forces on 8 September 1943 and the German retreat from Northern-Central Italy at the end of April 1945.  Using one phrase to cover all the instances of resistance during this time and in this location is deceptive: the motives, modes, and targets of resistance activity varied enormously.  Pavone's Una Guerra Civile (1991) indicates the multi-faceted nature of this movement and because of this is still regarded as a turning point and reference point for post-war historiography.  In his book, he discusses not one, but three different levels of conflict or approaches one can apply to the study of la Resistenza.  First, engaged in a war of liberation, Italian and foreign soldiers and civilian partisans, i partigiani, actively fought against Axis forces in order to liberate Italy from foreign occupation.  These invading forces included their own countrymen: partisans clashed with Italian soldiers from the Republic of Salò, Benito Mussolini's attempt to re-establish a Fascist state after his government officially fell on 25 July, 1943.  This leads to the next level of struggle, a politically oriented war waged between Italians.  As the unfolding of World War II coincided with the fall of Fascism, anti-Fascists seized their moment to seek out and neutralise individuals and power structures from the previous regime and strove to establish their own government, with the scope of founding a democratic, anti-Fascist political system.  The Communist party in particular had high hopes for anti-Fascist resistance as the basis of their own revolution, and in fact worker agitation factors prominently into a comprehensive schema of Resistenza activity. Third, Italians took advantage of the chaos unleashed across the Northern half of the country to settle personal scores, often with clashes between social classes.  Further obscuring the picture, none of these categories is mutually exclusive.

Just as reasons varied for resisting Germans, Fascists, and class-based oppression, so too did the modes and methods.  The first two types of resistance mentioned above were often armed and coordinated by centralised organisations, the CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale) and the CLNAI (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia), coalitions formed by the six major anti-Fascist parties in Italy during 1943 in response to Nazi and Fascist forces that remained in the Northern and Central regions after the armistice.  More recently, scholars have also inquired into the unarmed, passive, spontaneous, and unconventional ways in which Italians resisted internal and external threats (see Bravo 2005).

The interpretation of this movement is likewise multivalent.  Distinct, even conflicting schools of thought about la Resistenza, its motivations and its shortcomings, have evolved since the end of the war, and the political and popular environments in which these lines of thought occurred further complicate the picture.  Additionally, political parties have appropriated one school of thought or another according to the demands of their immediate situation.  For example, Communist party leaders directed many of the CLN's activities; to this day, the Italian Communist Party is quick to point out their involvement in la Resistenza and claims its legacy largely as its own.  In a sense, the Communists' role in the movement served (and serves) as a legitimation of their presence in Italian political culture, which has a history of bitter anti-Communist sentiment (see Focardo 2005).  On a popular level, a culture of commemoration sprang up around Resistenza–related episodes, locations, and participating partisans.  This culture continues today, with its own practices of honouring both fallen and surviving individuals and brigades, its own stylistic tropes and artistic conventions for monuments and commemorative art, its own holidays and public events.  Again, the academic, political and cultural levels of retrospection do not function independently of each other.

Conflicts regarding the memory, commemoration, and political use of la Resistenza continue today.  Generally speaking, what I would describe as the official narrative of the movement emerged just after the war's end and was solidified in national rhetoric and history by the 1960s.  It is based on the paradigm of anti-Fascism, on a conception of la Resistenza as a popular, unified movement, and on a notion of the partisan as politicised, idealised, and idealistic.  This view of la Resistenza finds support from the commemorative culture, as well as from left-leaning political parties and sectors of the populace.  The most recent revisions come from political parties of the centre-right, including those associated with neo-Fascists, which have re-ascended to power in the government over the past decade.  These parties have re-interpreted la Resistenza in their own terms aligning partisans with soldiers from Mussolini's republic.  According to this argument, even though they battled against each other, both groups were fighting for the love of their country, and thus, Italians of the present can reconcile the conflicting factions.  Leftist parties and popular voices argue that this is a desecration of Resistance memory and that this tactic of aligning both sides along the same axis allows one to overlook the atrocities committed by the Fascists.  Outside of, but not completely divorced from the political arena, academic and popular voices add that attention must be turned to the atrocities and injustices committed not only against Communists and partisans, but by them as well.  In fact, recent decades have witnessed an increase in historians' efforts to examine crimes perpetrated by Italians during the Second World War.

Popular and artistic interpretations and expressions of this period — here, comics — have much to reveal, in that they are not only portraying history, but also responding to a heated contemporary situation.

Comics context

There are two major contexts in which it is useful to situate the comics under discussion.  First, from the perspective of Italian comics' history, creators have used documentary material as the basis for their historical stories, including the handful that treats la Resistenza, since mass comic production began at the turn of the century.   Resistenza strips in particular first appeared in the late 1940s, and adhered to standards of the time that relegated comic material to adventure magazines and serial circulars. These strips were clearly written for young, mostly male audiences, telling of action-packed adventures and often involving protagonists close in age to their readers; they espoused nationalistic values, and they borrowed heavily from American western and gangster comics (Gubern 1976; Pilcher and Brown 2005). While escapism remained a primary goal of adventure strips in general, comics creators often based their stories on documented episodes of la Resistenza and would call their readers' attention to it: they integrated photographs, reproductions of documents, or historical data into the panels, noted within captions that questa storia e` vera, at times in combination.  This trend of entertaining didacticism with an explicit historical reference never completely dissipated, and one still observes it today. Catalogues of two commemorative exhibitions collect and briefly analyse Resistenza comics from the late 1940s through the 1970s: No al fascismo!: la Resistenza nella narrativa grafica, presented by the Istituto nazionale per la documentazione sull'immagine di Sansepolcro which opened in Florence on 25 April, 1975, and Per la libertà!: La resistenza italiana nel fumetto, presented by the Comune di Pistoia, which opened in Pistoia in November, 1995.

The second important current is an international and contemporary one, that is, the use of autobiography and biography as subject matter for comics and graphic novels intended for older audiences (see Beaty 2007). The focus on the artist within their own work makes the historical comic particularly interesting: it exposes the processes of the historian as well as those of the creator. It is not within the scope of this paper to trace a causal relationship between these two trends; rather, they are useful as contexts in an examination of Resistenza comics.

Drawing the Line between Witness and Artist

Almost all Resistenza comics, from the start of their production in the 1940s up to today, root themselves in documentary sources.  In more recent decades, and perhaps due to the biographical trend mentioned above, comics artists working on la Resistenza often adapt eye-witness partisan testimonies into their format. These efforts resonate with earlier examples of Resistenza adventure comics and with the commemorative cultural tradition: they recall to readers a specific, geographically locatable episode of the post-war struggle where young, ideal-driven partisans engage in organised, armed combat against Nazi-Fascist forces.  These comics are often of an educational, commemorative ilk, intended for school-age children (for some examples, see the province of Arrezzo's Progetto Memoria website at, last accessed July 2008).  This foundation on a primary source has the double advantage of presenting a story to a reader that is more personal and perhaps relatable than a history spanning many individuals or populations, and seems at the same time undeniably authentic; however, adaptation of a memory-based account of history does not come without problems.

Historical accuracy comes into question first of all, because primary testimony in itself is not infallible.  Among other scholars on memory and testimony, Agamben has pointed out that a textual testimonial necessarily falls short of providing a completely accurate account of the past because of inadequacies of both memory and language (Agamben 1999: 33- 39).  When such accounts fail to provide information — be it inconsequential physical details or an ineffable feeling in response to a traumatic experience — the reader must fill in the gaps.  This act of reader completion applies directly to both the communication of testimony and the process of reading comics.  In fact, the concept of closure — "observing the parts but perceiving the whole" — makes up a large part of McCloud's now seminal analysis of the comics reading process (McCloud 1993: 63- 69).  He explains that through this process of mental completion, a reader adds visual details that may be outside the panel or obscured by something within it, or infers the meaning of a symbol represented in a simple form.  A more complex aspect of this process occurs when one reads from panel to panel: "comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of connected moments.  But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality" (McCloud, 67).  This space between panels of a testimony-based comic, the gutter, provides artists with a literal location to put content which either they, or the witness whose testimony they use, do not or cannot express; at the same time, the gap on the page permits the reader, through closure, to fill in what might be there.   Closure, then, makes an excellent device for relaying traumatic first-hand experience, as well as for telling a story in general.  It allows, on one hand, a witness to provide his or her personal version of a past event; on the other, the reader or listener adds or completes details that originate in his or her own mind.   The account belongs, then, to both creator and perceiver.  Similarly, using closure to bridge panels and pages, the reader of a comic is complicit, to use McCloud's word, in completing a narrative presented by a comic artist.

When dealing with the transmission of history though, this reading process takes on an entirely new set of implications: if readers use their own imaginations to fill in bits of story that they read, is it possible to truly locate reality in that story?  To some degree, it is; for example, when the author or artists provides names, dates, etc. in the text or images of a comic, as they do so often in pedagogic comics.  On the other hand, it is not so easy: the way a character sounds when they speak, nuances of a character's physical movement, and so on, are products of the reader's mind.  Such details are perhaps inconsequential to an understanding of the historical event they describe, but I suggest that these details also affect the way a reader relates (or doesn't) to a character or a situation.  As a reader familiar with Italian history reads a Resistenza comic, the acts of closure he or she performs are informed by ideas already imbedded in his or her mind regarding la Resistenza.  These notions about partisans, Nazis, peasants, etc. come from, among other places, the political and social currents of the contemporary setting.  An exchange occurs, then, between established ideas and a novel medium: deeply rooted traditions inform the comics that portray the struggle, which in turn, further fortify the official narrative.  In terms of historical discourse, comics have the capacity not only to supplement the official narrative of la Resistenza, but also to reinforce it through closure.  Far from providing a space to question history, the comic form can serve to uphold the status quo of Resistenza memory.

This is not the only possibility for testimony-based comics, though.  Artists (and not only those in Italy) have addressed the issue of accurately representing someone else's experience not by disguising their participation, but on the contrary, exposing it and incorporating it into the work itself. Art Spiegelman's Maus, for instance, remains an exemplar of the interweaving of biography and autobiography.  Gianluca Costantini, Saturno Carnoli, and Andrea Colombari's Ultimo, storia ordinaria di guerra civile, resembles Maus in this regard: both provide information about the gathering of material in addition to and inseparable from telling a history. In Ultimo, the reader follows two artists who receive a commission to investigate a particularly nebulous Resistenza episode concerning the murder of two ex-Fascists by an unruly partisan on 22 April, 1945, a day after the liberation of Bologna. The comic content is divided between the portrayal of the artists' present search for information about the events in question and the unfolding of those events in the past. The book then devotes the last third of its pages to documentation: the authors provide scholarly and testimonial accounts about the event and individuals in question as well as records of interviews they have conducted themselves.

Two aspects immediately stand out about Ultimo as compared to other Resistenza comics.  First, the artists handle uncharacteristically subversive subject matter, both in regard to Resistenza comics and to expression in general of Resistenza-related material. Within the narrative, as the artists investigate the events and interview witnesses, they find that the murderous partisan, nom de guerre "Ultimo", had actually belonged to the Fascist party before WWII and had switched sides in an effort to save his own life.  Some of his contemporaries make a rather sinister joke that after he joined the partisan brigade, he was quicker to use his gun than before, and, indeed, the researchers find that he fired on victims without orders.  Additionally, they discover that Ultimo's victims, the ex-Fascists, had left Mussolini's party before its fall and had involved themselves in anti-Fascist activity during the war. In one sense, the graphic novel reveals itself to be harmonious with the left-leaning, official Resistenza narrative: the Fascists, bloodthirsty and reckless, perpetrate crimes against their own fellow Italians, namely anti-Fascists. In Ultimo, the true natures of villains and victims align themselves with this paradigm. On the other hand, the partisans are supposed to be the good guys; what does it mean that a brigade carries out lethal anti-Fascist purges, and moreover, that they used an unsavoury figure like Ultimo to achieve such ends? Indeed, part of the recent revisionist narrative relies on the historically supported evidence that partisans, particularly Communists, were not always so heroic, and that they initiated violence during and after the war.  While Ultimo isn't designed to explore this history fully, it boldly questions the good partisan/ bad Fascist opposition of the official narrative.

Ultimo's second unusual aspect perhaps comes as no surprise, that the authority on which the work is based is shared between the artists/authors, their interviewees (who are all also characters), and extra-narrative documentary texts.  Costantini, Carnoli, and Colombari make a controversial statement, and go to great lengths to legitimise their claims, resulting in a historical account of multiplied testimony: the testimonies of witnesses of the murder serve to tell a story about the past and the book we read stands as the authors' own testimony.  Here, the presentation of composite testimony may begin to solve the problem mentioned above of the wavering accuracy of testimony and the comic form's status as a particularly adept space for testimonial and reader manipulation.  First, looking at comic and textual accounts of the same events and characters, the reader receives more comprehensive information about the portrayed episode.  Further, by supplying documents and interviews that the authors themselves used, they allow us to trace, in part, the creative process of interpreting the information from one form to another.  We can note, for example, where the authors modify lines of dialogue or text; instead of viewing only a mediated testimony, as is the case with the adaptation comic, we observe as well the process of mediation as a part of the whole work.  While it is impossible to represent a past event with total accuracy, allowing an audience to observe the formation of the representation exposes the artist's hand, so to speak, thus rendering the work in question at the very least more honest in its inability to be completely accurate.

First hand testimony then, functions as the basis for pedagogical comics, but, by widening the focus of whose testimony comes to be portrayed, we also find examples of comics that show how la Resistenza remains in question, both on historical and personal levels.  The expansion of these works' perspectives to include the artists themselves perhaps invite a further step outside of the events themselves, and of the book itself, to the reader.  Resistenza comics, then, provide the readers with a space and opportunity to engage themselves in a discussion about the portrayed historical moment.  These comics do not simply rebel against established narratives; they act as a springboard for the reader into examinations of those narratives.


Artists have incorporated another documentary source, the photograph, into the vast majority of Resistenza comics, whether from the 1940s or last year.  Italian comic artists over the years have borrowed from a practice of the wider commemorative tradition that collects portraits of partisans into books or on public monuments.  To adapt this practice to their own medium, artists include reproductions of photos within panels, draw directly from photos, or, less often, invoke the photo/Polaroid image as a panel frame.  Like a foundation on first hand testimony, this device has the effect of authenticating a comic's narrative, but deceptively: as is the case for photography in general, an image brought to us from another time and place conceals and omits just as much as it allows us to see (among others, Barthes famously muses on inexactness and the photo in Camera Lucida [1981]).Also like first-hand testimony, the inclusion of photography can serve to reinforce established traditions and imagery related to Resistenza memory: the photographic portrait of the partisan will be familiar to Italian readers and call to mind the commemorative practice mentioned above.  The comic image invokes the established narrative, which informs reader interpretation.

Just as artists use first hand testimony to achieve a range of results in Resistenza comics, photography can offer more than a simple reference to artistic traditions already in place.  For example, the anthology Resistenza: Cronache di ribellione quotidiana features Dario Morgante and Thomas Birres' short strip In futuro ci scorderanno [In the future they'll forget about us].  Morgante's text of this minimally narrative piece recounts an episode in the area of Leonessa on Italy's northern plain with facts, figures, reproduction of documents, while Birres's images provide an emotionally charged, figurative counterpart to the words.  As Costantini uses Ultimo to delve into alternative manifestations of the partisan figure, Birres portrays groups of partisans that Italians do not often encounter in traditional photographic commemorative works: in addition to the standard robust young men, he also depicts an older man, women, and, perhaps most disturbingly, a trio of hanged partisans (of both sexes).

Birres employs multiple styles to depict these partisans, making for a visually stunning strip; for this argument though, I will only call attention to those images whose style invokes photographs.  This affect is achieved namely by the style of drawing, but also by vertical captions along their sides or frames that recall a Polaroid (I have confirmed with the artist that he referred to specific photographs, some of which reside at Rome's Museo della Resistenza).  Birres' drawings allude as much to the photograph form as they represent particular photographed subjects.  What does it mean when an artist chooses to draw photos in a stylised manner, when the tradition permits and even encourages their direct inclusion into a strip or a photo-realistic style of drawing them?  With this choice, whether he intends to or not, the artist calls attention to his role as mediator between the history he portrays and the reader.  Writing about photographic inclusions in Maus, Cioffi remarked that "by inserting a photo, an artefact from 'our' world, into the closing pages of the narrative, Spiegelman reminds readers that their constructed version of the Holocaust story has behind it an actuality, with guards and uniforms and real people: here is a photo from that world" (Cioffi 2001: 119-120).  In his own piece, Birres invokes a "photo from that [past] world," and he goes a step further, indicating that the images on the comics pages are from our own time and world and have been interpreted by the hand of the artist.  While his portrayal of partisans is sympathetic to the established Resistenza narrative, his means of executing his drawings serve as a literal reminder that forces of the present inform and even reconstruct Resistenza history and memory.

Fiction as a channel to fact

Comics that root themselves in documentary sources make up the entirety of Resistenza comic work, with one exception, to my knowledge, to which I will turn now.  Alberto Pagliaro's series Storie Partigiane has appeared roughly every month in the humour/satire magazine Il Vernacoliere and on the artist's online blog since April 2007 (I will discuss the communicative implications of online work in a moment), and it merits some attention for a couple of reasons.  First, in it, the reader encounters a very different picture of partisans than those of the pedagogical comics mentioned at the beginning of this paper, reminiscent of adventure strips of previous decades.  In Pagliaro's series, partisans cuss, ogle women through their binoculars, fight physically, argue, and antagonise each other.  At the end of the strips, it is clear that they participate in the same fight as the official narrative's dutiful partisan, strong in his camaraderie with his fellow combatants, but the day-to-day behaviour and antics of Pagliaro's characters reflect a rather different paradigm, or at least, an under-represented aspect of the partisan experience.  Further, the reader encounters characters who are not partisans themselves, but who aid in the struggle; again, the question arises of what Resistenza entails.

Besides portraying alternatives to the official narrative's version of the partisan, Pagliaro's strip stands out among other Resistenza comics because of its non-historical basis: he finds inspiration for his strips not in specific episodes from the past, but in his own daily experiences (he recounted these origin stories, so to speak, in an interview at the opening of Una storia partigiana, the artist's first public showing of this series, in Lastra a Signa, 25 April, 2008).  A fictitious account of la Resistenza, though, may not be without merit, as it can serve to activate memories and post-memories that do correspond to actual events.  Scanning the comments of Pagliaro's blog-readers, one finds instances of close reader identification with the strips, or of their connection between the strips and their grandparents' stories of partisan activity.  Pagliaro has struck a chord with his readers, and even if he is not telling a factual event, his work serves as an access point to very real, personal history and stories for them.  Witek asserted that there is a space between the historical fact and experiential truth, and that "'realism'… becomes a conspiracy between writer and reader, not an essential relation between certain texts and the world of experience" (Witek 1989: 116).  Even though the connections Pagliaro's readers make with his strips are probably not quite the conspiracies that Witek had in mind, the point still stands that one can reach reality by means other than fact.

With the online incarnation of Pagliaro's strips, a reader reaches another access point, this time, into the comic itself.  When a reader looks at his blog, which includes all but the first strip of Storie Partigiane, he or she finds information related to the creative process, allowing a greater understanding of the work's content, in much the same way that Ultimo's documentary supplements reveal the research that went into the project or the way that Birres' drawings in In futuro ci scorderanno encompass both the forms of the documentary source, the photograph, and of the mediated interpretation, the drawing.  Further, contact with the artist and with other readers promotes exchanges not only about the strips themselves, but the memories and perceptions they invoke.  This channel into individual memory is invaluable in a climate where the historiography of la Resistenza remains malleable, and political forces continue to work towards establishing a generalised national memory where these individual experiences may be glossed over.  It should be noted that the Internet as a site for accessibility and discussion is not limited to Pagliaro's strip: Costantini, Carnoli, and Colombari have made Ultimo available for download for free in its entirety, and artists who publish work in the anthologies Resistenze and RES-istanze include their email and/ or blog addresses.  This online access to artists and their work multiplies possibilities for discussion about the art of a comic and the history it portrays.

Conclusions: Refocusing on the reader

So, what can one conclude about la Resistenza as comic artists from the past few years have interpreted it?  In conjunction with currents from Resistenza scholarship and from the international comics scene, one can trace, first and foremost, an increased presence of the artists within their work.  When treating a national history, this has implications distinct from fictional or more personal autobiographical comics.  Besides the problems and possibilities we have already mentioned, this presence may constitute an attempt to participate in la Resistenza as a national experience, as the second or third generation's way of claiming one instance of national identity (Hirsch [2001] discusses this same claiming process as it applies to Holocaust and post-survivor generations).  

Besides a means for the artists to claim their national history, and for those in the present to access the past, Resistenza comics also stand as a starting point for the very discussion about that past.  Returning to the question I posed at the beginning of this paper: do contemporary comics about la Resistenza offer a subversive space to challenge established narratives, or do they reinforce those narratives?  They do both, in fact, recalling traditional sources, narrative elements, and images, and at the same time, examining those very components from new perspectives.  Perhaps most importantly, they push the reader to consider or reconsider their own notions of la Resistenza, whether alone or in discussion with others, whether in regard to family or national history.


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To Brad.