Paolo Cossi on pacifism and resistance in the memory of the Great War

The Eel#1
The Eel: a series of materials and interviews with contemporary artists and authors to discuss the meaning of the Centenary, of memory and oblivion. An attempt to retrace our history and to preserve the tenacity of life like the Eel celebrated by Eugenio Montale (in: La bufera e altro, 1956)

cossi-paoloWe’re glad today to inaugurate a new serie of interviews on the WW1 and its centerary, on the value of memory and oblivion with a young talented Italian artist, Paolo Cossi, who kindly accepted to answer our questions.

Paolo Cossi was born in Pordenone in 1980. In 2004 he won the ANAFI-award Albertarelli as best new author and in 2009 the Diagonal-award in Belgium for best foreign author. Again in 2009 the parliament of the French Community of Belgium awards the Condorcet Aron prize for democracy to Paolo Cossi (the first time to a Comic Book Writer).
His books have been translated in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Korea, Norway and Spain.

You has devoted some of your latest works – 1914. Io mi rifiuto and Medz Yeghern, both published by Hazard Edition – to two of the greatest tragedies of last century. How did this idea come to your mind? Did you had a previous interest in this topic or did the historical juncture of the Centenary provide you with a pretext for working on WW1?

Historical junctures never represent to me the fundamental driving force behind my graphic novels, rather a genuine curiosity and passion for the history animate my work. Talking about Medz Yeghern, for instance,  my curiosity aroused when a good friend of mine, many years ago, in 2006, described me his archaeological research expeditions to Mt. Ararat in Turkey. It showed me many photos he had taken up on the mountain, in some caverns, where human rests of hundreds of people were found. I immediately asked about those bones and why they were lying there. So he told me about the genocide committed by Ottoman Empire against Armenians. I couldn’t believe that more than 1,5 million people were killed and the world was not aware of this massacre. After a thorough examination, I sadly discovered that this tragedy has really happened. So I decided to talk about the genocide in order to make it known using the only means I can use: those of the comic strip.


Concerning “1914, io mi rifiuto”, I wanted to realize this brief graphic novel to respond to the commemorations of the Centenary of the great war, but I wanted to speak about the tragedies that not primarily the soldier, but rather the women, the children and the old people were forced to endure living in their home-countries. This was the way not to commemorate but to report the horror of the wars.

We have mentioned the Centenary; I’d like now to discuss with you its meaning. As we can see everywhere, the number of events, demonstrations, projects and publications on the Great War is steadily increasing today (quite different is instead the interest in the Armenian genocide and I guess we all know the reason); such an accumulation of photos and documents, news and interpretations makes us to wonder if there are more advantages or disadvantages in this often chaotic and junctural excitement for the WW1. In your opinion, which is the meaning of remembering the past, or, if you want, which underlying desire should enliven our remembrance? According to your personal experience, what did you learn from your work and your research on the Great War?

All the historical anniversaries are important. They make us remember and comprehend. However, memory is something that should rest on a deeper fundament than the events and celebrations which are regularly organized. Memory should enrich our knowledge, our culture in order to offer new elements which enable us to meditate on the past and to influence so the future. Basically I write historical books because this is my way to understand and internalize events. I prefer to investigate the past by observing human dynamics from a global point of view, rather  than by considering dates and finds (which are – however – interesting by themselves). This is the only way we can seize a cyclical process into the whole of the facts, a process which is doomed to keep happening. That’s why, indeed it’s nice and important a visit in the museums where one can find the reproduction of a trench or it’s important to see the uniform the soldiers used to wear or the weapons they had, and yet as much important is to keep in mind the broader context, i.e. the reasons why those men were in the trenches, how those weapons were used, which consequences they had; and so it’s important to shift the attention from the trenches to the world, looking for connections between the war events in their historical succession. To conclude, if we want to compare history to a painting, I would say that the detail of a brush stroke is always fundamental, but if we want to understand the painting as a whole we are forced to look at it at an adequate distance,  considering as well the frame that surrounds it and the color of the wall on which it is hung.

In the opening pages of your 1914. Io mi rifiuto, you cite Ernst Friedrich and his museum, established in Berlin in the 1925. Friedrich is an extraordinary personality, whose example still discomforts us marvelously, the contemporary readers (or at least so it seems to me): indeed we often forget the new resistance we are urged to offer to all (great) wars (not matter if they are minimal and silent, event private) that mark our daily life. Do you think that reflecting on the Great War could help us from this point of view, i.e. not in celebrating the past, rather in making us aware that even today we are requested to say “no” or  “I refuse”, that even today History represents an ethical challenge for our existences?

CopertinaTo say “I refuse ” in front of wars and violence is always a rightful and ethical position in my eyes. When Ernst Friedrich founded his museum and wrote his book “Krieg dem Kriege” (War against War), he inaugurated a new genuinely pacifist movement, which fully refutes all violence, no matter the geographical and temporal circumstances. He did not refer specifically to the first or second world war, nor he addressed only the German population; he rather spoke to all human beings and thinking about all present and future conflicts. The fundamental premise is: to kill is always wrong. There is no justification for an homicide. I am a convinced pacifist and I fully share Friedrich’s message; a message that I often tried to promote and support in my books.

If somebody answers back and says: “in a war you are forced to kill other men, otherwise you are going to be killed first”, I usually reply that pacifism may be not the solution, but it should definitely be the prevention of violence! Pacifism is a sort of training for people, it begins in the small actions we make in our homes, towards the people who are next to us; in short, it should mark the individual civil evolution. To bring peace within ourselves and to offer it to other people. I don’t want to teach anything – the greatest form of teaching is example; that’s why I try to live it and to put into effect all those ideals that rest on respect towards life in all its forms.

Do you think that Art, in sense of creative and critical exercise, could generate new spaces of meeting and confrontation, even on great questions of the past? Which are the most important authors, topics, places and encounters that did enhance and still support your research work?

Talking about my original and dearest creative environment, the comic strip, it is undeniable that during the last years this artistic form contributed significantly in popularizing historical but also contemporary questions by means of the so-called “”graphic journalism”. Authors like Art Spiegelman with his “Maus” told us his father’s experience in the extermination camps; or Joe Sacco in “Palestine” described the dramatic situation of the conflict between Palestine and Israel; but the list would be very long. We should also mention those publishing houses, for instance Becco giallo, which have shaped their catalog in drawing the attention precisely to  comic strips based on crime news. This is a lively reality; unfortunately, I must acknowledge that in Italy the readers are lacking.


Let’s turn more specifically to your work. Comic strips are a particular artistic language, it offers a wide range of tonalities and declinations – cheerful and jocose or dramatic and sad, suitable for children or for adults. Which are the advantages – and eventually the difficulties – hidden in this expressive form? Online videos are available of your performances – for instance this here – in which, together with the musician Jan Caberlotto, while drawing you narrate the life of Nicolaj, the protagonist of 1914. Io mi rifiuto: can you tell us how this collaboration came to life and which additional communicative opportunities arose from the direct contact with the public?

dsc_2073_3_800_800_wComic strips communicate using two elements: the illustration and the text. Illustrations have an universal communicative power. If we consider for instance the Mexican murals we immediately understand their power in transmitting messages or passing on histories to people from all social classes, even to unlearned people. Illustrations and drawings talk to everybody: that’s why comic strips are a language with a lot of potential. Like in cinema, it encompasses several genres: we can find comic strips of all the types, for children or for adults (those latter including not exclusively the erotic publications, as many think, but also historical ones or works based on news).

However, in my own experience I felt something was missing. While presenting my works, I wanted my illustrations and my sketches to be surrounded and supported by a special atmosphere: it came so to my and to my friend Jan Camerotto’s (a gifted musician) mind to accompany the drawing process with music in order to narrate in a live performance my comic strips. This experience than turned in a show with the singer and songwriter Erica Boschiero: in this case her songs take shape live in my drawings.

These are lively performances which combine previous study and improvisation to narrate histories and live emotions. Public really enjoyed them, we are planning therefore to continue with these projects and collaborations, also because they give us a lot.

To conclude while reopening and continuing the dialogue: would you like to invite someone else (no matter if an artist or not) to discuss with us the Great War, memory and the other topics we touched upon with you?

I’d like to invite all people who keep in heart the flame of the curiosity and in head the desire to reflect on humanity; those who aim to change the world by changing themselves. I’d like to invite those who are able to surpass all forms of envy, racism and hate; those strong enough to love the life.