Generations is an Italian graphic novel by Flavia Biondi, published by Bao Publishing in 2015 and published in the United States by Lion Forge in 2017. The story follows Matteo, a young man in his twenties, who has been forced to return home from Milan after leaving his family behind for three years. Attempting to avoid his father, he stays with his grandmother, Nan; his cousin, Sara; and his three aunts, Antonia, Bruna, and Cosima. Matteo must face both the struggles that drove him to leave in the first place, as well as the struggles that drove him to return. In only 138 pages, Flavia explores a three month period of growth for our protagonist, deftly avoiding some narrative pitfalls, while still running into a few bumps in the process.
Matteo, affectionately called “Teo” by his family and friends, is a rather explicit narrator — he explains things as they are, and rarely leaves things unsaid or implied. This matches his perception; he thinks only about things specifically expressed and what happens directly in front of him. There is an air of mystery at the beginning of the story; we come to him in the middle of his problems. The broad picture only comes into focus after a few scenes, but Matteo’s frankness makes him a trustworthy narrator from the start. Still, we see Matteo struggle with shame as he returns to his home town, embarrassed to be seen. He is humiliated and wrapped up in his own problems. Such self-focus exposes his selfish outlook. Matteo turns inward when possible, naturally gravitating to disconnecting himself from those around him. He’s also a rather reactionary character. The early montage scene makes it clear that he wants better for himself, but he seems unable to make actions or decisions to change his situation.
After he moves in with his family, he begins to open up to his cousin Sara, explaining the details of his situation. As he does, he realizes how the struggles he faces are much less difficult than her own. She’s now living life as a single expectant mother, and her livelihood is far from secure. She resists Teo’s comparison of their struggles to remain supportive of him, but the reader can appreciate that Matteo is learning to be more sensitive to those around him.
Eventually, his aunts decide he will become more active in earning his keep at the house and push him towards action. During the heated discussion, he learns Aunt Cosima has her own past struggles with the other family members. He questions Sara for more information and becomes aware of just how little he knows about his own family. The revelation further forces him to open his eyes and become aware of the people around him in a way he hadn’t been before.
As time passes, he befriends (and develops a crush on) his grandmother’s nurse, Francesco, who listens to him and advises him. Francesco points out that Matteo tends to run away from his problems. Matteo takes this criticism to heart, and reflects on how it shifts his perception of the past. He finds that even as he ran away, those were his decisions, and his life was never out of his control. Matteo comes to understand that he ran off to his boyfriend in Milan as an easy solution to his problem of an unaccepting father.
Matteo continues to grow in his role as an active participant in the family. Unfortunately, Bruna discovers Matteo’s sexuality through an overheard conversation and calls his father, Danilo. Matteo is dramatically outed in front of the family and is forced to confront his father before he feels ready. Matteo handles the situation by asking his father to leave, who complies, but feels the shame and pain that he is unable to talk things out with his dad.
Matteo does receive support from his other aunts and his grandmother, but faces an oblivious and implicit rejection from Francesco who expresses to Teo that he is interested in Sara. Lonely and devastated, Matteo decides to take action to return to his ex-boyfriend Massimo in Milan. There, he demonstrates his growth as a character to himself and his beloved. He is no longer the passive reactionary, but an active boyfriend, showing his love with deeds, not just words.
After a week, he returns to support his family, as his grandmother has fallen ill in his absence, and is clearly on her deathbed. He now holds the self-confidence and courage to face his problems, taking the initiative to comfort his father and his aunt despite their past rejections of him. He is able to bridge the gap, and appreciates the untold love that they express in their body language and implications of acceptance. Matteo learns that whether or not he wants to fight for these relationships and commitments is entirely his choice. He is not a turbulent passenger here, but an active participant. The plot does a great job of creating dynamic character relationships that push Matteo to grow in a natural, realistic direction, ending with closure as he moves back in with his father.
As successful as the story’s main plot is, it lacks a true climax to end the story with. As a rather interesting solution, the story uses a secondary thematic element that focuses on Aunt Cosima’s relationship with Nan, which it builds early on. When Bruna demands that Matteo contributes to the household, it is Cosima that stands up for him and works with her sister, Antonia, to find a solution for Matteo to stay. It is in this argument that Bruna pettily refers to Cosima’s sin of sleeping with a married man when she was younger. When Matteo learns of Cosima’s past from Sara, he learns that Nan has held a grudge against Cosima, presumably for bringing shame to the family, and refuses to speak with Cosima whenever possible. Despite Nan’s eternal silent treatment, Cosima remains close to her family, supporting her mother to the end. The book is able to hold a climactic emotional moment as Cosima is able to help her mother pass on, who wakes in pain and confusion in the night. The climax works well because Cosima’s relationship with her mother reflects Matteo’s fear of how his relationship with his father will play out. Matteo does not want his relationship with his father to be one of unresolvable silence. As the story leads up to Nan’s death, readers see that Matteo no longer has to fear this; and turn their attention to Cosima and Nan, who wait until the very end to achieve closure in their relationship. Cosima’s patience and love is rewarded in an emotionally tender moment.
While the main plot is successful and the primary relationships in the story find closure, not everything in the story lands well. The most glaring fault lies in the story’s intended motif “Generations”. The story handles the premise of balancing family and personal identity. Both main relationships center around the conflict of a child struggling to reconcile with their parent who has rejected them. But though those relationships are the most integral conflicts to the story, they aren’t the source of the most explosive conflicts in the book. These conflicts instead come from Bruna. Bruna shows her love through her hard work for the family every day, but her pride and self-righteousness drive her to clash with her siblings, Cosima and Danilo. Her sharp-tongue not only vocalizes the implicit thoughts of both Nan’s disapproval of Cosima and Danilo’s once held beliefs of Matteo, but unintentionally demonstrate that the story’s main conflicts are not truly bound by a generational divide.The fault of the motif becomes pointedly obvious when Matteo posits his own shortcomings as aspects of his generation. He does this once in the middle of the book, and once at the end. At best, he comes off as deflecting responsibility for his previous actions and perceptions, at worst, he loses his voice as a character, and becomes a mouthpiece for the author, trying to create a thread that doesn’t innately exist in her own narrative. The motif of generations feels like a motif that was either carried over from the first drafts of the story’s conception, or else a shoehorned theme inserted by a misguided editor. The title of the book may have worked fine for the book, had it not been referenced, but Matteo’s ill-written monologue betrays the failure to execute an unrealized intention.
It would not be a thorough examination of this graphic novel without including an evaluation of its art. Flavia’s style is generally fantastic; characters are almost never stiff, and their expressive faces are easy to read. The story balances detail with clarity, and keeps the action flowing, even as Matteo’s monologues monopolize the storytelling. Scene transitions are handled well; executing clear visual punctuations (a whistling tea kettle announcing the end of a montage) or establishing shots that clearly communicate location and time of day. Flavia Biondi captures some great character moments, telling the story at times with body language. When Danilo stands behind a screaming Bruna attempting to confront Matteo over his sexuality, he’s shown in a very human pose: his face is downwards, with his eyes up watching his sister, and his left hand gripping his right forearm. While not said, it’s clear that the artist intends to portray that Danilo is uncomfortable and unsure in the situation, perhaps even sharing his son’s struggle with conflict avoidance. This one pose provides context for how he can stand up to Bruna, but retreat after Matteo’s quiet words of refusal to talk.
However, as with most art heavy projects, there are some minor shortcomings. During the second montage, the narrative misses an opportunity to match up Matteo’s monologue with the snippets in life that happen, weakening the storytelling. At another point, the doorknob Matteo locks to keep out Bruna and Danilo happens to switch sides on the door as it moves from background detail to prominent plot necessity. Finally, the double spread used in one of the final scenes of the book does not take into account the layout of the books gutter, leaving the most important element of the image split in half and pulling the reader out of their immersion. Despite these issues, Flavia Biondi’s work is rather consistent in its strength for a majority of the book, and the story is delivered well.
There are few notable failures and successes that have not been mentioned so far. Firstly, the rather large abundance of montage sequences should be pointed out, especially for such a relatively short book. There are four separate montage sequences, and while they stand strong individually, each use makes the technique feel more tired and de-emphasized. The pace of the book should have been adjusted to remove at least one, possibly two, of those montage sequences.
Certain unimportant parts of the story seemed to be left unclear. For example, when Matteo first moves in, he sleeps on the couch. At some point or another, he gets his own room in Nan’s house. What enables this change is never clear. Did one of the aunts move out? What exactly changed about their living situation? It doesn’t affect the overall plot, but there should have been some small bit of acknowledgment to solidify the believability of the world.
Matteo’s return to Massimo was managed somewhat messily. Matteo returns to Massimo directly after being implicitly rejected by Francesco. This extenuates the initial perception that Matteo is only reaching out to Massimo out of loneliness, and undercuts the validity of his romantic feelings for him. The reader is also left questioning whether Matteo is backsliding on how he understands his relationship with Massimo and really makes it seem as if going back is a whim. It isn’t until Matteo and Massimo talk that Matteo’s intentionality in the decision becomes clear. This confusion stands out specifically because Matteo is such a clear and explicit narrator throughout the book. Nowhere else in the book is the reader left to guess what is going on in Matteo’s head.
The book’s introduction should be commended for its great pace. By introducing the reader to Teo in the middle of his plight, three questions are laid out to be asked. “Why did Matteo leave Milan?” Why hasn’t Matteo talked to his father in three years?” “What did Matteo fail at and how?” The story establishes the answers to these questions just a few more scenes in, but in doing so, establish the main character and his relationships. These questions really invite the reader in and familiarize themselves with the characters before laying itself bare with Matteo’s concerns.
Emotions are also well paced throughout the story. Humor is often used to alleviate certain scenes, such as Matteo’s anxiety during his walk with Nan. It’s also an effective tool to contrast against the readers dread and drive home the naivety of the characters, such as when Matteo and Sara joke, unaware that Danilo is approaching to confront his son. The panels really drive home the emotional beats, and truly deliver on the heartbreaking moments. The grief the family feels as Nan passes away is conveyed very effectively with the proper amount of time dedicated for the crescendo preceding the climax, followed by proper emotional closure.
The story Generations innately holds some very difficult story elements that were navigated wonderfully. The protagonist’s flaw is that he is reactionary and not a doer. To write a satisfying story that realistically propels him to change and yet maintains his agency is not an easy task. Protagonists should not have things happen upon them; they should enact change upon the world. Defying this established writing postulate in the first part of the book is an example of strong storytelling skills.
It should be re-emphasized that the lack of a primary climax in the main plot is unorthodox. Nan merely passing away to unite the family would have left an unsatisfactory and abrupt closure to the story. Using Cosima’s relationship with her mother to serve as the emotional climax is resourceful, especially as Cosima’s story could not be truly be said to be a subplot. The experience of that story is told as flashbacks by a narrator who wasn’t even present. However, the emotions are delivered, and the climax reflects back onto the main plot in a way that satisfies the reader.
Generations is a monologue-heavy and introspective focused story. Such a story rarely lends itself well to the graphic novel format. However, despite the long monologues, the words never feel as though they drown out the pictures, and the story shines through.
The imperfections found in Generations should not undermine the strength of its story. This story about family and commitment is a great example of literature in comics, and deserves commendation. Flavia Biondi’s work is outstanding and should not be overlooked.