MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life by Gipi
I don’t know if I’m missing cultural context or just goodwill for a well-known creator, but I was missing something when I read this book. It’s gotten a lot of praise, around the world, since it was originally published in Italy in 2007, so this could easily be a problem on my end. But this felt like a long, self-indulgent shaggy-dog story that – ironically – had some quite nice art along the way, but didn’t actually tell its story in a clear or coherent way.
Also, is the title really supposed to be MBDL , with “My Badly Drawn Life” as just the subtitle? That’s a level of self-indulgence well beyond the normal range. 
MBDL – I’ll use the abbreviation, since it does seem to be official – was a mid-career book by Gipi (Gianni Pacinotti), who seems to be most famous as a cartoonist for his previous project, Notes for a War Story. It was translated into English by Jamie Richards for publication last year, which implies (to me, at least) that it was seen as a more difficult book than War Story, which was translated more quickly.
(I don’t know if this is at all related, but Gipi seems to be one of those modern entrepreneurial/artistic types who are all over the place. Besides doing full-length BD books, he’s also made multiple films and a card game.)
OK, so MBDL is not the story of Gipi’s life. Or, rather, it’s a loose and discursive memoir that circles one aspect of his life, in a very wordy, heavily narrated, almost sketchbook style most of the time. To be blunt, it’s a Medical Problem Memoir, but it’s told in a very obfuscating way, maybe because the subject is embarrassing and maybe just because that’s the way Gipi works.
The medical problem…well, Gipi never talks about it in any medical detail, which is part of the problem. He also – admittedly, in his notes at the end – says that this book is only about the doctors that didn’t help him, who were “bad guys,” because he only cares about “bad guys.” (Cf.: one of the other threads of the book, in which Gipi mythologizes his teenage, or maybe young-adult group of ne’er-do-well friends, who do the usual young-man incredibly stupid things and manage not to die from any of it.)
What Gipi says on the first page is “I told him about this thing I have on my peen.” He also repeatedly refers to his ailment as something that turned him into a “sexual spastic, a Bobby Brown.”
And, I’m just, um, what?
He uses those same words over and over again. Never actually calls it a penis or cock or John Thomas, just “his peen,” like a snickering ten-year-old boy. Never says what the thing is – a lesion? an erectile dysfunction? some kind of fungus? a discoloration? the yawning mouth of hell? the head of Ronald Reagan ? Never explains – does he mean “sexual spastic” in that he avoids sex, because this thing is painful or off-putting or both? Or does it affect how he has sex?
And what the hell is “a Bobby Brown” in this context? My Prerogative Bobby Brown? I can’t even come up with options here; it’s just a huge “what the fuck does that mean?”
I spent all my time reading MBDL trying to figure out what the deal was with Gipi’s peen, which is annoying and frustrating, particularly once I realized he never would do anything but say those three things over and over again.
MBDL is a fairly long graphic novel – about a hundred and twenty dense pages, full of narration and words. Not of detail – Gipi uses the same words and ideas over and over again, about everything else as much as his peen. We see the crazy friends of his youth, over and over again. We see him talk to doctors, who are all useless at best.
And we slowly get more details about an event that happened when he was ten, at night in a room he shared with his eight-years-older sister. Somehow – we never learn why or how or even much of what – a “bad man,” “the man in the dark” came into that room and threatened them. It sounds like a stranger, an intruder, but even that isn’t clear. The Bad Man threatened to rape Gipi’s sister, but (I think) was unsuccessful.
Let me be blunt. MBDL is the story of how Gipi associated some kind of penis-related deformity he had in early adulthood with his trauma from being powerless to protect his sister from sexual violence when he was a child, and how that trauma apparently led him to consider all strange men as horrible monsters and yet not to ever question the sexist nonsense he and his close friends stewed in all day every day.
One of the things I’m most uneasy about is Gipi making this all about him. On the one hand, he’s the one telling it, and he’s clearly deeply wrapped up in his own head. But the core traumatic event is not about him. How did his sister react to this? Has she had medical problems? How did she get “the bad man” to leave? What actually happened?
I frankly don’t care that this made Gipi sad and that he later had “a thing on his peen.” I worry about the woman who was almost raped, especially since the “almost” is partially a guess.
On the positive side, it is not badly drawn. There’s a fictional thread, which I won’t spoil, that’s fully painted and looks amazing. I also would not call it badly written, though Gipi writes frustratingly and elliptically at all times. If I were God of Books, I would force it to be retitled My Badly Explained Penis.
Gipi is a fine cartoonist and observer: there are great pages and sequences here, and his work is engaging throughout. But there’s a massive lack at the center of the book that I could never get around, and I can’t really call it successful because of that.
 Answering my own question: the Italian original is LMVDM: La mia vita disegnata male, so, yes, this does seem to be very deliberate.
Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.