The history of comics parallels the history of crossword puzzles. Both crosswords and newspaper comic strips debuted in the New York World newspaper around the turn of the last century. What better form, then, to tell the story of the crossword puzzle than a graphic novel? Paolo Bacilieri’s Fun: Spies, Puzzle Solvers, and a Century of Crosswords does that and more—it’s also an intriguing mystery story and a window into contemporary Italian popular culture.
The story opens in Milan, where a comic book artist named Zeno Porno (yes, his last name means the same in Italian as it does in English) has a chance meeting with one of his heroes, a mystery writer named Pippo Quester. Quester is writing a new book on the history of crosswords, which many Italians solve in the popular weekly La Settimana Enigmistica (somewhat equivalent in content to Games magazine in the U.S.). In a series of alternating vignettes, Quester relates the history of the crossword puzzle to Zeno, while Zeno goes on with his daily life as a struggling artist and single father.
The two strands of the story begin to overlap, as Zeno starts to connect observations and chance meetings in his work and life to clues and entries in the crosswords that he solves—a kind of serendipity that many crossword enthusiasts experience. Meanwhile, a woman goes to meet her lover, bringing her infant to the tryst because her nanny is missing. The nanny, it seems, has been stalking Zeno and Quester and is planning a certain task (that, should it be revealed here, would give away a plot twist which brings together many of the book’s narrative strands).
Bacilieri’s art is gorgeous, with shifts in style that signal the different strands of the narrative. Shorter vignettes, like Zeno’s travels through Italy and to New York City, as well as the stories of secondary characters, are told with washes of color that distinguish them from the two main narrative strands. Zeno’s story and Quester’s history of crosswords are most similar in style, with cross-hatching and variations in panel size and layout that evoke Chris Ware’s focus on single panels with revealing details. Just as the gridded windows of an apartment house inspired Ware’s Building Stories, so does the crossword grid become a model for Bacilieri. Chapter headings are marked with blank grids (as a crossword solver and constructor, I’d hoped there would be clues to fill them in!), and the layouts of certain scenes, such as Zeno’s visit to a mausoleum, reflect the black-and-white symmetry of the puzzles.
Fun would be appropriate for most readers, teens and up (there is a brief but explicit sexual scene, and a few fleeting moments of violence). Readers who love both comics and crossword puzzles will be delighted, and this reviewer hopes this book will inspire more graphic novel readers to try solving crosswords.
The ending of Fun doesn’t resolve the mystery. Instead, it introduces a further enigma. Unlike a crossword puzzle, which in most—but not all—cases has a single solution, Fun keeps readers in a state of wonder until the end and beyond, suggesting that what draws us to mysteries and puzzles is not our feeling of satisfaction when they’re completed, but the process of figuring out a solution.
Fun: Spies, Puzzle Solvers, and a Century of Crosswords
by Paolo Bacilieri
Self Made Hero, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)