What better occasion than World Autism Awareness Day to talk about neurodevelopmental disorders and disabilities? Learn to Fall it is a comic strip of unexpected beauty: completely devoid of rhetoric or pietism, it reaches the heart with precision and delicacy, giving the reader a powerful message.
SPOILER ALERT: in the article non there will be plot spoilers and no detailed description of the characters involved.
Noel lives in Berlin with his mother and his biggest desire is to go to the AC / DC concert. Following some events, however, he is forced to leave everything behind and move to a community in Lower Saxony. Here he comes into contact with the other inhabitants of the village of Neuerkerode, each with their own personality and difficulties, between intellectual disabilities and ailments of different nature.
Through Noel's eyes, we learn about the various characters and observe their personal growth, between new friendships, first loves and continuous challenges, which lead some of them to overcome seemingly insurmountable limits.
Learn to Fall it's the first one graphic novel entirely written and illustrated by Michael Ross, young German author, and was published in September 2018 by Avant-Verlag. The Italian edition has been edited by Bao Publishing, which released it on February 20 of this year.
The comic tells a multifaceted story, intense and full of ideas, with a truly appreciable lightness and lucidity.
The volume has 128 pages but can be read in a whisper, let's say half an hour, although the topics are not the slightest.
At first reading, some dialogues can be slightly confusing or even disconnected but you get used to it quickly, if you let Noel take you by the hand.
The characterization of the characters is one of the strengths: each of them expresses their own personality, their passions and fragility, giving us a snapshot of what is their daily life.
Although some, at first glance, may seem almost stereotypical, it must be considered that there was no material space to treat each form of disorder or disability in all its levels of functionality.
On the contrary, the author has chosen to focus on a few key characters and to let the others intervene as extras, in order to leave room for maneuver to the protagonists. The Neuerkerode guests therefore give voice to their own stories, telling themselves through thoughts and words unfiltered by a cumbersome external narrator.
And it is precisely this choice, in my opinion, that constitutes the spearhead of the comic: it would have been easy to make morals on a sensitive topic such as disability, resulting in judgment and overdetermination. Mikael Ross, on the other hand, puts her pencil at the service of the emotions of her characters and lets them regain the autonomy that is often denied to them. Exactly in line with the goal of the host community, in short.
AUTISM AND DISABILITY
First of all, I would like to say that I am not a doctor and that I do not have clinical psychology studies behind me, so far be it from me to launch my diagnosis without having the competence. Even the author of the comic, moreover, chooses not to give labels to the behavior of the characters, leaving them free to tell their condition directly with their actions and words. The result is an attempt (rather successful) to normalize and include people in a social fabric designed specifically for their needs.
In this regard, I thank the Seeker R. for the food for thought that his clinical gaze has given me.
Furthermore, it would be easy to make controversy and consider Neuerkerode as a sort of ghetto to hide people with disabilities or neurodevelopment disorders from the world, but this is not the goal of the community. As it is described to us, the town seems made for guests and tries to provide the tools to stimulate personal growth and recover a certain autonomy.
LEARN TO FALL: THE TITLE
It is curious how the title changes depending on the location: the comic has seen the light in Germany as Der Umfall (The Fall) but arrived in Italy and France as Learn to Fall.
Usually I am not a lover of freedom of adaptation and, even in this case, I find that the bivalence of the original title is lost. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the Italian version does justice to the basic message.
We are used to thinking that the important thing is always to get up and solve problems but Noel teaches us that not everything has a solution: sometimes, on the contrary, it is important to allow yourself to end up on the ground and learn to fall, trusting your own strength and letting go to drive.
Neuerkerode really exists.
No, this is not a semi-realistic reworking of an existing place like London's Harry Potter or the Europe of Frankenstein. Neuerkerode is just like in the comic, with that exact church and the sad one history and behind. Even the characters described find their roots in the ideas and conversations of people who are guests of the community.
Founded in 1868 under the name of Idioten-Anstalt zu Erkerode (literally "Erkerode Madhouse") with the aim of offering a home to sick and disabled people, the village then developed as an institution to become the modern Evangelical Neuerkerode Foundation that we see illustrated.
The whole project of Learn to Fall it took about two and a half years of work and, during the first year, the author shuttled between Berlin and Neuerkerode to collect firsthand the testimonials and find inspiration for the characters.
Even the narrative of the National Socialist period reflects facts that actually happened, even if they are treated only superficially: the community of Neuerkerode, in fact, was at the center of the euthanasia and forced sterilization program following the seizure by the state. Despite attempts to avoid operations and deportation, Nazi madness marked the fate of many guests in the village.
This continuous swing between raw reality and fairy tale is not only the stylistic code of the comic but also the natural course of Noel's thoughts and experiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that even the reader may find themselves hurtling along a rollercoaster of emotions and reflections.
I want to clarify that all the opinions expressed in the article are inherent to the graphic novel and not to the Neuerkerode Foundation. It is not necessary to share the client's intentions, ideals or religious faith in order to appreciate a work, especially when it is so well done.
In this regard, I can only conclude with a giant mea culpa and due thanks.
Those who know me well know what disproportionate love I have for Bao Publishing and how rare it is that one of his titles will disappoint me. Yet when I found out that Learn to Fall were a project commissioned by an evangelical association to celebrate 150 years of its community, I admit that I let my prejudice get the better of curiosity.
In short, I immediately branded the work as "hagiographic self-promotion" and went back to my beloved Zerocalcare. And it is here that, coincidentally, a friend intervened: knowing me in isolation for over a month, he thought it well to give me a digital copy of the comic, which has now become a best sellers.
Given the lucky coincidence, I had no more excuses to continue avoiding him and I am really glad to have given him a second chance.
If you have half an hour to invest in unusual reading, I advise you not to make the same mistake.
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