From the SPX stack: LA PERDIDA 1-5

November 6, 2005

Every time I read La Perdida (Fantagraphics), I’m amazed at the balancing act Jessica Abel achieves.

Her characters could come off as naïve, and they are to a certain extent. They ache to connect to something larger, to immerse themselves in something they believe will fix their lives. But they pursue this immersion without fully understanding its implications and consequences. They dive into their respective pools without knowing how deep they are or what precisely is under the surface.

But the sincerity of their desires is never in question. They may be willful, selfish, and even foolish, but they don’t mean any harm. That they end up doing harm is clearly their fault, but it’s hard to blame them entirely.

Take Carla, the protagonist. An American with an absentee Mexican father, she travels to Mexico to see the land of her dreams. She’s romanticized Mexico, and she longs to have an authentic experience. Carla attaches herself to an acquaintance, Harry, an upper-class American who’s traveled to Mexico City to follow in the spiritual footsteps of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. (Yes, he’s kind of a git.) They casually fall into a sexual relationship, though Carla’s clearly using him to stay in Mexico.

Before long, Carla finds herself chafing at what she perceives to be Harry’s elitism. She scolds him for hanging around with nothing but other expatriates and walling himself off from “real” Mexicans. Carla has gone from romanticizing Mexico generally to yearning for a truly authentic experience, and her use for Harry comes to an end. (Harry may be pursuing his own posturing, romanticized notions, but at least he isn’t using anyone to fulfill them. It’s easy to sympathize with his irritation with Carla.)

But Carla’s notions of the “real” Mexico are no better informed than her earlier fantasies. She ignores warnings from friends and acquaintances, cuts herself off from the expatriate community, and finds an apartment and a part-time job teaching English. She starts hanging around with Oscar, who dreams of international DJ fame, and Memo, a washed-out socialist who feeds Carla’s vague notions that any kind of American lens will ultimately distance Carla from Mexico (and make her morally inferior, like the expatriates she rejected). Carla goes from user to used, but she’s in too much of a happy fog of authenticity to notice.

Abel uses amazing clarity in presenting Carla’s flaws. Her hypocrisy and narcissism are evident. At the same time, Abel uses equal delicacy in portraying Carla’s need. It’s overwhelming, obscuring consideration and common sense. It’s also very real, and it softens the reader’s view of Carla. As a protagonist, she almost transcends conventional notions of sympathy. Abel isn’t asking readers to support Carla’s choices and behavior so much as to immerse themselves in them. You don’t need to like her to find her compelling.

All of this carefully modulated characterization doesn’t lead Abel to neglect plot. It’s driven by character, obviously, but it’s also almost immune to character. All of Carla’s certainty and passion do nothing to protect her from still another “real” Mexico, and the five-issue series builds to a satisfyingly suspenseful conclusion.

I love Abel’s illustrations. She favors a fairly heavy line, but it doesn’t obscure any of the delicacy or depth of emotion. There’s a wonderful sense of place, too, which is obviously critical for this kind of story. Pantheon Books has a collection of La Perdida in the works, but I’m glad I bought the singles. They’re wonderfully proportioned and have gorgeous color covers. Beyond the quality of their contents, the comics have value as objects. (I was also lucky enough to pick them up from the Fantagraphics booth when Abel was signing during SPX.)

Visually striking and emotionally nuanced, La Perdida is a tremendous book. It’s probably my favorite SPX purchase.

From the stack: The Rabbi’s Cat

September 16, 2005

“Why are you so harsh?” a rabbi asks his cat. “I’m just trying to tell the truth, to see how it feels,” the cat responds. It’s a terrific exchange from a graphic novel that’s loaded with them.

I could probably fill an entire review with nothing but favorite lines from Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon Books), but that wouldn’t do justice to Sfar’s wonderful collection of stories. Visually sumptuous, warmly meditative, and generously humane, this is book is real pleasure.

It’s told from the perspective of the title character, a cat who gains the ability to speak after eating the family parrot. That turn of events could have easily led to an attempt at myth or parable, but Sfar seems more concerned with the inner life of his cast: the cat, the rabbi, the rabbi’s daughter, and the various people that come in and out of their lives.

The cat is a wonder of a character. He’s devoted to his own interests: comfort, diversion, amusement, and curiosity. His unexpected verbosity is as much of a curse as a blessing. He enjoys philosophical debate, teasing humans and undermining their assumptions of morality with his blunt perspective. But his diversions have a price, as his life, even his dreams, don’t have the same simplicity and comfort they once did.

As diverting as the talking cat is, that novelty ends up being almost incidental to the book’s pleasures. Sfar looks at faith, family, culture, love, language, and a host of other concerns, and he does it in a gentle, almost meandering manner. The Rabbi’s Cat has the rhythms and feel of a children’s picture book but the substance of a novel. It has a very appealing playfulness, too.

The cat’s narrative voice holds everything together. His skepticism is a wonderful counterpoint to the seriousness of the issues the rabbi faces. It leavens things, but it doesn’t diminish their sentiment and impact.

I’ve been struggling with a way to characterize Sfar’s illustrations. The only phrase I can come up with is “ugly-beautiful.” The cat is the best example of this. At times he’s grotesquely exaggerated, but with a consistent grace and expressiveness. The daughter, while not rendered beautifully, is clearly a beautiful woman in Sfar’s visual language. The sense of place is wonderful, from the desert warmth of 1930s Algiers to the grey streets of Paris in a later chapter.

The book adheres to a six-panel-per-page grid, but it never feels rigid or repetitive. Sfar peppers his panels with vivid dreamscapes, distinct even in contrast to the wonderfully real landscapes he offers. And he has a canny way of juxtaposing words and images, as in the last sequence of the first chapter. As the cat expostulates on human nature and his own contradictions, the images provide their own counterpoint, challenging the cat’s assertions even as they reinforce them. It’s a great piece of visual storytelling, and it’s hardly the only one on display.

A while back, I asked for recommendations of comics that take you someplace unexpected and different. The Rabbi’s Cat does that, geographically and emotionally. It’s a real delight.

(For those of you lucky enough to be in Toronto, Sfar is going to visit Tuesday, Sept. 20. Click here for more details.)