Lost in Mexico

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As the Spanish language and Latin American cultures continue their slow creep into the American mainstream, it should come as no surprise that comics have begun to reflect that change. But where lesser comix have settled for throwing a token Latino into the story, La Perdida ($20; 275 pages), Jessica Abel's intense new graphic novel from Pantheon, goes deeper. In fact, it goes "native." Featuring a story about an idealistic American living in Mexico and written in Spanglish dialogue, La Perdida examines what is increasingly becoming a major cultural shift in the U.S. by looking at it from the other side. Like a mirror image, the themes of the book reflect those with which America struggles: the clash of language, culture and class.

Abel has made a name for herself by writing short fiction that mostly features loquacious urban hipsters. (Also a tireless supporter of the medium, she was one of the organizers of a short-lived series of slide-show comix "happenings" in 2001.) Her first novel-length work, La Perdida has an unusual style for comix: Unlike most of her fellow North American graphic novelists, Abel doesn't use humor, irony or traditional comic book genres. Instead, she has created something all too rare in the medium: a realistic drama for adults told in a straightforward manner. The approach makes sense for a book which spends so much time exploring the nature of authenticity. "In gringolandia you have irony for everything," says one Mexican character, "so you can look at it and know what to think."

The book takes place in Mexico City, at the turn of the last millennium. Carla, an American in her early twenties, has the wanderlust of many people her age. She goes to Mexico because she is "sick of everybody" and because she wants to find the roots of her resented "disappearing Mexican dad." The reasons for her arrival and prolonged year-long stay become a central theme in the book, as Carla's ideas of Mexico, loaded with all kinds of cultural assumptions, clash with the reality. Overstaying her travel visa she becomes a reverse illegal immigrant, working under the table at a language school. She stays for a time with her ex-pat quasi-boyfriend Harry, who aspires to literary greatness by living in squalor, in spite of being the scion of a wealthy family. Eventually Carla's idealism and Harry cynicism come to philosophical loggerheads as Carla accuses Harry of being a "colonialist" and Harry declares Carla a "tourist."

Carla under the jacaranda tree in 'La Perdida'

The long second act begins as Carla involves herself more deeply with the native Mexico City residents she meets through Memo, a would-be revolutionary who sells Marxist pamphlets at the local market. Memo's relentless denigration of Carla's first-world background tugs on a string of middle-class guilt and self-loathing tied around Carla's soul. Yearning for the "authentic" Mexican experience, Carla eventually ends up in a flat she shares with her new Mexican boyfriend Oscar, who dreams of becoming a DJ in America, but settles for selling pot and T-shirts to tourists. Eventually his underworld connections lead to a strange, international incident that precipitates Carla's return home.

Up until this not-entirely convincing last act, Abel's focus on relationships and Carla's changing sense of self makes La Perdida one of the strongest and most challenging works of character study in the medium. Why challenging? Because Abel makes a gutsy move of creating characters that you can't automatically like, and to whom you never warm up in the course of the story. Even Carla, the most sympathetic of the cast, seems nave at best and stupidly unaware at worst. She keeps company with a spoiled snob, an arrogant blowhard and a fantasy-filled ne'r-do-well. Among its other themes, La Perdida examines how and why people form relationships with others that they don't like very much because of how they fulfill other, sometimes self-destructive needs.

Carla and Memo arguing in a typical scene

Abel writes like a dramaturge, developing character and conflict mostly through articulate dialogue that ping-pongs between her smart, if oftentimes deluded or flawed characters. This makes La Perdida as engaging as good theater. A typical scene pits Memo against Carla in a long argument about the purity of Carla's motives for staying in Mexico. It lasts for over five pages with Memo saying things like "You teach over-priced English classes to under-educated Mexican morons who buy into the imperialistic American model" To which Carla wonders about Memo's real reasons for learning English. "It wouldn't have anything to do with buying into imperialist American aesthetics of female beauty, and wanting to get into some naturally-blond pants?" It's a rarity to find oneself talking back at comic book characters but these are so vivid and outspoken you can't help yourself.

In the past this "talking head" style has made Abel's work seem visually static, but La Perdida's setting opens up the artwork enough to let in some light and air. Based on her stay there during 1998-2000, Abel evokes the location so well you want to immediately arrange a trip. She draws in black and white, which may seem like an odd choice for a novel set in "colorful" Mexico, but it suits the book's theme of cultural contrasts, to say nothing of how black and white emphasizes Abel's facility with a brush. She combines richness of detail with simplicity of arrangement into understated chiaroscuro effects that are as easy to read as they are comely to look at.

While comix travelogues have become a burgeoning sub-genre, Jessica Abel's La Perdida goes one better. It processes the experiences of the foreign traveler into a focused examination of the relationship between foreignness and being "native," particularly the nature of "Americanness." Even its liberal use of Mexican colloquialisms in the original Spanish puts the book at the edge of today's controversy over the purity of English. La Perdida includes a glossary for all the Spanish at the end, except strangely, a translation of the title. My crude Google-based research roughly translates it as "The Lost One." For a smart, involved and serious graphic novel read, La Perdida should be found.