17 April 2006

Review: La Perdida

La Perdida

By Jessica Abel ($19.95; Pantheon Books)

Wow! I missed La Perdida in its serialized form, first hearing of it when the final issue hit the stands last year, but considering it took five years to finish, I'm guessing reading it collected in one impressive tome was for the best. Unlike decompressed superhero comics where "writing for the trade" often implies unnecessary padding, Jessica Abel crams heaping handfuls of story into each chapter of her gripping tale of self-discovery and self-deceit, but they are unquestionably parts of a larger whole; an excellent, completely engaging and essential whole that belongs on every discerning comics fans bookshelf.

Carla, Abel's titular "la perdida" -- lost girl -- is a half-Mexican twenty-something who moves to Mexico City on a whim, looking to get in touch with her Mexican roots by fully immersing herself in the culture, quickly rejecting her fellow American expatriates in favor of two natives who (with a peculiar mix of selfish sincerity) embrace her: Memo, a Communist pseudo-intellectual, and Oscar, his good-looking if somewhat simple-minded friend.

The first three chapters are Carla's story of trying to fit in and find her place in a culture that is completely foreign to her and not always welcoming, despite and in spite of her half-Mexican blood, and Abel does an excellent job of establishing a rather large cast of supporting characters so that in the fourth chapter, when things take a dramatic shift that in lesser hands would qualify as jumping the shark, she's able (no pun intended) to pull it off without derailing everything that's come before. Because she tells the story from Carla's perspective looking back on what happened, the reader is cued into details that Carla herself is missing at the time, so as events unfolded, I found myself cringing at some of her choices while always remaining engaged with her story. When it ended, somewhat abruptly, I found my head spinning a bit, chock full of images and anecdotes from Carla's experience as if she had shared them with me personally over coffee.

Abel's artwork, dense and subtly detailed, took about 15 pages for me to get used to before I was fully drawn into the story, as the back-and-forth prologue and discordant opening sequence forced my eyes to linger on each panel much longer than I'm used to doing. There's also the Spanish-English translation that crowds many of the panels in the first chapter which adds to its density -- and also helps non-Spanish readers, myself included, to further identify with Carla's situation -- but the extra effort is rewarded throughout the story, and it quickly becomes clear why it took five years to finish the story because there's not a single wasted panel in it. Like Blankets, the first long-form (non-superhero) graphic novel to really blow me away, and Black Hole, the most recent one to do so, La Perdida is everything great sequential art should be. (4.5 out of 5 Harvey awards)

[Review originally published by PopCultureShock, 4/17/06]

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