La Perdida by Jessica Abel. Pantheon, 2006; $19.95; 288 pages.

FROM THE DUST JACKET:

From the Harvey and Lulu award-winning creator of ArtBabe ( comes this riveting story of a young woman's misadventures in Mexico City. Carla, an American estranged from her Mexican father, heads to Mexico City to "find herself." She crashes with a former fling, Harry, who has been drinking his way through the capital in the great tradition of his heroes, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Harry is good-humored about Carla's reappearance on his doorstep -- until he realizes that Carla, who spends her days soaking in the city, exploring Frida Kahlo's house, and learning Spanish, has no intention of leaving. When Harry and Carla's relationship of mutual tolerance reaches its inevitable end, she rejects his world of Anglo expats for her own set of friends: pretty-boy Oscar, who sells pot and dreams of being a DJ, and charismatic Memo, a left-wing, pseudo-intellectual ladies' man. Determined to experience the real Mexico, Carla turns a blind eye to her new friends' inconsistencies. But then she catches the eye of a drug don, el Gordo, and from that moment on her life gets a lot more complicated, and she is forced to confront the irreparable consequences of her willful innocence.

Jessica Abel's evocative black-and-white drawings and creative mix of English and Spanish bring Mexico City's past and present to life, unfurling Carla's dark history against the legacies of Burroughs and Kahlo. A story about the youthful desire to live an authentic life and the consequences of trusting easy answers, La Perdida -- at once grounded in the particulars of life in Mexico and resonantly universal -- is a story about finding oneself by getting lost.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Carla Olivares, a young Mexican-American woman, goes to Mexico City to try to get in touch with her Mexican side. She's got her own distorted ideas about what that means, and her annoyance with an old boyfriend who's leading his idea of the romantic expatriate life (by hanging out exclusively with other expats) makes her even more nervous about coming off like an outsider. She starts hanging out with a bunch of local lowlifes and blowhards who feed her guilt about being a privileged "conquistadora." They talk big (about stardom and revolution), but barely scrape by on petty crime, which eventually becomes not so petty, and sucks Carla into a vortex of fear and violence. Abel's published several books of her shorter comics stories, but for her first long-form graphic novel she's developed a new, impressively assured style, built around bold, rough brushstrokes. She's got a telegraphic command of body language -- her characters' faces are simplified to the point where their eyes are usually just dots -- and the backgrounds nicely evoke the architecture and heat of Mexico City. What really makes the story compelling, though, is Abel's sensitivity to character and dialogue -- Carla is the narrator, but she's hardly a heroine, and the way crucial meanings are lost in translation ratchets up the dramatic tension.

From Booklist: Starred review. The comic-strip short stories in Abel's Mirror, Window (2000) and Soundtrack (2001), while compelling and closely observed, sometimes seemed as insubstantial and directionless as their twentysomething slacker protagonists. The book-length La Perdida, however, is a major leap forward for her. It follows young half-Latina Carla as she rejects the U.S and heads for Mexico in a misguided search for her roots and meaning in her life. Moving in with ex-sort-of-boyfriend Harry, who hangs out only with other expats, Carla seeks the authentic Mexico and gets more than she bargained for when she falls in with leftist politico Memo, who calls her a "conquistadora," and small-time drug dealer and DJ-wannabe Oscar. Naive Carla learns that, while aimlessness and poverty might be temporary for young, white Yankees, it can morph into violent desperation in an impoverished country. Besides developing a more purposeful narrative, Abel has progressed in her artwork. Her line is less careful and more confident, employing strong brushstrokes to capture the characters' personalities and the Mexican settings. In her previous work, Abel was a talent worth watching. La Perdida delivers what the watching was for.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jessica Abel is the author of Soundtrack and Mirror, Window (An Artbabe Collection) two collections that gather stories and drawings from her comic book ArtBabe ( which she published between 1992 and 1999. She also collaborated with Ira Glass on Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a nonfiction comic about how the public radio program This American Life is made. Abel won both the Harvey and Lulu awards for Best New Talent in 1997; La Perdida won the 2002 Harvey Award for Best New Series. Abel's young adult novel, Carmina, is forthcoming in 2007, and she is currently collaborating on another graphic novel, Life Sucks, and a textbook about making comics.

A CONVERSATION WITH JESSICA ABEL:

I phoned Jessica Abel at her apartment in Brooklyn on a rainy morning in early April when the daffodils in her garden were up and budded out, but not quite blooming, and the leaf buds on her currants were just beginning to open. I have absolutely no experience with comics and graphic novels, so I am anxious to learn what I can of what is, to me, a remarkable new discovery.

JM: I'm an overweight, 50-year-old man who has never touched a comic book in my life. A couple of weeks ago, when your publicist sent La Perdida, I'll admit I was skeptical. Then I opened it and couldn't put it down until it was finished. Now I'm torturing all of my friends about how we have to learn about graphic novels.

JA: Well, I'm glad to have been instrumental in this.

JM: So, have other people of my ilk had this same experience?

JA: I think, actually, yeah. We had a book-release party and a friend of my father's came; he's been a friend of mine since I was a little kid. He came with the freshly purchased copy of the book, and insisted I sign it. Then he called me about three days later with just, you know, amazement in his voice. He said, "I really like it."

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