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."
He said, 'Frankly, I didn't even expect to open it.' He was just going to buy it and have me sign it and put it on his shelf, but he happened to open it, and he just got really hooked and really, really liked it and called me, which is a call I don't usually get -- you know, I don't talk to him on the phone so it was, like, 'Glen is calling me. Why would that be?'
JM: You've opened a whole new world to me. So, I, of course have hit the internet, and I've hit the bookstore and I've tried to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can. I picked up a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel, and in it, Max Alan Collins talks about when he went to the premiere of Road to Perdition, and he's walking up the red carpet and a reporter screams out, 'What's a graphic novel?' And off the top of his head he says, 'It's a great big comic book.' But, certainly it's more than that. How do you answer that question if people ask you?
JA: Actually, it's not a lot more than that. It is a comic book and it's a term that's created to make the word 'comic' more palatable to the general public. I actually wrote a strip that you'd be interested in called What Is a Graphic Novel , which is on artbaum.net. In there I explain that it's a comic, basically.
And the thing that I say about comics is they have such a bad reputation, but it's totally historical. I mean, think about the word 'movie,' like, what a dumb word is that? You know, 'movie,' it moves. It's totally stupid.
We don't think about the derivation of the word. Same thing with the word 'novel.' Novel means new. I mean, how weird is that? So, I think that basically what we need is for people to get used to the term 'comics,' which refers to the art form, as opposed to any specific manifestation of the art form, because the word 'graphic novel' isn't flexible enough.
But my book is a graphic novel in the sense that it's novel. It's 250 pages long and it has one long story in it. But I have two other books, which are collections of short stories, that are bound with a spine and people call them 'graphic novels' too, because there's no other word for them, unless you want to call them comic books which they are. I mean, you aren't going to call it a 'graphic short story collection' or something.
JM: And when my peers hear the term 'graphic,' they immediately go to the other definition of the word.
JA: Right, right. Which is another reason why I think 'comics' is the way to go in the long run. But you know, because it still holds so many negative connotations for people, it's a difficult transition to make.
JM: So, this is a question you've probably been asked a lot, and it's one with a potentially long answer, so think about it and if you want to answer it later, go ahead. Let's say you were teaching a class for people like me, who have all of a sudden found something that they're really interested in and love but we have no experience whatsoever, what would be your required reading list for Graphic Novels and Comics 101? Where would you take us and why, to learn about them?
JA: People who were, adults who were out in the world and not college students?
JM: Or we are college students, but we've signed up for a class, to learn about comics and graphic novels because we know nothing, but kind of walk me through -- what are the big things I should read to learn more about this, the big comics?
JA: I think that the main thing to start out with is an understanding that the way that I would teach a course would be different than the way somebody else would teach a course, and my list is not the same as everybody else's. And probably what I would do is lean toward literary comics, you know, the kind of comics I make.
JM: Uh huh.
JA: And there is certainly an argument to be made for including a lot of genre work also, because that is a big part of what is in comics. But my list would include Maus by Art Speigelman, which you've probably heard of.
JM: Absolutely, I've got that one right over there on the shelf.
JA:Maus has this kind of mainstream crossover appeal, it's been something that people have read, but it also created controversial issues with the use of comics form for something serious. So, it's a good jumping off point in some cases, for a discussion about why comics, and what can this be as a comic that it couldn't be as a novel or whatever it is.
JA: And, you know in concert with that I might have people read Joe Sacco's Palestine, which is not a graphic novel, it's journalistic, but is of course, called a graphic novel also. And it's a book that he created in the '90s based on a series of interviews and a couple of months that he lived in the occupied territories.
So, this is a nonfiction current book that deals with some of the same kinds of issues, the sort of fall-out of some of the things that happened for Maus and is controversial and also not because of the comics so much, but because it takes a political stance and it provides an in-depth look into the issues as they stood in the '90s.
JA: Of Israel and the occupied territories. And, what else would I put on the list? I'd probably put Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes, a really wonderful complex book, of overlapping stories that take place in a fictional town called Ice Haven, and again, has references to comic history, it has references to the place that comics take in the world, and it's just a really wonderfully layered piece of literature. Let's see, what else would I put on the list?
My other favorite books from last few years are: Epileptic by David Dee and Black Hole by Charles Burns. Also, in the non-graphic novel but certainly comics area, meaning that it's a pamphlet-sized book, it's not a bound book with a spine, would be Or Else #2 by Kevin Huizenga, which is a story called Glorianna , which is just about the most amazing depiction of consciousness I've ever seen. It's really, really incredible. The whole book goes back and forth in time and changes the timeline; it all seems to be centered around this 'moment'; there's a fold-out page in the middle, which tries to depict the multilayered nature of a moment of awareness.
JM: Wow, is that available generally?
JA: Sure, yeah. It's probably not something you can pick up in your local Barnes and Noble, but you can get it online.