La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Carla is a half-Anglo, half-Mexican wannabe expat gal dissatisfied with being twenty-something in urban America. She heads down to Mexico City from Chicago with half a plan to crash with her rich ex-boyfriend Harry and create a Mexican identity -- based on experience, not just the ethnic echo left by her long-gone Mexican dad.
After Burroughs-obsessed Harry reveals himself to be a less than happy host of Carla's increasingly extended vacation, Carla decides to branch out from his protected, over-educated expat crew and finds herself attracted to Memo, a trash-talking pseudo-Communist and his handsome sidekick Oscar. The farther she gets involved with both of them, the farther away she gets from her original quest for her Mexican roots, lulled by a mix of new experiences and routine. The better her Spanish gets, the less she seems to understand (or care) the escalating danger in her life. When things eventually get bad, they get really bad, and Carla becomes a victim of her own "Mexican adventure" fantasy.
As she did so often in her Art Babe comics, Abel has created a cast of mostly twenty-something characters that may look like people we know (or once were), but act out their agendas in surprisingly refreshing ways. She refrains from taking the easy way out and taking an obvious moral stance on Carla's poor decisions and naïve motivations. That is a large part of what makes La Perdida so fantastic. Many issues come into play here -- inter-ethnic relationships, class, aging, and family among them -- and Abel is able to make interesting and challenging statements about all of them through Carla. With Carla's simple gesture of pulling a ponytail back and letting it go in the mirror Abel makes Carla real, and makes us identify with her even if we think she is pathetic, petty or stupid for her missteps. Memo's sham radicalism is a given a penetrating treatment by Abel and Oscar's wounded boyishness is shown in his every move. We see why he is attractive to Carla, and why she stays with him when it is obvious that he is heading for trouble. The biggest character achievement here is that Carla grows as a person by the end, but not with a tacked-on happy ending or moralistic bang. She is different in a way that dismays her, but she is resigned to her past, the way people often are after a traumatic experience. In her words: "I didn't judge because I thought I wasn't qualified to judge, but as it turned out, that was just an excuse to not be engaged, and not to act right."
Drawn in black and white, La Perdida's panels exude an amazing energy. Abel uses a lot of black, which makes the pages look crowded at first, but forces you to slow down and look at each panel. When she branches out into larger, wordless panels, as she does when she wants to make an especially important statement, Abel's artistry and deep feel for this story come through.
La Perdida was originally serialized by Fantagraphics Books. The already seductive storytelling was helped along by anticipation for the next installment and made each part of the story something to savor. Rushing through the collection would mean missing a lot of the subtle touches that Abel uses to create Carla's complex world -- proceed slowly!
La Perdida by Jessica Abel