La Perdida
by Jessica Abel (Fantagraphics, 2006)

Another high-quality title from Fantagraphics, La Perdida (which is Spanish for "lost girl") is based on the adventures of writer and artist Jessica Abel (author of Artbabe and Mirror, Window) during her stay in Mexico City. Using the character of Carla Olivares as her mouthpiece, Abel weaves a tale as colorful and rich as a Mexican blanket as Carla, driven by a sense of urgency, travels to Mexico City to find her roots, her way, something, anything, that will connect her to whatever is missing in her life.

It's hard to make the search for identity in a typical twentysomething's life into an interesting story, especially when it's a topic that is rapidly becoming something of a cliche within the self-discovery genre. While the concept isn't novel, the story itself rapidly becomes interesting, then absorbing, then downright unnerving.

Carla initially stays with her ex-boyfriend, Oscar, a wealthy blueblood who has his own ideas about living in Mexico City. After finding herself dissociated from him and his aloof ex-pat crowd, she falls in with a dubious crowd of petty criminals, led by Memo and his pretty but shallow friend Oscar. From there things go hideously awry. Carla's naivete comes to a crashing demise as her friends' repressed anger and discontent take a turn for the worst, and some rather unhealthy choices are made, entangling her in a web that could cost her her life.

With simple but dense artwork whose heavy brush lines both capture and convey an amazing amount of detail in a very small amount of space, Abel traces the progress of a rather ordinary ex-pat girl whose deep loneliness compels her to search for any sort of meaningful connection she can find. This leads her to some questionable choices that are nonetheless completely understandable: even as her actions and thoughts might make you shake your head, you find yourself empathizing, no matter how destructive her decisions eventually become. We have all been through periods of life where we had very little insight into who we were as people and, as Abel's story neatly conveys, we all hit the same brick wall sooner or later. If you're lucky, you'll change enough to realize that the choices you make will either carry you forward or keep you trapped in a life of escapism and surface-only relationships.

Each character is fully realized; even when they are less than likable they have a three-dimensional quality that almost forces you to empathize. Restrained but bursting with life, Abel's delicate alchemy heats up the story slowly and brings it to a conclusion that happens so quickly you almost want to reread it to be certain of what happened, yet it's completely satisfying and appropriate. Not a single panel space is wasted, and the artwork and storytelling move like two dancers following a single beat in a delicate but powerful dance that is almost perfect. Heartbreakingly real but leaning away from melodrama, La Perdida is a work of genius and one of the best examples of what graphic novels have to offer.

review by
Mary Harvey

4 August 2007

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