Page 45 Review by Tom
Carla comes to Mexico with a mind full of prejudice and a Frida obsession, searching for a rose-tinted version of her Mexican roots. A romantic view mistaken for authenticity, impairing her ability to see the country's true cultural identity, as well as its harsh realities.
She shacks up with Trusterfarian ex-pat Harry, who seems to be slumming it just to annoy his wealthy parents whilst posing as a journalist, nonchalantly aggravating the natives. She soon out-stays her welcome on his worn mattress (after all why keep the cow when the sex is free?) and after an obligatory bout of food poisoning moves into her own place. Turning her back on Harry and his bourgeois, ex-pat hangers-on, Carla finds a new fraternity with Marxist dossers, Memo and Oscar. Memo is a sleazy passive/aggressive womaniser who regularly explodes into abusive rants concerning Carla's American lineage, but then again the empty can rattles the most. Carla finds an unofficial and meagre living teaching English to Mexicans who, according to Memo are "under-educated Mexican morons who buy into the imperialistic American model". Harsh words if you consider how closely that model fits Oscar, whose aspirations of becoming a superstar DJ in the states are as naive as Carla thinking she'll be accepted as a Mexican if she chooses to slum it.
This as a whole is a challenging work for several reasons. Firstly, you may have already surmised that none of the characters are likable in the slightest - that's intentional. This is a work of pure drama, and the characters merely serve as a means of relaying the point of the story. But this lacks characters to even empathise with - even the underdog's a vicious bastard. The second challenge, which went right past me when it was serialised in comic, is the way Carla's obvious linguistic difficulty upon arrival was expressed. For the entire first chapter all Mexican is in Mexican, the translations are in "quotations" under the panels. Which isn't a particular problem at first, as Carla predominantly shares scenes with Harry and the other ex-pats. In fact it's quite a smart expression soon dispensed with for the approach Gilbert Hernandez takes (Mexican is assumed to be spoken, English is in <brackets>).
However - and this is why I didn't notice it in the comic - there's an extra scene included in the book. A party aboard a boat, which goes on for twenty or so pages, using the sub-titles. Up to three to five people cram into panels, get drinking and make small talk whilst Harry and Memo, often out of shot, consistently argue pub-politics in Mexican. Speech bubbles crowding the air while sub-titles distract the eye, the English is drowned in noise. Perhaps this is intentional too? An expression of how noisy and out of hand events can become, but if so, why not have it over just five or six pages? Because twenty pages of talking heads is just dull and leaves you pining for Jessica's gorgeous art, as her art is more beautiful than ever.
Less steeped in the photo-accurate realism of her past work, conversely her fluid brush work breathes with more life than ever before, allowing for a Mexico so real you'll want to start packing a suitcase and drinking your beer from a bottle, a slice of lime stuck in the neck.