Review of Mexican writer Bef´s graphic novel, Espiral

About a year ago I had a column at The Comics Journal about Latin American comics.  It was really cool.  Only problem was I lived in a Latin American country that produced very few art comics – or even native comics for that matter.  Nevertheless, I was able to get alot of stuff online, one of them being Mexican writer Bef´s graphic novel, Espiral.  However, before I ever got a chance to post the review I wrote of it, TCJ was bought my Fantagraphics and the international columns were cut.    Here, nevertheless is the review.

Bernardo Fernandez´s graphic novel Espiral marks the first time a renowned novelist draws a full-length comic. A respected science fiction writer, Bernardo Fernandez, or BEF as he is known in his native Mexico, might be compared to high brow sci-fi authors like Samuel Delaney and Phillip K. Dick. His name should certainly on any respectable shortlist of young Mexican authors (his short stories have already appeared in translation). Although this is his first full-length, prior to this book BEF wrote two volumes of graphic vignettes and edited the compilation, Pulpo Comics.

As one might expect from a writer of fantasy, Espiral functions under a philosophic concept as outlined in the book’s epigraph.  Achilles and his tortoise discuss the basic rule of inference, in which the truth of the first proposition – say, X is Superman – almost guarantees the validity of the second – X has a cape -.  Of course, the key word here is almost.  As any up-to-date reader of the series can tell you, Superman does not necessarily have a cape.  Nevertheless, it is still a relatively safe assumption.

Lesser fans of logic theory may be relieved to find that such heady propositions in Espiral are followed by a samurai gamer attacked by a robot, then saved by a machine gun-wielding blond in a business suit.  This first scene however turns out to be panels from a comic being read on the subway in Mexico City.  A chubby teenage boy looks up from a Los Supersabios comic – vintage historieta drawn by Germán Butze – to find a pretty girl reading the samurai comic.  The girl is so enthralled in her reading that she nearly misses her stop.  When she dashes out just before the doors close, she leaves her bag behind. The boy tries to return her bag, but it’s too late.  On the next page’s panel we see an uncomfortable couple watching the last frames of the crestfallen chubby boy with the bag in his hand on a movie screen.  The shy man meanwhile thinks of ways to make a move on his date, remembers how he came to ask her out, before finally concluding that he is a chicken. She calls him a turtle and kisses him.  Their kiss is captured in a painting on the next page, above the bed of a school girl.  And so on.

In each case, the connection between one narrative and the next relies on the same principle discussed by Achilles and the tortoise.  Inference is what comics are based on.  We think, Oh that’s what they’re watching, or, I get it that was something in the background, and we move on.  Forward-chaining, as this is called, is also how most video games function.  It is no coincidence that Espiral begins and ends with images from a video game.

In this way Espiral is very much a comic about comics.  Moving from a billboard of a water-sailing girl to a man near suicide, visited by a heart-broken angel in love with a she-devil, BEF moves along lines of melodrama.  It’s a universe of archetypal comic characters: superheroes, school girls, luchadores, angels, robots, anthropomorphic rodents.   BEF uses the enthusiastic mix of energies we’ve come to expect from comic depictions – sans language.

Espiral exemplifies the recent international pulse in comics (perhaps thanks to better marketing of graphic novels).  In his afterword, BEF explains that his Mexican comic was a finalist in Shonen Jump’s manga competition, and inspired by Hungarian-American Istvan Banyai.  He also expresses gratitude to Peter Kuper, whose often silent images may have been a model for this equally mute narrative.

The book’s only disappointment was its length. Without its conceptual coherency, Espiral would hardly make for a full-length graphic novel.  Hopefully the success of Espiral encourages BEF to have another go at lengthier comics.

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