You have to wonder about a story where the supporting characters are way more fascinating than the main ones. In fact, I soon grew indifferent to the two central characters of this tale, Samantha and George – an American couple taking time off in Oaxaca, Mexico.
She is a writer hoping to get in touch with her past, as she once spent time there (and went through quite the emotional roller coaster); he’s an artist and bug enthusiast who has just lost his job, and is a little unsure about committing to such a long stay in this unfamiliar land.
Part of our detachment from this couple probably stems from the way they appear close, yet are on diverging paths – something we pick up on quite early in the story.
In Oaxaca (pronounced wah-ha-ka), however, they encounter a variety of colourful characters – at least, colourful for the way they stand out next to the Blands, I mean, Sam and George.
OK, maybe I’m just being too harsh on them. But really, neither one of them seems quite alive until experiencing their respective eye-openers. For Sam, it’s revisiting a tragic memory from her previous stay in Oaxaca. And for George, it’s an encounter with Alejandro – a loud, drunken ex-photojournalist who practically shouts his new pal through the geographical and cultural back alleys of the city.
It’s not far into the book, either, that we notice one effective storytelling device: custom speech balloons for each different person, carefully tailored to suit their personality or demeanour. From the curlicued borders of an upmarket eatery’s maitre d’ to the jagged, explosive edges around Alejandro’s words, this technique is the next best thing to actually hearing them talk. Better yet, they are incorporated so neatly into the panels that the wide variety of designs never seems incongruous at all, but kind of ... organic.
Much more happens in the course of this 328-page graphic novel: Sam is tempted towards an affair with a dashing artist, while George and Alejandro become embroiled in an ongoing teachers’ strike (triggered by protests against the state governor, who is accused of stealing the recent election).
It’s not exactly new territory for cartoonist/illustrator Peter Kuper, co-founder of the left-wing comics anthology magazine World War 3 Illustrated and adapter of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis into graphic novel form.
(Mainstream audiences may know him best from his work on MAD Magazine, where he took over the long-running Spy Vs Spy strip back in 1997. While his art style is significantly different from the original artist/writer Antonio Prohias, the many elaborate traps set by the strip’s eternal enemies Black Spy and White Spy seem even more diabolical and sadistic on Kuper’s watch.)
Kuper also draws upon his familiarity with the setting to deliver a truly living, breathing city. He and his family spent two years there from 2006-2008, and he experienced the strike first-hand, documenting it in his Diario De Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal Of Two Years In Mexico. While Kuper’s irregular style takes some getting used to, his panels and spreads are crammed with detail, leaving a lot for the reader to discover and savour.
Interspersed with Sam and George’s personal odysseys is the incredible migratory journey of one Monarch butterfly, as it flies over landscapes that are alternately thriving and bleak, a colossal achievement for such a tiny creature and a reminder of how Nature has programmed steely, unwavering impulses into every life-form.
The butterfly could also be a metaphor for the, uh, metamorphosis of our principal characters, and as we see them reach the culmination of their current paths – which, as long as there is life, just means the start of entirely new chapters – we also begin to take an interest in them (finally). And in doing so, we may begin to see our own fundamental yearnings reflected in them.
Ruins was nominated for the Best Graphic Album (New) Eisner Award, and as slice-of-life graphic novels go, it ultimately proves to be a satisfying read despite my early misgivings about the main characters.
A lot happens, and much of it isn’t pretty, but the story never resorts to melodrama for impact. I also liked how the supporting characters quietly (well, loudly, in Alejandro’s case) challenge Sam and George to get over themselves, to snap out of it and get on with living.
Without stopping to lecture the reader either, Kuper shows us that whatever the circumstances, life goes on – it must go on, as evidenced by the butterfly’s struggle.
All we can hope to do is to have a positive influence wherever we linger, however wanted (or unwanted) our presence may be. And the story reminds us that resolutions to life’s issues are seldom neat, simply because they are not endings.
Oh, and I just have to give a shout-out to the publisher, whose website provides handy press kits for each of its major titles, complete with a news release about the book and several high-quality images for review purposes. The big publishers could learn a thing or two from SelfMadeHero!
Ruins and Giant Days: Volume One are available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kinokuniya.com/my.
Writer/artist: Peter Kuper