Review by Erika Rothberg
Jessica Abel’s La Perdida is a beautifully drawn and well-written graphic novel. La Perdida—which translates to “lost/misguided girl”—is about Carla, a confused twentysomething facing a quarter-life crisis who travels to Mexico to find herself. She deals with her identity as a Mexican-American, wanting to be more Mexican and less American, as she tries to assimilate into Mexican culture. She invariably meets all the wrong people and makes some unquestionably poor decisions, as most of us twentysomethings are wont to do. She gets involved with a group of pseudo-revolutionaries who pull her into their criminal ring and she finds herself dealing with a number of illicit goings-on that I won’t spoil for those who have not read it.
Abel’s illustrative style reads as extremely personal; it’s very easy to forget that this is not an autobiographical story because it feels so honest. The text is not typed—it’s handwritten and uneven (though legible, of course). Her illustrations match the text, as they are boldly drawn in dark, heavy strokes. The pages are, for the most part, quite filled with images and text, with very little white unoccupied space. This style perfectly reflects Carla’s submersion into a foreign culture. As she begins to adjust, the pages are easier to take in. At the beginning of the novel, the text is about 50% English and 50% Spanish. Abel translates most Spanish phrases at the bottom of each frame. Thankfully, for people like me who decided to learn the ever-practical Russian language instead of Spanish, she provides an extensive Spanish dictionary at the back of the book for longer explanations of certain phrases and cultural references. Interestingly, about halfway through the book, as Carla’s Spanish-speaking skills become more proficient, Abel advises us that the “<<” bracket symbols will be used to designate when dialogue is spoken in English. This, too, reflects Carla’s progression as she adapts to life in Mexico.
The story itself is engaging, even though many of Carla’s decisions will make you want to reach into the text and shake her, in the same way we all want to yell “Don’t go into that house alone!” to the heroine of a horror film. Part of what makes Carla an interesting protagonist is her many flaws. She is a girl who makes some terrible choices and has to face the consequences of her actions; since the story is told after the fact, you can hear the regret in Carla’s now-older tone, as hindsight is, after all, 20/20.
The difficult part of reading La Perdida is trying to pace yourself as you read it. I would caution anyone against reading it too quickly, because it is very easy to breeze through this work. If you’re a fast reader, I would suggest making a conscious effort to slow down, because the drawings are so rich and worth taking in slowly. If you only read the subtitles of a movie and barely pay attention to the images, you’re not experiencing the film as a whole—the same concept applies to graphic novels.
If you’ve never read a graphic novel, La Perdida is an excellent place to start. The story is engaging, the images are beautiful, and the piece comes together as a whole quite seamlessly. The themes are relatable: questioning who you are, trying (or deciding not to try) to fit in, and struggling to find your place in the world. Everyone, at some point, looks back and reevaluates some completely ridiculous choices they once made and La Perdida is Carla’s tale as she does exactly that. It’s a great read and I would recommend it to anyone, graphic novel fan or otherwise.
Cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel is the author of two textbooks about making comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics (First Second Books), written in collaboration with her husband, the cartoonist Matt Madden; and the graphic novel La Perdida (Pantheon Books). She’s also the co-writer of the graphic novel Life Sucks.
Previously, she published Soundtrack and Mirror, Window (Fantagraphics Books), two collections of stories and drawings from her omnibus comic book Artbabe, published between 1992 and 1999. She collaborated with Ira Glass on Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a non-fiction comic about how the radio show This American Life is made. Abel won the Xeric Grant in 1995, and both the Harvey and Lulu awards for “Best New Talent” in 1997; La Perdida won the 2002 “Best New Series” Harvey Award. She is at work on a new science fiction comics series called Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, for Dargaud France, as well as a non-fiction comic about story and radio, Out on the Wire (Crown Books). Madden and Abel were series editors for The Best American Comics from 2007 to 2013 and teach at various institutions. They live in Brooklyn, New York, with their two children, but are currently on a residency at the Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême, France (bio from Jessica Abel’s website).