Review by Peter Duncan
The most awkward thing about writing a review for a comic you are enthusiastic about, is judging just how much you should say about it. You want to say enough to get across the reasons for your excitement but don’t want to give away too much of the contents of the book to spoil it for potential readers.
I’m in that position now. I’ve just read both volumes of Karmen by Guillem March from Europe Comics and I want to tell everyone all about it. At the same time, I don’t want to say too much and spoil the impact of one of the most enjoyable comics I’ve read all year. Indeed, the best result of this review might be if somebody stopped reading now and simply bought the first volume from Amazon or ComiXology – and came back after they’ve read to see if they agree with what I’ve said.
Spanish artist Guillem March is probably best known for his work for DC comics, especially on the Batman and Catwoman titles, but he has produced artwork for a vast range of comics since his debut in the Spanish erotic comic, Eros, some twenty years ago. Karmen, appears to be his debut as a writer (I don’t have full information of his early career) and it is some start!
A modern-day fantasy, March creates a mythology that, on first glance, owes something to the figure of, Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Karmen herself is a guardian angel, one of a group of similar beings who guide the dead to their next life or their ultimate destination.
Visually, Karmen is a tall, elegant young woman, her body black, like as if it is missing, yet taking up space in the real world, with only her skeleton beneath the shape of her body visible. Yet somehow, her freckled face, swirling hair and beautifully captured smile, make her the least frightening embodiment of Death you can imagine. The blanked-out high-heels which she wears and, what I am reliably told by my daughter, dreadful fringe, further humanise an inhuman character. Karmen is a rebel, in conflict with her fellow guardians, breaking the rules and refusing to give up on even the most hopeless of cases.
Over the two volumes we follow the story of Catalina, a young girl from Palma who Karmen is sent to guide as she takes her own life. Karmen shows her round the town of Palma, shows her the lives of her friends and those she loves. Along the way, she discovers that contact with the living allows her to see a little of their lives, giving her an understanding that she is not alone.
All of this is handled with care, understanding and compassion. Suicide is a difficult subject to tackle, all too often characters involved are shown as one-dimensional or foolish. Not here. The Catalina created by March has so much more to her. We see her real embarrassment’s she realises that, as she is dying in a bath, her spirit must wander the world naked. In other hands, this could have been an exploitative move, an excuse to sexualise a character for purely prurient reasons.
But in contrast with Karmen, Catalina does not have the ideal female form of most comic book heroines. She doesn’t have that unreal perfection, she is a pretty, real, young woman. One you can image having minor and totally unnecessary hang-ups about her body and one you can imagine knowing, and for female readers, imagine being.
Over more than 150 pages, we see her journey through Palma and the lives of its inhabitants. We see her react to other unhappy lives and learn more about the events and misunderstandings that led to her attempt to kill herself.
It’s difficult to categorise the book. It’s part a modern fantasy, part a recognition of the suffering of humans and part a touching and hopeful romance. It’s a book about rebellion, compassion, and redemption.
The artwork is beautiful, the scenes around Palma especially so. The page layouts and storytelling of March are flawless with one particular, nine-page, wordless sequence being both attractive, dramatic and easy to follow. Dan Christensen’s translation is seamless and the colouring, which Tony Lopez assisted the artist with, is subtle and adds a beautiful finishing touch to what has been a labour of five years on the part of the creator.
I wouldn’t have read these books if Europe Comics had not sent review copies. They show that the genres that we have become used to, are not all that comics can be. Given space, comics can tell stories that are complex, touching and emotionally intelligent. Europe Comics are doing the comics fans from the UK and Ireland and the US a great service by making the best of comics from a different tradition available to us in our own language. Now, what else have they sent me to read?
• Full details at Europe Comics: www.europecomics.com
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk