Oaxaca is an interesting, dare I say even magical place — a unique intersection of indigenous traditions, modern-day Mexican culture, and American expat bon vivant-ism that’s been added to the mix thanks to its large gringo transplant community. On any given night, anything can happen, and the air is pregnant with festivity, possibility, and even a dash intrigue.
Or so I’m told, at any rate — largely by my parents, who became part of that aforementioned gringo transplant community when they retired down there nearly two years ago. I’d dearly love to visit, but the pandemic has made that wish an impossibility for the time being, although hopefully not for too much longer. Until then, though, I’ve got their emails and photos — and the comics of EX-expat Steve Lafler, who returns to the place he once called home (or, in a pinch, a home away from home) for his latest self-published graphic novel, Death Plays A Mean Harmonica.
Okay, yes, it would be a lie to say this book isn’t first and foremost an involving and inviting ensemble-cast character drama, rife with narrative tributaries that coalesce in ways pleasingly unexpected if perhaps just a hair shy of downright surprising, but as much as it may be “about” newly-arrived transplants Gertie and Rex and their head-first dive into the social milieu of this little slice of Bohemia way south of the border, it’s very nearly as concerned with said slice of Bohemia way south of the border — specifically, its unspecifics : the pace of life, the atmosphere, the overall “vibe” that so many people looking for a fresh start in one way or another are first drawn to and then happy to immerse themselves in.
To that end, the book has an admirable sense of nonchalance to it — as mentioned, Lafler’s crafted a multi-faceted narrative here, but he’s not in any particular rush to force story “beats” upon readers, trusting more in both his storytelling ability and his no-doubt-sharp recollections of all things Oaxaca to weave a kind of low-key spell that’s all the more immersive for its leisurely qualities. Yes, there’s “connective tissue” aplenty that binds the fates of Gertie, Rex, a Zapotec vampire named Eduardo (who’s more into chicken than human blood), taxi-driving sentient fungus El Rey Pelon, free-spirited Caroline and, yes, Death himself — but there’s time and space (specifically, 140-plus pages of it) to sort all that out. If you’re not prepared to relax and enjoy the ride, though, you’ll be missing out on what can only be called a singularly and authentically Oaxacan reading experience, one that’s at least as concerned with the journeys of its characters, both natural and supernatural, as it is their various and sundry destinations.
This overall mellow-but-purposeful tone to the proceedings also makes its presence felt in Lafler’s smooth, fluid, entirely unforced art, an agreeable mix of semi-elegant brushwork, classical “just exaggerated enough” cartoonish-ness, subtle shading and texturing, and richly expressive facial expressions and body language. Even absent the crackerjack dialogue that’s always been Lafler’s stock in trade, these pages would be a joy to just look at and luxuriate in, each one a prime example of an experienced hand utterly confident in his own craft — and for damn good reason. It’s pitch-perfect, a veritable clinic on how to draw the eye into scenes where most of the drama comes by way of interpersonal communication rather than dull fisticuffs, chases on foot or by car, etc. When you look at Lafler’s characters talking, you instantly want to know what they’re talking about.
What it all adds up to is a comic done with equal parts passion and professionalism about a fascinating bunch of people (and other life forms) living in a fascinating place and getting up to fascinating things, together and separately. It made me want to get myself down to Oaxaca even more than I already dis going in, and I think it’s safe to say it will have that effect on most every reader — even folks who don’t have family down there.
Death Plays A Mean Harmonica is available for $13.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/death-plays-a-mean-harmonica
Review wrist check – on a freezing cold day like today, all a person can really do is dream about warmer weather, and what better way to do that than by looking down at your wrist and seeing the favorite summertime pairing of a Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a BluShark marlin NATO strap from their “AlphaShark” collection? Hell, this would be perfect for Oaxaca!