You can't go home again, especially if home was never home to begin with. In Jessica Abel's new graphic novel, La Perdida, half-Mexican Carla Olivares travels to Mexico City in 1999 looking for her roots but finding disaster instead. She rooms with her expat ex-boyfriend in the very same apartment where William S. Burroughs shot his wife fifty years earlier, takes Spanish lessons in a class filled with Japanese students, and overstays her visa. Fitting in, Carla discovers, requires a lot more than collecting folklórico souvenirs and dressing up in Frida Kahlo costumes.
Carla's biggest problem is ducking the opinion of her Mexican friends that she is the spoiled child of capitalist oppressors. All the Mexican guys Carla knows want to get into her pants, but that doesn't keep them from insulting her. Memo, a communist, puts her on the defensive immediately: "How can you be Mexican when you grow up with the dollar who rides on the backs of the poor people of the world, and guns in every closet, and Hollywood that tell you you are right!" Carla falls for it, trading her Ugly American in for a Beautiful Mexican. Her new, "authentic" boyfriend dreams of being a DJ in the United States but can't even contribute to the rent. Yet with each of her attempts to adapt to Mexican life, Memo questions her motives: "You come in here bringing your cultural assumptions, and then you think you can pick and choose the nice bits of our messy culture! Do you think you're humble, that you sit at the feet of Popocatépetl asking for guidance on the Mexican Way?"
Weeping hysterically, Carla breaks her folklórico jar, rips down her poster of Frida Kahlo, and shouts, "I'm not a conquistadora! I'm not!" but Memo answers, "Carla, you are. You can't help it." Memo is right. When the new millennium arrives, it brings terrible enlightenment to Carla, and she realizes she is completely alone, having alienated all her American friends in a desperate attempt to go native. Her Mexican friends will neither accept nor respect her, no matter how hard she tries.
La Perdida is a departure from the low-key, even languid storytelling in Abel's previous comics series, Artbabe. It is fast- paced, and, with a plot that contains kidnapping and murder, could even be called a thriller. To illustrate such a story, Abel has departed from her previous crisp inking style and instead uses thick, expressionistic brushstrokes that effectively convey the story's tension. In various interviews, Abel has described her childhood fascination with the original Wonder Woman comics, drawn by H. G. Peter. In La Perdida, she seems inspired by his heavy inking, and in a panel toward the end of the story, a close-up of Carla's face actually looks like Wonder Woman's as drawn by Peter.
The publication of La Perdida comes at an interesting time. Graphic novels such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis are alerting the reading public that women are producing important comics. Yet the current touring exhibit "Masters of American Comics," organized by the UCLA Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, argues for the significance of fifteen twentieth-century cartoonists—all of them men. In an Art News article on this dearth of women artists, Abel, who may or may not know her comics history, noted that "there were women comics artists, but they were not as important." La Perdida may prove her wrong.