Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

The Beast Within

Posted by Don MacPherson on June 13th, 2014

Chicacabra original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Tom Beland
Editor: Chris Ryall
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Price: $17.99 US

It’s no secret that I’m a major fan of Tom Beland’s storytelling. His autobiographical series True Story Swear to God is one of my all-time favorite comics and always will be. That I would delve into this first fictional creator-owned work was a given, but in advance of its release, I wondered if it would grab me as much as True Story did. The work for which Beland is best known is an incredibly personal one, about him, his wife, his family. He shared his greatest joys and fears in True Story, but Chicacabra isn’t about him. Beland has written fantastic fiction in the medium before, specifically for Marvel Comics. Those were thoroughly entertaining and fun comics as well, but they weren’t as personal, as revealing. But really, one wouldn’t expect any wholly resonant characterization from one-shots featuring long-standing super-hero icons that are designed to be static. So the question remained — would Chicacabra, which lingers on the edge of the super-hero genre, lack the same touching humanity?

The answer is a clear “no.” The cast of Chicacabra may not be real, but they are Tom Beland. As someone familiar with his work and who he is, the characters, inner conflicts and familial concepts here flow directly from Beland’s everyday world and experiences. The framework for those ideas is a piece of fantastic fiction about a young woman and a chance encounter with a powerful, near-mythological and majestic beast, but the story itself is about family and loss, about surviving and thriving. Beland’s message is abundantly clear: to isolate oneself from others is to die, and to connect with people is to live.

Isabel is a beautiful, bright and quirky high-school student in Puerto Rico with a small but loyal group of friends and the best caregiver and confidant she could ever hope for. She’s also incredibly sad, angry and isolated, still reeling from the loss of her father in a carjacking a year before and the subsequent loss of her mother to psychological trauma. There’s a hole inside Izzy where her heart used to be, but her curiosity and impulsiveness lead her to a hidden locale in San Juan. What she finds there bonds with her, quite literally inhabiting her body. It’s the beginning of an unbelievable experience that might just fill that hole deep within her.

Beland hasn’t altered his usual cartooning style for this project. One might think given some of the subject matter here and the mix of super-hero, sci-fi and supernatural genres, he might have taken a different visual approach. But I’m thrilled he stayed true to his established style. Beland’s cartooning and character designs are fairly simple in tone and somewhat exaggerated, but they’re imbued with so much personality and charm. The inky look of the title character really distinguishes it from the more grounded world in which it finds itself in this story. The writer/artist conveys its lithe and feral qualities with great quality despite the economy of linework, but he also shows us its heart and curious side with the biog, empty white eyes and its gentler body language. The scenes featuring its more acrobatic travels across the Puerto Rican backdrop is wonderfully effective, full of speed and kinetic grace.

One of the things that struck me most interesting and laudable about Beland’s art here was his depiction of the heroine, Izzy. She’s the real star of the book (despite Chicacabra’s name on the cover). She’s a teenage girl, and Beland conveys her as being lovely and physically attractive. But she’s never sexualized, not for a moment in the book. Not when she’s talking about sex. Not when she’s in the shower. A recurring issue with which the character contends in the story is the rending of her clothing due to her connection with the title creature. In other words, she’s turns up as being nude several times, but Beland deals with its in a subtle fashion. Izzy is never objectified, never used to titillate the reader, even though the story offers the opportunity for it repeatedly.

My favorite visual components in the book are the designs for the Vejigante characters in the latter part of the book. Their mystic, mythic nature shines through incredibly clearly, and I love the insectoid qualities and behavior Beland instills in Tarantino, the creature who turns to Izzy and Chicacabra for relief from his pain and, ultimately, for friendship.

Tio (Uncle) Tony is easily the most likeable, stable and grounded character in the book. He’s almost unbelievably understanding and patient, willing to accept the most destructive and weird behavior his niece exhibits. His nurturing is ultimately credible, though, for a number of reasons. He’s experiencing the same pain and doubts Izzy is, and furthermore, he remembers his own anger from similar circumstances in his teen years. He’s the cool uncle everyone wishes he or she had. Another reason I find him so compelling is that it’s easy to see a lot of Beland himself in Tony. He is the cool uncle in real life, and he also has a passion for cooking, which is clearly reflected in Tony’s status as a chef and restaurateur. But if you’re not familiar with Beland himself, if you want a good picture of Tony, think of John Candy’s portrayal of the titular Uncle Buck from film. Tony is a similarly loving, big bear of a man, but he’s quite a bit more together than Buck.

Prof. Chemo is wonderfully quirky, warm and unexpected addition to the cast of characters. His primary role, of course, is to provide exposition. He educates Izzy and Tony — and by extension, the reader — of Chicacabra’s history, abilities, qualities. If anything, he fills in too many blanks; I think Beland could have opted to leave a little more mystery in the mix when it came to Chica’s origins and nature. But the professor quickly integrates as part of Tony and Izzy’s family, and he just fits in so nicely. He’s easily the cutest element in the book, and his pure intellect and calm make for a nice balance with Tony’s quick-to-act and protective qualities.

One aspect of the plot that elated me was a rather sad one. Izzy’s mother spends most of the book in essentially a catatonic state, brought on by grief and trauma. When her character is introduced, the reader expects a specific outcome in her plot thread, and every time new characters (specifically, Prof. Chemo and Chicacabra) encounter her, that expectation is reinforced. So when Beland defies that expectation, taking the plot in a different direction, I was thrilled. It made for better character-driven moments and more supernatural fantasy. Surprises always make for better reading than conventional plotting.

I don’t get a strong sense of Izzy’s friends here, even her best friend Lara, but given that the story dwells a great deal on Izzy’s sense of isolation and sadness, that isn’t completely unexpected. Still, that circle of friends helps to ground her, to make her more relatable. I could have done without the stereotypical hacker nerd pal, but Beland tempers him with a slacker side. I also found Beland’s choice to depict Izzy and her friends as frequent, even enthusiastic pot users to be an interesting one. It’s an element that, again, obviously (if you’re familiar with him) flows from Beland’s own personality, and it rings true. He’s also made a choice not to portray these teens as the gang from Riverdale or Happy Days. These kids are more real, and the drug use reinforces that.

It’s also something of a daring choice for Beland, as it opens him to criticism and attack from conservative voices. In fact, Beland has consciously chosen to write a piece of fantastic fiction featuring a teen heroine that’s aimed at adults. The pot, occasional profanity and a brief bit of violence make it clear this isn’t intended for kids. It really wouldn’t have been hard to tweak this graphic novel to fall into a young-adult category, but the writer/artist has purposefully chosen to maintain a tone and story elements that, to him, seem more genuine.

I’ve been gushing about Chicacabra for a while now, not just in this review, but in my head. But to be clear, there are a couple of rough edges on what is otherwise a nicely polished bit of storytelling. Perhaps the most distracting aspect of the story was Beland’s solution for Izzy’s tattered-clothing issue. It’s way too over the top, and there’s absolutely no reason here for the professor to limit the access to that miraculous technology to Izzy. Furthermore, the means by which the professor tracks her down initially stretches credibility — no one else found that wallet, really? And finally, Beland would have benefitted from some more meticulous copy-editing (I spotted a couple of typos). Mind you, that latter criticism probably won’t bother most as it did me.

This graphic novel was also obviously crafted with an eye toward serial publication as traditional, periodical comics. The pacing and chapter breaks made it abundantly clear. That it was published as one volume instead isn’t problematic at all, though. The chapters/individual issues make it easy for the reader to peruse the book in spurts. But then again, the characterization, artwork and storytelling are so engrossing, there’s really no need for the pauses. I’m thrilled to add this touching volume to my bookshelf. Honestly, it’s a shame it wasn’t also offered as a hardcover edition. I would’ve been happy to plunk down an extra few bucks for an edition that had an even more permanent feel to it. 9/10

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