Monday, December 30, 2013

Maria M. Book One

Maria M. may be the most metatextual graphic novel ever. It is an adaptation of a movie written by a grandaughter about her grandmother, starring her aunt as the main character. And all of this is set in the fictional Palomar-universe Gilbert Hernandez has carefully and fulsomely developed over the past three decades. Also, the events recounted in the movie have were the topic of one of Beto's densest, most complicated narratives, Poison River.

The good news is that a new reader would have to know none of that, because this a lean, mean killing machine of a book. The story follows one Maria Martinez, immigrant in the USA trying to make her way. This opening illustration should tell you how the story is going to go.
She tries to find success in beauty contests, acting (in legitimate and stag films), dancing, wearing costumes at business conventions, and working in restaurants. Add to these struggles that she witnesses some very criminal business, she begins to attract attention from some very shady characters.
Through the course of events, Maria becomes many things, a bauble to be possessed, an object of desire, and a player in the world of organized crime and drugs. And that is only half the tale, as there will be a sequel.

This book is beautifully prurient. Gone here are the grotesque characters of Poison River, their parts played by the more traditionally attractive Hollywood actor types. Sex, violence, and all the hallmarks of exploitation cinema drip from these gorgeously rendered pages. Beto seems to be reveling in and through the artwork. Maybe the book is too beautiful, but it is interesting to see how the "cleaned up" version compares with the more literal one.

A master of graphic storytelling, Gilbert Hernandez has received many positive reviews. Tom Murphy wrote that even though he "can’t hold Maria M in the same affection as Beto’s more ‘human’ material," the book is "held in place by an almost mind-bogglingly complex cat’s cradle of metatextual references and correspondences." This book is both simple and complex, depending on how much of Beto's work the reader knows. That he is able to create work that can straddle such territory is amazing.

Maria M. Book One is published by Fantagraphics, who provide previews and much more here.

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