Book Review: Totem by Laura Pérez

In Laura Pérez’s beautiful, bewildering graphic novel, a flashback begets another flashback, unidentified characters drift in and out of the spotlight, and mysticism adds supernatural elements. 

A news report about the discovery of a dead body leads a young sculptor to reminisce about her past girlfriend. The Spanish couple had shared a memorable road trip through Arizona that culminated in an encounter with a hitchhiker who invited them to a communal, drug-fueled vision quest under the stars. Earlier in their road trip, she recounted memories of her childhood to her girlfriend, primarily revolving around her grandmother who claimed to be able to talk to dead people. What does it all mean? Pérez doesn’t seem interested in spelling it out for us, utilizing minimal text and avoiding any easy payoffs. 

Pérez crafts lovely artwork that appears more like painting than traditional comic line art. Her work is more evocative than intricate, utilizing lightly detailed characters and backgrounds and generally ditching ink outlines in favor of letting colors set the boundaries. She also changes her palette at a dizzying pace, for example moving between warm, subdued desert hues to the bleak, desolate grays and blacks of her principal character’s childhood to muted browns in another extended interlude. Her page layouts are also well executed, clearly leading the reader through her cryptic, lightly scripted story. 

Her writing for this effort is fairly confusing, to the point where even after two read-throughs I felt like I hadn’t fully cracked her puzzle. One of the most vexing sequences is a totally wordless scene in the middle where we follow a young heterosexual couple as the man thinks about his past romance with a man, before the story shifts to an elderly couple, apparently the same couple decades later, as the man attempts to confess to the woman before she says she knows and keels over dead. Pérez doesn’t explain who these people are or why they’ve hijacked the book, other than leading into another discussion about communing with the dead between the main character and her grandmother in flashback. There’s a strong sense of melancholy, an infatuation with the past and departed loved ones, but with so much left unsaid and unexplained, her story generates vague feelings and perplexion rather than any true emotional payoff.

Totem is wildly original, visually striking, but narratively challenging. There’s much to admire here, particularly her lush, inviting artwork, and while her scattershot story will find favor with readers weary of conventional plot structure, it raises more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, Pérez proves to be a fascinating, innovative creator and I look forward to further English translations of her works.

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Steve Geise

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