Ilan Stavans, Mr. Spic Goes to Washington (Soft Skull Press, 2008), $15.95, paperback.
By Frederick Aldama
Latino author-artists are tearing it up in the world of comics. Gilbert and Jaime of Los Bros Hernandez (Love & Rockets) continue to spin out all variety of contemporary characters and stories from angsty teenage Latino suburbanites to polyamorous LA barrio denizens. Others like Rhode Montijo (Pablo's Inferno), Javier Hernandez (El Muerto), and Rafael Navarro (Sonambulo) mix-n-match myth and genre to bring to life a variety of complex young and old Latino superheroic characters. Others like Carlos Saldaña (Burrito) and Lalo Alcaraz (La Cucaracha) anthropomorphize four-and-more legged ones to satirize an anti-Latino US society. A recent addition to the Latino fold: the satirical Mr. Spic Goes to Washington by Ilan Stavans (author) and Roberto Weil (artist).
The story follows the protagonist, Samuel Patricio Inocenio Cárdenas or "S.P.I.C.," as he attempts to bring his East LA grass-roots political idealism to the Senate floor in DC. A series of events lead to some back-door political maneuverings that push Mr. Spic swiftly up the political rungs. With Latinos as the largest minority group in the US, there's pressure for Washington's power elite to elect a Latino as Democratic Senator: "too many colored people out there. You have to give them the impression they matter." However, while Mr. Spic's ambitions are admirably grand--to look at "the nation's power elite en los ojos and reverse centuries of abuse and discrimination"--Mr. Spic quickly finds himself swept to the Senate's silent margins. He refuses to bite his tongue, however: "Órale, Senate Majority leader. I respectfully submit a proposal to expand Latino representation in the country. Ya es hora, it's time to make America more inclusive, less monolithic, ¿o no?" Mr. Spic's rebellious ways--including the threat to petition for the secession of California and the Southwest--don't bode well for him, to say the least.
Mr. Spic Goes to Washington is a satire, a political satire. The title already establishes and the narrative tone confirms this. The story proper opens with the narrator stating: "A busy cabinet meeting was taking place at the office of Los Angeles Mayor Samuel Patricio Inocencio Cárdenas, alias S.P.I.C., ¡El vato loco!" Weil's iconic cartoony drawings allude to and align Mr. Spic with other contemporary race-focused comic book and comic strip satires such as Lalo Alcaraz's La Migra Mouse (2004) and La Cucaracha (2004), Aaron McGruder's and Reginald Hudlin's Birth of a Nation (2005) and Grady Klein's The Lost Colony (2006), to name a few. Not surprisingly, as the story unfolds, Mr. Spic aims to tell us something about the dirty underbelly of US society and politics, especially vis-à-vis us Latinos. We learn, for instance, that less than 1% of school teachers in Latino majority cities like Los Angeles are Mexican American, that we don't need a wall between the US and Mexico because "the two countries are forever intricately linked," and that there isn't a memorial in DC to commemorate "the thousands of people who die every year dehydrated while walking the desert in search of the American Dream." We also learn certain facts of Latino history, including, by way of the Puerto Rican "Janitor" character, that Lolita Lebrón's struggle for Puerto Rico's independence from the US led to a life sentence in prison.
To smooth the way for its taking its reader back to the classroom, Stavans and Weil use devices like the flashback and ellipses (jumps in narrative time) to slow down and speed up the reading-viewing process. These devices also importantly allow Stavans and Weil to efficiently tell the story: to fill in certain details of Mr. Spic's past that will play a role in his ultimate demise, for instance. And, they include several "Aha' moments for reader-viewers. Employing the self-reflexive device used by fiction author Julio Cortázar in his first and only comic book, Fantomas (1975), here too we see the author, Ilan Stavans, appear as a figure in Mr. Spic. Mr. Spic receives a postcard from "Ilan Stavans" that says, "Orale Vato!" On another, Stavans appears as a figure peeing in a urinal, eavesdropping on Mr. Spic as he speaks with the "Janitor."
This said, Mr. Spic doesn't take full advantage of the double (visual and verbal) narrative form of comic books. Of course, there is no formula for how comic book author-artists should use the visual and verbal narrative elements--their combination is infinite. However, when there is a consistent subordination of one over the other, the beat at the heart of the medium stops. In the case of Mr. Spic, it's the verbal elements that dominate. The visuals are present, but less to propel the story forward and more as scene filler: objects in a particular place, clothing styles, height and physique of characters, and so on. Certainly, a heavy leaning on the verbal or text elements as its narrative steam makes this .
Not only does Mr. Spic not take full advantage of the comic book's double narrator form--it reads more like a Prince Valiant comic where you really do not need the visuals to get the story--but its dominant verbal narrative is too uniform. The late Russian literary theorist and language philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, distinguished between novel and the epic poem, celebrating the former for its ability to free up the voices, and worldviews expressed through their voices, that were otherwise constrained by the authorial voice of the latter. The voices in Mr. Spic feel unduly constrained by their author; the characters never own their language--it's always the proprietorship of the author. The result: characters that talk or narrators that describe, but always as talking heads that foreground the anti-establishment position of Mr. Spic they never own never own their language. A case in point. Mr. Spic's code-switches between English and Spanish but in a way that we just wouldn't hear in everyday Chicano caló speech acts. You would never hear, "You shouldn't have threatened al pobre store owner"; rather, you'd hear "you shouldn't have threatened the pobre store owner." The Spanish mixed with English sentences that the characters speak are too perfectly welded together; they're written in too mannered a grammatical written standard English and Spanish. It's not that an author shouldn't be precise in their use of language. It's just that the precision should stylize in such a way that conveys the feel of the language actually used by a character with a distinctive identity and worldview. This doesn't help enrich Mr. Spic's identity as a character with an already limited set of personality traits. And when the story tries to breath complexity into Mr. Spic's character, it's too out of character and falls flat. During an interview with t.v. reporter Jorge Ramos, the Mr. Spic who has up till that point been identified as seriously about change, responds: "he makes Latinos look cool on tv". This is a guy who takes more than seriously his politics, and not someone who kowtows to showbiz spectacles. It doesn't work.
Perhaps, we should be more forgiving of Mr. Spic. Given that it is a comic book interested less in storytelling and more in educating, perhaps we should let slide its near total reliance on features that tell us, rather than show us the story. I think of the comic book mode used in the pamphlets distributed by the two political parties, the PAN and PRI, in Mexico's last elections. Clearly, these were less interested in storytelling and more into using the comic book form to peddle their political wares. And, much like these political pamphlets, Stavans and Weil also assume a certain background knowledge. There are many Latino cultural references--the story mentions the band Café Tacuba along with poet Juan Felipe Herrera, author Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, as well as activists like Corky Gonzalez and Rubén Salazar, among others--but with few exceptions, if you don't know the references, you won't get much more than that they support Mr. Spic's political positions. More importantly, if we redeem Mr. Spic by reading as a political pamphlet, we might wonder of its politics. It promotes a sense that ideas and the individual alone representing these ideas will be the agent of change. Mr. Spic wants to pass unidentified legislative measures that will pave the way for a "diverse America where Latinos and other minorities aren't los de abajo, the underdogs" (35), for example. Yet, Mr. Spic also tells its readers that while change is in the hands of individuals like Mr. Spic (César Chávez, Che Guevara, Benito Juárez, and others are also referenced), such individuals stand no chance in a world governed by a corrupt power elite. So why bother.
Either way we read Mr. Spic, there's just no air to breath in this comic book.