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‘Karmen’ HC (review)

Written and Illustrated by Guillem March
Published by Image Comics

 

What if you made the movie Soul, but as part romantic comedy, the protagonist is a self-absorbed garbage human, and then you filtered it through an issue of Heavy Metal?

Who doesn’t enjoy a story about the afterlife, in which people contemplate their own lives after they died? Think of classics such as Defending Your Life and Heaven Can Wait, or recent work including The Good Place and Soul.

In many of these stories, talking about the afterlife and death is so much more about who people were and what they did while alive. They’re about souls and the idea that the consequences of our lives do follow us beyond the grave. We don’t know if they do, which is the allure of those stories. (We already know that the actions we do while alive continue to play out in the world for everyone else.)

Karmen, from Spanish artist Guillem March, attempts to do the same. It both hits and misses, for the obvious reason that it’s written and drawn by March.

I first came to know of March’s art when he drew Gotham City Sirens for DC Comics in 2009. The cover image of Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Catwoman told you everything you needed about March’s art. Witness the dynamic, bold linework, fun expression and the exaggerated posing. But after you noticed the singular, swimsuit supermodel body type each of the three different women sported: extremely long-limbed and long-torsoed, with ample bosoms and backsides. And they stood on a spotlight to further accentuate, well, everything.

For those educated in many kinds of comics, it’s exactly the kind of work you’d expect from a non-British European artist who got their start making saucy stuff at Eros Comics. For better and for worse!

Karmen is an intriguing story set in Barcelona about Catalina, a young woman entangled with her childhood best friend Xisco, and a fateful day in which she dies by suicide. Her soul awakens to the presence of a mysterious woman named Karmen, as they wander the mortal plane as spirits. Classic ghost stuff ensues, moral introspection occurs, so on and so forth.

Some bits get in the way of that storytelling, such as it taking half the series’ run before Cata understands that she is dead – something that is clear to the reader from the beginning.

Cata’s character has more tell than show about how she became the person she is – purposefully withdrawn from people except Xisco, but she won’t tell him she’s in love with him. She has no other true friendships, moved out of her parents’ house without notice and stopped calling them, and has mean words about the elderly woman in the apartment downstairs. What made her this way?

And Xisco is hastily sketched out as the thoughtful, handsome guy every girl wants, and he seems entangled in 2-3 romantic relationships at any given time.

Why would the reader root for these two to get together?

The other bits that get in the way of the storytelling is March being March. Because of the manner in which she died, Cata the ghost spends the main part of her time stark naked.

Don’t get me wrong: March actually moves away from his standard female body for Cata for someone more “normal.” She’s slim but her flesh folds as she moves, and she’s shorter and looks more naturalistic. Furthermore, March is exceedingly good at drawing Cata in full, Seinfeld-ian “bad naked” activities and from every angle while also taking care to stay out of obscene territory.

You can hear March saying, “You Americans, so hung up on nudity!” (This story was originally published in March’s native Spain, including its location and characters, and the cultural norms are different.) On the other hand, to these American eyes, naked Cata still feels exploitative after a while. You can tell because Cata finally gets something to wear during the emotional climax of the story when her soul reaches karmic judgment.

And it still feels like, of course March would do this. After all, he made Karmen into another swimsuit supermodel who’s all length and limbs and boobs. But this time her body is a silhouette showing only her skeleton. In a genius move, March illustrates Karmen and her fellow afterlife agents all in black silhouette revealing a singular system within each body – bones, digestive organs, central nervous system, etc. Yet March can’t help himself by putting Karmen in heels – you see her foot bones bent on a bias and a black point under each heel bone.

I’m just saying, these are the mildly to staunchly offputting, male gaze-y things that make people roll their eyes at comic books as a medium, and the people who read them. They did in the ’90s when I had to justify being a comic book nerd. And they do now as an adult in middle age who seeks his sensual thrills from more things that don’t feel juvenile in spirit or tone. Karmen isn’t deep enough or fantastical enough, in either direction, to let March’s excesses slide.

All that said, there are good ideas and themes in here, even if can’t reach the heights of The Good Place in terms of character introspection in the afterlife. And March’s art is top notch, including how detailed March gets in drawing everyday-looking people and every location scene to scene.

It’s worth a look, even if you’d seen and read better versions of this.

 

Grade: B-

 

 

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