It makes my job as a critic a lot harder when I’ve spent nearly an entire book composing its review in my head only for the final few pages to smash it to smithereens. In that sense, reviewing Luba: The Book of Ofelia is hard work.
Like, I really thought I’d figured out what Gilbert was after in his post-Palomar Palomar-verse work, you know? Take the story out of a small living-in-the-past Latin-American village and transport it to shiny, wealthy California; whittle the cast down from a whole town full of people to a group that’s still large but is essentially two families, Luba’s and Pipo’s; remove the Cold War/yanqui-go-home politics and replace it with a still biting but lower-stakes critique of capitalism and showbiz; tone down the magic realism to the kind of stuff you can explain with “that’s the kind of thing that happens in comics”; crank up the sex scenes. The end result? The funnybook-Marquez days are over, and now Beto’s free to do the crazily complicated soap-opera sex-farce sitcom of his demented dreams.
And not in a dumbed-down way, either! Beto chronicles one of the book’s most titillating storylines, Pipo’s crush-turned-affair with Fritz, with genuine insight. I actually recognize the singleminded way Pipo pursues Fritz despite neither of them having ever identified as lesbians, the way the idea got into her head and heart and crotch and simply grew and grew, never taking no for an answer. I also recognize the way the intensity of their feelings sort of seeps into increasingly intense sexual experiences with all sorts of other people, too.
The comedy’s never been sharper or funnier than it is here, either, nor as tied to Beto’s great strength, the depiction of the human form. Cases in point: Boots and Fortunato. (Excuse me–FORTUNATO..!) Boots’s teardrop-shaped body and architectural hairdo framing her preposterously perpetual scowl and giant Muppet mouth as she stares directly at the reader like Chester Gould’s Influence and screams “MY APPEAL IS INFINITE!” while having an orgasm? Classic shit, man. And FORTUNATO..!? Basically the Sergio sketch in comic form and minus the Lost Boys reference. His taciturn expression and the fact that he’s actually considerably less attractive then most of the other young men in the book only made it funnier. The last time we see his powers in action he’s actually got Kirby Krackle surrounding him for god’s sake. For all that creepy and sinister and violent stuff would bubble up from time to time–from the anti-Catholic rioting in Europe to Petra’s serial assaults on anyone she feels is a threat to the people she cares about to the god-knows-what that was going on with Khamo’s drug contacts–I got within the final ten or so pages of the book thinking that my two big takeaways were going to be these two characters cracking me up.
Then the last few pages happened, and wham, I’m just punched in the face with the fact that we’re not on Birdland‘s higher plane, we’re in Poison River‘s fallen world. In this world some people will stop at nothing to get what they think they want–money, sex, love, payback. In this world there’s a price to be paid for all the hijinx and sexual slapstick, one that no one involved really deserves to pay but one that gets paid nonetheless. It’s easy to forget given how happily extreme so many characters’ behavior has been, but in this world you can push people too far. I thought I had a handle on The Book of Ofelia, but of course it turns out there was no such thing all along.