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Review time! with City of Clowns

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>City of Clowns</i>

“And it died, smiled, and fell on the ground”

Daniel Alarcón’s City of Clowns was, as he notes in the afterword, a Spanish-language prose story that was translated into English, then back into Spanish when it became a comic, and now back into English. That’s quite a journey!

The text is over a decade old, but the comic is new, as Alarcón enlisted Sheila Alvarado to draw it. Riverhead Books (which is, of course, an imprint of Penguin Random House, because just like other media, all publishers are one these days) published it, and it costs $22.95.

City of Clowns tell the story of a Peruvian journalist named Chino (well, his real name is Oscar Uribe, but everyone calls him Chino) who is assigned a story about the street clowns of Lima soon after his father dies. Those two seemingly unrelated events become entwined as the book moves along, as Chino goes “undercover” as a clown partly to help him process what happened to his father and how his dad lived his life. His father had started a new family with a new woman while remaining married to Chino’s mother, and Chino can’t quite come to grips with that even after a lifetime of trying (his father left when Chino was relatively young, and he’s known about the other family for years). He really can’t deal with the fact that his own mother is on good terms with the other woman, even moving in with her after her husband’s death.

It’s a strange situation, and Chino retreats into his clown persona as the book moves along and he finds real life too difficult to deal with.

The book is very meditative, as Chino examines his own relationship with his father, who moved from a small town to Lima to make his fortune and built a good life for himself. He worked as a carpenter, but we learn soon enough that he was also a thief, stealing from houses he’d worked on because he knew so much about the houses and the routines of the occupants. Chino joins him on a few jobs, and Alarcón gets into Chino’s conflicted feelings about this, as his mother worked as a housekeeper for one family and, eventually, they rob that house too, even though the people were kinder to Chino than his own father. Chino doesn’t really know how to feel about his father or his mother, and it keeps him distant from her after his father’s death. Only when he becomes a clown can he approach her, as he’s wearing a mask and isn’t as fearful.

The clown story is weird and fascinating. Apparently, street clowns are common in Lima, so they make a handy metaphor as Chino moves through the story. In this story, they function a bit like kings’ fools, able to criticize those in power because no one pays much attention to them.

At one point, a clown leads a protest march of shoeshine boys, which Alarcón tells us actually happened while he was researching the story. The clowns also function as scapegoats, as at another point, a clown is pelted with water balloons by children in a politically charged environment. The children might not be protesting the government, but even if they were, it’s dangerous to do so directly, and who cares about a clown? Chino, who has tried to hide himself for years due to his rough beginnings in a mining town and his father’s attempts to become one of the nouveau riche, takes to clowning quite easily, and he discovers the freedom of it, as he sees people he knows on buses but, of course, they don’t recognize him. When he finally talks to his mother, he’s able to both be more open with her and lie to her more easily, because it’s not him speaking, it’s the “clown.” The book is partially about forgiveness and what it takes to forgive, and Alarcón does a wonderful job putting Chino on that journey, even if he throws some nice twists along the way. The clowns also represent the hidden nature of people, as Chino’s father, naturally, had plenty of secrets, and Chino has never quite penetrated his father’s “disguise” much in the same way Chino remains hidden when he’s dressed as a clown. Chino will never figure out his father, which makes his own conversation with his mother, “taking off the make-up,” so to speak, so important to him.

And even that is fraught with secrets, which is kind of neat. Alarcón doesn’t let the book resolve cleanly, because it’s still about real people making real decisions, and things are rarely clean-cut.

Alvarado’s art helps create the dreamlike feel of the comic, as it’s beautiful, often mysterious, and nicely metaphorical. Parts of the comic almost look like an illustrated book, as there are big chunks of text, and Alvarado works around those wonderfully, eschewing traditional panel designs to create full-page scenes that swirl around the text blocks and slide easily into other drawings. She incorporates some bigger text chunks into the artwork, placing them on bricks on one page to help visualize the idea of Chino’s dad building houses or placing them on broadsheets to show Chino’s journalistic background. When Chino first gets on a bus, she puts a tent roof in the vehicle to turn it into a circus, and when Alarcón writes about the street gangs called “piranhas,” she places fish heads on top of human bodies, creating a bizarre effect. When she does use panels, she turns the panels into part of the landscape, as they become the walls of rooms or chambers in a mine. She often uses the entire page to build wonderful tableaux of the city, giving us a sense of Lima and Peru, and her use of perspective is tremendous, as she sets things in the deep background to minimize them, such as when Chino’s mother is cleaning and her shadow, thrown forward by the backlighting, is much larger than she is, as the tragic circumstances of her life threaten to engulf her.

She bends and twists the landscape to reflect Chino’s state of mind, too, which is neat. Her line work is amazing, as she creates entire cityscapes or groups of people by using short, straight lines, giving them a rough yet still dreamy feeling. Her more detailed line work is wonderful, too, as she does a great job showing the differences in class between the various people in the book. Her use of blacks and shadows is amazing, as she turns the shadows into living things, almost, creeping behind the characters and influencing their actions, while several pages use a black background on which Alvarado uses delicate white ink, making an eerie photo negative effect. It’s not exactly the kind of story you would expect would work as a comic, but Alvarado makes sure it does.

There’s a lot to like about City of Clowns – it doesn’t have a lot of action, of course, but it’s a clever way to examine the way we mourn, the way we try to figure out those close to us, and how we can move on with our lives. The art is lovely, and the themes are universal, but the setting and the use of the clowns makes it more interesting than if Alarcón had just tried to come at the topics head-on. It’s quite a good comic!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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