The beauty of reading a childhood memoir like that of Ecuador's Powerpaola and her Virus Tropical is that contains a number of familiar elements as well as some aspects that seem remarkably strange. When the author notes that even within her own countries (Ecuador and later her adopted Colombia), her upbringing was unusual, it makes for an even more fascinating read. The overall effect, if I can make a crude comparison, is somewhere between Julie Doucet in terms of style and bluntness and Lat in terms of bringing a place to life with both a sense of innocence & naivete as well as its rough edges. Told entirely from a modern, first-person point of view, Powerpaola tries to be as brutally honest about everything as possible regarding her family's highly disfunctional yet still somehow quite loving dynamics.
Two odd details surrounded Paola's birth. First, no doctor believed that her mother could be pregnant because she had had her tubes tied, and one doctor wrote it off as a "tropical virus" and another said it was simply "air". The unexplained detail in the book was that Paola's father was a priest. He no longer seemed to be practicing clergy (nor was he Eastern Catholic) and he was much older than her mother, so there was a major bit of drama there that was simply never touched on. Her father Uriel stopped being a priest to marry her mother. She then experienced life growing up with two much older siblings, which put the middle child (her sister Patty) in a position of being jealous and giving her sort of a distant relationship with her oldest sister, Claudia. Paola depicts herself as having a sense that something odd was going on but never quite understanding what it might be, and no one was interested in cluing her in.
The book follows her father leaving to live with his demanding mother in Colombia, then her older sister leaving to also go to Colombia after conflicts with her mother. Paola's whole world revolved around her family, especially her sister Patty, who changed course as a teen and saw herself as Paola's real caretaker. Even working with a mostly six-panel grid, Paola was adept at portraying the claustrophobic nature of their living situation, and not just because of a lack of room. There was a surfeit of strong-willed personalities, none of whom were interested in yielding to each other. When you throw in the maid, that added another dimension of conflict, as she was practically a family member considering how young she was when she came there, yet was explicitly reminded that she wasn't a family member. Because of my own South American heritage, I was aware that maids were not a status symbol the way they are in the US, and that most families had them. That said, it still created a strange dynamic to have this person who was sort of a sister but also someone you could boss around, and Paola does not ignore this fact.
Like most coming of age stories, Virus Tropical is about the struggle to go from someone who is unwelcome and unwanted to someone who has found their tribe. Paola at first resents the fact that she doesn't fit in because she's poor and doesn't have the right pair of sneakers, but when she too moves up to Colombia, she also resents being mocked for having a different accent and vernacular than the students at her middle school. She also happened to arrive in Cali right smack-dab in the middle of a drug war that often saw shoot-outs break out in the middle of the street, making her resentful of drug culture and the liars and show-offs she saw that seemed to represent it. She looked to her sister on advice for everything, including and especially boys but also fashion and career advice. Their mother wound up having a minimal influence on all three of them, and it speaks to her frequent absences (she lived between Colombia and Ecuador) affected her connection with her children. Indeed, Paola's memories of her father are even less distinct. Once again, it was a demonstration of how the bonds of family are far more fragile than one might think, especially when one is a very young child.
It's not a surprise that Paola found her people when she started hanging out with a group of artists. the immediate sense of energy and warmth she felt from simply staying up all night doing a mural with her new friends was clearly a life-changing event. It's interesting that without specific guidance, Paola still chose certain events to mark growing up, like having her first period (depicted in the title page of this section with a Julie Doucet-style drawing of her flooding the town with menstrual blood), or consciously deciding to put away all of her toys when she had her first date. Whether or not she was actually ready to grow up, she decided to try to at least act the part. Paola's use of the grotesque, much like Doucet, was another key aspect of the comic, like when a boy who made fun of her for having bad teeth is depicted as having an impossible number of tiny, misshapen teeth in his own mouth. Like Lat, Paola drew inspiration from both members of her family and her friends, until she found her own tribe. The drawings may be grotesque, but it's not just that they're frequently and deliberately ugly--they are also exaggerated for comic effect. Huge heads, nests of scribbles for hair, bulging eyes and long faces are all part of the artist's arsenal that's used as much to make the reader laugh as it is to simply express herself in an honest and direct manner.