Tuesday, December 22, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #22: John Carvajal

John Carvajal has done a lot of work illustrating genre stories as well as writing and drawing his own short stories.  His first long-form book, Sunshine State, is clearly a much more personal work, drawing on his own experience as the child of immigrants and trying to find his way as he doesn't feel entirely a part of either Latinx or Anglo culture. Set in Tampa, it follows a directionless young man named Milo as he tries to navigate post-high school life with his friends. It's a slice-of-life story that follows Milo from innocent house parties where he dulls his existential ache with pot and alcohol to him engaging in riskier and riskier behavior. The core of the book is that because Milo doesn't have a true sense of identity, he also has a corresponding lack of agency. There's nothing he really wants to do or be; it all seems pointless. 

There's a clever visual trick that Carvajal uses throughout the book. Whenever Milo smokes up, the smoke billows up around in the form of little skulls. Later, when he feels anxious (especially around his parents), the skull-smoke wafts up from his imagination. The skulls represent a number of things: when he's high, he's experiencing a "little death" of his consciousness, his awareness, and his grip on reality. While Milo didn't want to be aware or connected to his daily reality, that came at a cost, and directly tied back into that loop of anxiety. 

Much of the dialogue in the book is in Spanish, and that in itself is a pointed form of commentary, because it's Milo's family that only speaks to him in Spanish as Colombian natives. Carvajal seems to connect Milos feelings of alienation toward being Latinx to his father's constant, withering disapproval and disappointment. His father isn't a screamer or yeller, but he's blunt in clearly wanting a better life for his son and has low tolerance for his son's bullshit. Milo seems to connect the identity of being Latinx in America with being like his dad, and it's something he clearly doesn't want. But though he's white-passing (unlike his friend Aldo, who is dark-skinned), he doesn't feel like he's part of that mainstream culture either. 

It's no wonder that not only did he find himself drifting, but that he found his way to increasingly alienated subcultures. He kind of fell into selling pot, but Carvajal masterfully portrays that constant tension and feeling of paranoia that begins when you step outside the law. Even seemingly benign interactions have that moment of danger where it feels like it could all go wrong. His depictions of the kinds of things people do while high, while blackout drunk, and on psychedelics all resonate, as he accurately portrays the pleasures and risks of each.

Carvajal divided the book up into different seasons, allowing time to pass more quickly. He goes from not knowing what to do with his life in summer to starting to sell pot and getting caught by his father in fall. That was a brutal scene, as he lied through his teeth about why he had a pipe and pot, and his father calmly instructed him to flush away the drugs and smash the pipe, telling him that he didn't come to this country for this shit. His mother tearfully wailed that his uncle tied because of this. The drug business in Colombia was serious, and the sheer disappointment from Milo's father (encapsulated in a visceral sigh as he knew his son was lying) had those smoke skulls welling up again, as Milo simply couldn't confront his own actions in a meaningful way. 

In the winter, Milo has moved out and immediately not only experiences his apartment getting robbed, but is roped into going with his roommate and a mob and trying to track down their stuff door-to-door. It's an initiation into a new world he's also not comfortable with, but it's a symptom of how alienating himself from his family hasn't done anything to actually find himself. He has a hard-partying girlfriend and he's doubled-down on his dealing, starting to meet far more dangerous dealers further up the food chain. Worse, his identity has become that of a drug dealer, alienating his friends. Another set of dealers comes to his house, looking for money and drugs, and he tries to finger his neighbors. Then he gets blackout drunk and in an accident. Then the neighbors confront him about him trying to narc on them, and his life gets threatened. It's an all-too-predictable chain of events for someone like him at the bottom of the food chain. He loses his place to live and his girlfriend.

Milo is self-aware. He doesn't want to be doing all of this, but when Aldo asks him what he does want to do, all Milo can say is "I've never really had any desire to do or be anything." Milo was never given the template to fit into a pre-existing structure nor the personal agency to choose his own path, because he felt his own agency was worthless--in part because of things his father said to him. When Aldo reminds Milo that he can draw, and that there are possibilities there, that sets events into motion that not only give Milo a new future outside of his Tampa bubble, but also sets the stage for his father to tell him that he loves him and will always be there for him--and that he understands Milo has trouble expressing emotions. It's a tender and true moment, because Carvajal is careful never to portray Milo's dad as villainous or abusive--just as someone who didn't understand how to support his son emotionally. 

Carvajal's use of color adds much to the comic's emotional narrative. So much of what happens to Milo is left unsaid, and the watercolors emphasize his moods and those of the people around him. His figures are cartoony, which makes some of the trippier and more surreal images in the book easier to understand and hook back into the overall emotional narrative. Carvajal's use of Tampa itself as a background is a key element of the book as well. When you grow up in a tourist town, its bright trappings can seem rather drab if you're inured to them. Carvajal also clearly has his finger on the pulse of what it's like to be Latinx in a Florida city, as it's possible as an immigrant to never actually have to assimilate to white American culture, depending on where you're from and where you're living. That's certainly true of the Cuban community in Miami, but many Central and South American countries have huge communities in Florida. That's why for someone like Milo, who never had a strong sense of self, it was so easy for him to feel a kind of personal and cultural paralysis. He never found a place to belong until he actually listened to his friends who loved him best and drew encouragement. Even at that, the dramatic nature of his travails is deliberately undercut by his flat emotional affect, so that him going to art school is a good first step, it's only a first step. Carvajal doesn't overplay his hand in transforming the character, because he clearly had so far to go, and that was an interesting variation on this kind of story. 

No comments:

Post a Comment