The Big Picture, a
regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth
look at selected new titles and trends. See the
archive for selections from previous months.
the Center of the Earth
by Cathy Camper; illustrated by Raúl the Third
a treat when incredible illustrations, buoyant text, and
well-researched cultural references all come together in one book, and
Cathy Camper and illustrator Raúl the Third have done it twice now,
first with with Lowriders in Space (BCCB 1/15) and now with Lowriders
to the Center of the Earth. This second outing sparkles with the same
mix of zippy bilingual dialogue, cool car references, and visual
surprises that made the first graphic novel so impressive. Antelope
Lupe is the mechanic, Flappy, the octopus, cleans everything, and
Elirio paints with his mosquito bill, and in the last outing they
finally (after a brief jaunt into space) achieved their dream of a
garage of their own to work on those sweet, sweet lowriders. Now
they’re reaping the benefits of their new garage, at least until their
missing cat sends them off on a remarkable adventure to the center of
the earth. There they encounter the legendary Mictlantecuhtli, the
Aztec god of the underworld, who says they can have their cat back—if
they make it through the Wind of Knives, which strips people to their
bones so they can stay in the realm of the dead as skeletons. It’s a
challenge that pushes Lupe, Flappy, and Elirio to their limits, but, of
course, they ultimately emerge triumphant.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the artwork has in this
book—it elevates everything while also remaining accessible. The
artist’s low-tech approach to drawing (three colors of pens applied to
a creamy, off-white background) reminds readers that it isn’t necessary
to have expensive art software to produce brilliance. The spirited
linework is detailed but never crowded, with intricate backgrounds
contrasting with the high-action, speech-balloon-rich foregrounds.
Panels change size according to the drama needed, occasionally giving
way to full-page spreads that invite readers to stay a while and soak
in the rich details, many of which don’t even pop up in the dialogue.
The result is undeniably edgy and hip but also warm and welcoming,
matching both the high-energy adventure and cozy “we make our own
families” message of the text.
The book offers both footnote translations and an extensive glossary in
the back of the generous Spanish. It’s clear throughout that bilingual
is the name of the game here and that these are characters who live
their lives straddling Spanish and English, and many readers will be
able to relate to the imperfect, complex, and entirely authentic
blending of two cultures, languages, and identities. The inclusion of
Coyote, La Llorona, and Mictlantecuhtli, easily identifiable characters
to readers familiar with Latino culture, will likely spark some
research on the part of readers who don’t know these references; what
they’ll find will add depth to the story, but Camper effectively
introduces enough context so that they stand alone.
As in the last book, the real point is the fun of traveling with Lupe
and her gang; there may be characters with more worldly goods, but it’s
the ones with community who succeed in the end. It’s a nice takeaway,
as is the secondary message about cleverness and determination trumping
might and brute strength. Indeed, these are solidly uplifting graphic
novels that still offer plenty of comedy, adventure, information, and
magnificent art. One can only hope another outing comes along soon.
(See p. 568 for publication information.)