There is an evil lurking in the border community that encompasses El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Over 1,000 murders have already been reported this year alone, and many young women have gone missing or have been found dead.
That’s not fiction. It is interesting to me as I learn more about El Paso and the comics scene here to note that there are comic creators in the region who are actually exploring this reality in their work. Take, for instance, Jaime “Jimmy” Portillo’s recent graphic novel Gabriel. A mature title that won a Xeric Foundation grant, Gabriel suggests that the motive behind many of the killings may not be greed or drugs as the news media is reporting, but hunger.
Portillo’s eponymous character is introduced to readers as a decent enough fellow who has a penchant for hanging out at goth bars and taking in the scenery, which is often exotic, dark, and beautiful. But he doesn’t appear to be the go-getter type. He comes off as a “safe” fellow, the eternal friend, until he hooks up with a very attractive young woman who turns out to be a vampire. As they copulate in her car, she turns him and informs him of his new powers, weaknesses, and desires. It takes little time for him to accept his new situation.
Indeed, along with an excessive wordiness that often manifests in the form of repetitive phrases, Gabriel’s quick transition from “anyman” to mass murderer feels like a weakness of the text. Perhaps this is a sign of a young author, or perhaps Portillo is making a statement that given the proper positioning and power, mankind is not a particularly benevolent species. Even as he meets his end, Gabriel has no regrets for killing, maiming, and raping scores of young women. “Of course not, I’m a fucking vampire,” he states several times. It’s as if being a vampire is what we all really aspire to, deep down.
No, this Gabriel is not an angelic messenger from God. Or, if he is, the message is not a pleasant one. Indeed, even though the power-lusting blood sucker dies, the spirit he seems to have imparted over the region lives on as corrupt officials, thugs, and police officers copycat his tendencies and further cement a murderous legacy that is revealed to have super-natural roots from the beginnings of the region’s reputation as a lawless Western oasis for outlaws and renegades.
Crafted using Ka-Blam’s print-on-demand digital services and utilizing heavy photo-manipulation, the visual tone, layout, and feel of the graphic novel is impressive. The saturated and inky feel of the photos translates well into black-and-white and help to make Gabriel seem familiar yet distanced from his readers. At any moment we feel we are a part of his excitement, the thrill and eroticism of his hunt and kills but are just as likely to be his next victim.
And Portillo does do the vampire sub-genre justice. As noted, the sexual element associated with vampires since Stoker and before is very apparent, especially in a scene in which Gabriel meshes cunnilingus schemata with the vagina dentata mythos. Gabriel has the typical vampire strengths of flight, even teleportation, and the standard aversion to sunlight and heart-piercing stakes.
The scenes are violent, horrific, but not horrifying. The narrative is not a horror story; there is no instance where the reader “doesn’t see it coming,” not while he’s on the prowl, anyway. Rather, the horror resides in the psychological ethos of the book: the over-arching idea that none of us are any better than Gabriel. That we’d all react the same if we had the power and especially the privilege and secrecy that come with power and authority. Gabriel is turned not so much by a vampire, but by humanity’s urge to prey upon its weaker beings and gorge itself on abuses of authority.
The true genius of the book, the real violence of this quite graphic graphic novel, is that it temporary offers a fictional explanation of real-life horrors, then relinquishes the reader of that anxiety, but ultimately returns it by bringing the reader back down from the night skies and into the actual, or quite possible, realities that the reasons these atrocities are happening in our sister cities is because they are inhabited by those with flaws and ambitions all too human.
Isn't it always the way?: The pretty ones always have the most bite. Gabriel learns this, to be sure. You can read his story by visiting http://www.myspace.com/gabrielgraphicnovel and ordering a copy.