City of Clowns Review

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Is it more racist or less racist to heap praise on an otherwise undeserving work when the author is non-white?  Was Roots really that good or does white guilt kick in at some point?  Are the Madea movies only sort of bad or are they truly awful and we, as whites, go “I guess that movie’s just not for me” and ignore it (like we do with mariachi or soca)?

I bring it up because of my most recent library run.

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This new release is about a teenager who fights for survival and finds love along the way.

We’ve been taking family walks to the library a couple days a week (living next to things has its perks; for instance, I can steal wifi and mail).  While Lemon gets early-reading books and The Wife gets the latest made-for-teenagers-post-apocalyptic-teenagers-as-protagonist-adults-as-antagonist series, I’ve been looking through some comics that I’ve missed since I stopped reading (around 1996).  As we were walking out, I found City of Clowns on the new release shelf.

I saw the rave reviews: “Flecked with… lines that will knock the wind out of you” – The Washington Post; “Wise and engaging… a gorgeously nuanced work” – New York Times; “Creates a multi-layered world and invited you to enter” – L.A. Times.  I looked at the back and found an interesting teaser synopsis: A guy’s dad dies.  It turns out that the dad had two families and the moms knew about each other.

Doesn’t that sound great?! Can you imagine the myriad of storylines that can come from that?!  You’d, of course, talk about betrayal and understanding and forgiveness and the idea of “what is family,” but you could take those and put them in a thousand different situations.  You could do the typical comic book “dad was a spy / hitman / superhero” thing; you could do the smutty “the two moms were lovers first” thing; you could do a slice-of-life “learning to love the parents not despite their indiscretions, but because of them” thing.  I’d be more interested in the more artsy stuff like a meta-fictional take where the initial conflict of the story – finding out dad had another family – ends up being the climax and we see how the at-first unlikable antagonist (dad) ends up being a very empathetic protagonist; or maybe some metaphysical thing where the new family is actually spiritual copy of the old family and only by coming together can any of the characters be whole; or maybe you could turn it into a comedy where the running gag is having two of everything; you could even do some sort of political thing where the government is just another father-figure and it’s negotiating between two other countries for use of their resources and the crux of the story lies in a coup just as the son confronts the mothers about them turning a blind-eye to reality and all the hurt they’ve caused…

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You could even turn it into a commentary on comic strips like the hilarious example above.  Except instead of dropping a towel, Cathy drops her ability to trust men.

But that’s not what happens.  This is the plot: a guy in Lima was poor.  Now he’s not so poor.  He’s a journalist now and his boss is making him do a story on street clowns.  Eventually he dresses up like a clown and learns does what they do for a day.  He learns that clowns feel bad so that other people feel good.  He learns that clowns can hide in plain sight.  He learns that clowns are able to lead a double-life.  He learns that clowns are people too.  Oh, and, by the way, his dad just died and he had another family.

Now I might be wrong, but isn’t “tears of a clown” the cliché of clichés?  Isn’t that the trope that dumb people bring up when they’re trying to think of examples of overused tropes?

Also, see if the overwhelmingly positive reviews match the art you see:

1

“Alvarado’s most daring experiments in form succeed in thoughtfully conveying the pensive tone and subtext of Alarcón’s meditation on guilt, regret, and forgiveness” – NPR

2

“Alvarado lends visual brilliance to Alarcon’s affecting tale.” – Entertainment Weekly

3

“Frequently stunning in their clarity and economy, the illustrations give this already complex story an added layer of richness and depth” – Booklist

Am I too dumb to understand this?  Is it so artsy that I can’t connect the dots?  Is it like Citizen Kane (or Moby Dick or Debbie Does Dallas) where I simply don’t know enough about the genre to form the correct opinion?

Or is it because, as the afterward says, this book is the first graphic novel in Peru and – as a white guy – I must love it or be racist?

If you’re telling me it’s one or the other, I’ll pick “love it.”  But let me know either way.

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