Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Castaways’

“This island is big enough”

This graphic novel, which is published by Dark Horse, is a collaboration between Laura Pérez and Pablo Monforte. It’s been translated by Silvia Perea Labayen and lettered by Joamette Gil. It appears Pérez does the art, but Monforte does art, too, so maybe it’s truly collaborative. I’ll have to figure out how to write about the writing and art so as not to offend!

The book takes place in Madrid in 1981 and Barcelona in 1991, and it concerns Alejandra and Julio, two young people who go to the same university in Madrid and who both end up in Barcelona a decade later. It’s a romance, in a way, but what makes it so interesting is that the creators don’t follow the path you might expect, and they do a wonderful job showing how difficult it is to actually find romance in this world, while also showing that it’s not the worst thing in the world to not find it. It’s a mature romance, in other words, one that acknowledges both the passion two people can feel for each other and the fact that they don’t always give into that passion. I like romances, and I always appreciate one that actually shows how romance works in the “real” world, so I like this one!

The book flips between the two places and times, and early on, we follow Alejandra in Madrid and Julio in Barcelona, which is a smart move. It allows us to get to know both characters before they slowly come together, so when that does happen, it feels a bit more organic. In Madrid, Alejandra is a young student in the big city, a bit scared about being away from the small town where she grew up, but ready for the challenge. In Barcelona, Julio works at a dull but steady job, with his steady but somewhat dull girlfriend (of course, Julio is a bit dull himself, so they’re perfect for each other). Already, we think we can see what’s going to happen – Alejandra will meet a younger Julio and come more out of her shell, while an older Julio will reconnect with Alejandra and discover his lost vigor once again. That does happen, to a certain degree, but again, the creators don’t let us get too comfortable. In 1981, Alejandra wants to write, so she begins to look into a magazine published by some students, and she eventually meets Julio, whose stories in the magazine she greatly admires. They become close, but Julio isn’t telling Alejandra something (nothing too serious, just something that would keep them from being together), so things don’t work out. In 1991, Alejandra is in Barcelona to be with her mother, who has an unspecified illness and lives in a nursing home, and Julio happens to spot her on day and they begin talking again. You might think that sounds boring, but it’s not, because the creators do a very good job examining the nature of romance and what it means in the context of a larger life. In 1981, both Alejandra and Julio are more passionate, and they find common ground through literature and their own passion for writing. When Julio “betrays” Alejandra in 1981, she is a bit lost, but she manages to move on. In 1991, she has forgiven Julio, but she no longer feels love for him, partly due to his actions a decade earlier. Now it’s Julio who is a bit needy, and so we get two different perspectives on a romance, and how it can mean different things to different people at different times. The creators understand that passion and love aren’t necessarily the same thing, and that love doesn’t necessarily supersede everything else in the world. There’s a vague sense of sadness about the book because Alejandra and Julio have missed some chances, but there’s also a good feeling of hopefulness, because their missed chances don’t end their worlds. It makes the book feel more real, and the moments of romance that Alejandra and Julio do have a bit more special.

The art is nice if unspectacular. The artists cleverly use earth tones for landlocked Madrid and blues for coastal Barcelona, which also reflects the heating up of the relationship between Julio and Alejandra in 1981 and the cooling of their ardor in 1991. Both Alejandra and Julio change in the decade of the book, which is nicely reflected in the art. Both have longer hair in 1981, but by 1991, Alejandra’s is cut short and Julio’s is not as shaggy. We get interesting fashion choices, too, which shows how the characters want to express themselves to the world. We get good work with body language, too, as so much these characters want to say to each other goes unspoken. There’s a beautiful panel sequence near the end when one character puts their hand on another character’s arm, and it’s a beautiful, sad, and romantic gesture. Alejandra and Julio having sex is depicted wonderfully, too – there’s a tender awkwardness to their coupling, and it makes their subsequent separation that much sadder. As I noted, there’s nothing stunning about the art, but it does a very good job expressing all the emotions the characters are feeling as they move through the book.

Castaways is a quiet love story, not full of grand pronouncements and dramatic gestures, but full of real feeling and real life having its say in the romance of two people. It’s very well done, and I’d like it if more creators tried to do love stories like it. It’s quite refreshing!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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