Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Cocaine Coast’

“If you wanna hang out, you gotta take her out”

Luís Bustos has adapted Nacho Carretero’s book about drug trafficking in Spain, and the result is Cocaine Coast from Ablaze. Bustos does everything but the lettering, which is handled by Taylor Esposito. Let’s have a look!

Bustos points out that the northwestern coast of Spain – Galicia – is a perfect place for smugglers, as it’s right on the edge of Europe so access to shipping is easy, it’s mountainous and cut off from most of the rest of Spain by not only those mountains but by Portugal directly to the south, and “Spain” as a concept is not necessarily as homogeneous as some people think, and the Galicians – like the Basques not too far to the east of them – don’t have a ton of loyalty to the central government. Of course, Spain suffered under a dictatorship for 40 years in the middle of the 20th century, and the Galicians figured out pretty quickly that Franco wasn’t going to make their lives better, so they had to look after themselves. From these beginnings came first tobacco smuggling, and then cocaine. Gangsters got rich, politicians got bribed, people got killed, and documentarians got interested. It’s not surprising!

There’s a lot of information in the book, and as a “documentary,” it works quite well. The problem with it is also its purpose – as a documentary, there’s not much of a story, and the vignettes Bustos includes are fine but don’t grab our attention too well because the characters aren’t really characters, just sketches of people who fulfill a function. Even when a group of mothers pressure the government into doing something, anything really, about the drug trade, they’re not real characters, just drivers of a reforming movement that puts only a small dent in the business. Documentaries tend to work because the people making them work to make the characters compelling, whether they’re good characters or not. Bustos simply gives us a litany of drug smugglers, corrupt politicians, overworked police officers, and the “civilians” caught in the middle, but no group is all that interesting on their own. It’s not bad reading learning about the drug trade, as it’s always fascinating seeing how the world works, and the context of Galicia itself is interesting, but at the same time, once you get past the numbers that Bustos throws at you about how much money is flowing through the region in exchange for how many drugs, it becomes a bit numbing. While there doesn’t necessarily have to be a through story in a documentary, it certainly helps, especially with a comic like this, where we know it’s not going to have a “happy” ending unless drugs are suddenly legal and no one told me. When we begin reading, we know that the drug trade is still going strong, so there has to be another reason to read this. The mothers’ group could be that, but they’re not in the book enough to have an impact. So the bones of the book are interesting, but there’s nothing beyond that to keep our interest.

It’s too bad, because Bustos’s art is pretty keen. He has a nice, angular line that gives the book a bit of a hard edge, making the world in which the drug smugglers move a bit harsher, but at the same time, he uses a thick brush to soften some of the faces and create a richly detailed landscape of mountains and deserts and poverty-stricken towns. He uses stippling and Zip-A-Tone effects, which adds a nice gritty layer to the artwork, giving it the feel of a 1970s movie. His use of shading is very well done, and the fact that the only color he uses is red is a striking choice, and it helps pop some of the panels and constantly remind us of the blood spilled throughout the book without being too obvious about it. The book is crowded, as Bustos needs to get a lot of information in it in limited space, but his layouts are inspired, as he manages to guide us nicely through a dense book without losing the thread and while making sure he keeps the many characters clear. As it’s a documentary, he uses maps and graphs to good effect, never overwhelming the reader or the page, but integrating them nicely into the flow of the narrative. It’s a really interesting book, visually.

Cocaine Coast is worth looking into if you’re curious about the drug trade, especially in Europe, and the futility of fighting it because no one really wants to. I’ve been for legalization of drugs for years, but Bustos isn’t concerned about that; he’s more concerned with the fact that there’s so much money that bribed politicians and police have no incentive whatsoever to stop the smuggling. This is a nice-looking comic, to be sure, and I wish it were more interesting. It’s not a bad comic, but the lack of a compelling narrative does hurt it. Such is life!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


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