Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Death Plays a Mean Harmonica’

“And Leonardo and his accordione and calamari and macaroni”

Steve Lafler creates some weird comics, and Death Plays a Mean Harmonica, from Cat-Head Comics (which is his own publishing concern), certainly is one of them. Let’s take a look!

Death Plays a Mean Harmonica is vaguely autobiographical, according to Lafler – like Rex and Gertie in the book, Lafler and his family moved to Oaxaca in 2007, where Lafler played some guitar and had a grand time. I doubt he met a kindly vampire, like Rex does, but maybe he did. I don’t know what goes on down in Oaxaca!

This is an interesting comic, because despite the presence of a vampire and a secret council and a luchadora/superhero, not much happens in the book. I mean, in terms of a big plot where all sorts of drama occurs. Basically, this is just a comic about Rex and Gertie deciding to relocate to Oaxaca because they spent time there years before and really liked the vibe, and as they can both work anywhere (Rex, like Lafler, is a cartoonist, while Gertie is a writer), why not a neat place like Oaxaca? They hang out with a couple of American expatriates, their landlord is an elderly vampire who hasn’t drunk human blood in a century (he survives on animal blood), and Gertie decides to dress up in an outlandish costume and fight crime. Rex dreams of Death, who joins him to play harmonica but isn’t exactly threatening in any way. Later on in the book, a dude shows up who seems to have a contentious relationship with the vampire, but it’s not really, as they are easily able to resolve whatever differences they have. And that’s about it.

While the plot, such as it is, isn’t much, that’s not the point of the book. Lafler is writing a love letter to Oaxaca and all its charms, and it works quite well. Lafler shows us all the interesting places in the city, and as you know, there are many places in cities that are similar to each other but get their own unique quirks based on the city, and we see that here. You can find farmers’ markets in a lot of places, but Lafler does a nice job showing how interesting Oaxaca’s is. There are street performers across the world, but Oaxaca’s are their own, and Rex fits in with some of them nicely. A lot of the streets are cobblestoned, which adds an odd touch of medievalism to the city. When Rex or Gertie heads into the countryside, Lafler gives us beautiful vistas that might isolate the characters a bit but also fit them into a wilder, natural world, one that’s relatively comforting. When Death does show up, he’s wearing a casual fedora like you can see on the cover. And Lafler makes sure to draw a lot of background characters, so Oaxaca always feels like a bustling place, even if the principal characters simply want to hang out, drink a little, and enjoy life. His art, which does a lot of the work, is rich in detail and nuance. His figures are a bit stiff, but that’s fine, as they’re not doing a lot of action, and occasionally his perspective is a bit wonky, but generally, the art is very nice. Lafler gives us unusual and unique characters who look like actual people – they’re not incredibly beautiful, they’re not incredibly buff, but Lafler gives them a quiet attractiveness, as they’re people who are comfortable with themselves and their looks, which makes them shine a bit more. He creates a look for the city – with its narrow streets, beautiful natural setting, food, entertainment – that draws us in, and even when he gets a bit weird (the vampire stuff, which ties in with reincarnation), his art keeps things grounded. It’s a bit of an odd book, but it still works pretty well.

Death Plays a Mean Harmonica isn’t a great book, but it’s pretty fascinating. Lafler makes Oaxaca a wondrous place, the kind of place we’d all like to live in, and that’s not a bad trick. It’s a neat comic.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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