Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘On the Way’

“It really doesn’t matter how hard I work to get it, I’ve still got to give some away”

Ablaze brings us On the Way by Paco Hernández and José Ángel Ares. It was originally published in Spanish, but I don’t see a translator listed!

Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain, is the site of the tomb of James, the cousin of Jesus, who supposedly preached the Gospel in Hispania and is the country’s patron saint. In medieval times, it was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites, along with Canterbury, Rome, and Jerusalem, and in the past few decades, it’s become popular once again in modern times after falling out of fashion during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It’s on the Camino de Santiago that Hernández and Ares set this book, which follows Emma and a group of pilgrims who make the trek. Through flashbacks, we learn that Emma is a comic book creator, and she’s living with a dude who doesn’t seem too bad … except he really doesn’t respect what she does. This leads her to ditch him and go to Spain to get her head right, because she’s unsure what to do with herself. She meets Abby in Roncesvalles (which, as you all should know, is where Charlemagne’s army was attacked by Basques, which became Saracens in “The Song of Roland”), and they begin walking to Compostela, which will take them about a month. Emma also meets several other people, the most notable of whom is Ramón, an older dude who tells her that she can’t trust Abby. As it turns out, he’s not entirely wrong, but does he have a hidden agenda with regard to Abby?!?!?

I shouldn’t write like that, because there’s not a ton of drama in this book – some, but not much. Everyone is on the journey for their own reasons, some of which we learn, some of which we don’t. Abby is there for a reason, as is Ramón. Not everyone who goes on the journey makes it – one character has tried before but always gets tendonitis, which takes him right out. As Abby points out, making it all the way isn’t even that important – it’s what it means to you and what it means to make it as far as you can. Everyone moves at their own pace, so we’re always focused on Emma, who loses people along the way and then catches up with them or has them catch up to her. I don’t really want to give much away (even though it’s not a heavy plot-driven story), because it’s fascinating seeing how the individual stories converge and diverge over the course of the book.

What makes the book wonderful (and it is wonderful) is how Hernández creates the characters and allows their stories to unfold. Emma is a neophyte, of course, so we’re seeing the pilgrimage through her eyes, and she begins to understand how big life and the world is and how that will help her move beyond her stifling relationship. She makes friends easily, and that’s good when it comes to Abby, who’s helpful along the way, but it also causes problems when the people she’s befriending aren’t Abby, who gets jealous. Abby, meanwhile, has secrets, and they come out in the course of the book, and we see why she’s jealous even though she really doesn’t have a reason to. Ramón is on the pilgrimage for a very specific reason, and eventually, he needs to overcome the thing that cripples him. Fraçois, the dude who always gets tendonitis, just wants to make a good omelet (trust me, it’s important!). Juan, another pilgrim, thinks Emma is awesome because she makes comics, and that helps her see value in what she does. Hernández does a wonderful job with these characters – they’re all interesting and unique, and the dialogue between them is terrific – goofy at times, serious at others, and very often with deeper meanings than we initially see. It’s really excellent writing.

The art is terrific, too. Ares lives in Santiago de Compostela, so he knows the landmarks and landscapes of northern Spain well, and there’s a wonderful sense of place in this book. The details of the buildings are excellent, and Ares immerses the pilgrims – and us – in the nature of the route, so that they and we learn to appreciate all the small things you find on the camino. His characters are wonderfully diverse, and Ares draws them in a slightly cartoonish style – dark eyes, big mouths – so that they’re very expressive, which is important in the book like this. He does a really good job showing the physical toll the route takes on the pilgrims – this is not an easy hike, and each person suffers in some way (which is, of course, a part of the point), but we also get a good sense of them overcoming the limitations of their bodies and souls to forge on (even if some don’t make it all the way, they all overcome something to get as far as they do). He does a nice job allowing the art to speak at certain points (and Hernández wisely lets it), and toward the end, when Emma has a conversation with … a certain person (I don’t want to spoil it!), Ares does an excellent job showing how much she’s changed on the pilgrimage. The art and story work very well together to tell this story, and that’s what you want from a comic!

On the Way is very good, and it shows us a part of life that, I imagine, many Americans have no idea about, because we go on pilgrimages to Disney World or Times Square. Hernández and Ares do a very good job showing why this is so important to people, and even if you’re not Catholic, you can easily appreciate the idea of people trying to find something inside themselves and perhaps needing something external to get them to that point. Do yourself a favor and check this comic out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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