Muchacho v1 by Lepage cover detail - Gabriel and Jesus

Muchacho v1: Welcome to the Nicaraguan Revolution

Writer and Artist: Lepage
Lettering: Calix Ltd.
Translator: Montana Kane
Published by: Dupuis/EuropeComics
Number of Pages: 74
Original Publication: 2004

A teenager soon to enter the priesthood moves to a remote village to learn more about his art. But this is Nicaragua 1976, so there are troubles with the dictatorial government’s armed forces, of course…

A Brief History Lesson

Most people of my generation will remember the whole Iran/Contra scandal.  At this point, though, how many of us can explain what that was all about?  Sure, maybe you remember the government selling arms to Iran and funneling that money to the Contras.  But where were they?  Who were they opposing?  Why was America picking sides?

The National Guard under Somoza pulling over a bus for inspection

For that, you have to go back a little earlier.  By the mid-1970s, Anastasio Somoza ruled Nicaragua with an iron first.  He controlled The National Guard, the “Gaurdia, ” which he used it to keep the people in line with violence.  A group of rebels formed to oppose his regime.  Those were the Sandinistas.  Technically, they were the Sandinista National Liberation Front.  Over a long enough period of time, they successfully overthrew the government in 1979.  That right there is your Nicaraguan Revolution.

“Muchacho” is set in the Nicaragua of 1976, deep into the Somoza regime but only a couple years away from its end.

Knowing this bit of setting will help you understand the book. That said, I went into the book before I refreshed my memory with Wikipedia, and I figured the story out just fine as I went along.  I’m giving you this much background to smooth out some of the possible mental bumps.

(The Sandinistas were backed by Russia and other left wing governments.  After the Sandinistas won, the right wing American government of the day backed their opposition, the Contras, and a little mini-Cold War-fueled thing broke out in Central America.  But that’s all after the events of this story…)

 

Gabriel, Half Priest/Half Artist

Gabriel is introduced to Ruben

The story stars Gabriel, a teenaged priest-in-training, whose wealthy family sends him to a small village to learn more about art from a priest there named Ruben.  Seems straight-forward enough, right?

Almost. Coming from a rich family, many in the village are immediately hostile to him. They assume that, politically, he aligns himself with the Somoza regime.  Gabriel is young and uncomfortable being away from home as it is.  Having enemies from the start might be a bit much for him.  Add to that the pressures of puberty which begin to exert themselves in some unexpected ways, and you have a pressure cooker in a bad situation.

The book is an artistic pep talk.  Ruben forces Gabriel to stop relying on formal art training and start learning from life. He challenges Gabriel to go into town and draw real people doing real things.  That’s difficult for Gabriel, who’s naturally shy and doesn’t want to get caught.   I bet a lot of artists reading the book would recognize themselves in Gabriel, as he quickly turns away when someone sees him looking at them.

Ruben is playing politics from the pulpit, isn't he?

But there’s more going on.  Ruben is more politically active than some are comfortable with.  He agitates subtly against the Somoza regime.  Gabriel catches him running guns through the church to the rebel Sandinistas, and is forced to make some decisions.

That’s when the Gaurdia show up, with their usual brutal tactics. Things get ugly and Gabriel is young, scared, and imperfect.

The book ends at a good point in the overall arc of the series.  It feels like a complete story, even as open-ended as it is. It might feel like something of a tragedy if it ended here, but even that makes for an interesting read.  I can’t argue with that.  But the second volume brings it all together.  I’ll cover that another day…

 

Lepage: Half Writer/Half Artist

The single-named creator both wrote and drew this book.  I can’t imagine the level of research that went into making this book.  I bet there’s 10x more material Lepage held back than put on these pages.  That’s the curse of the writer: You wind up doing a lot of researching, learning amazing things, and then using that to inform your book without spelling it out.  Everything feels right to me, though it’s not like I’m an expert on the region, let alone the international politics of this time frame.

Lepage’s artwork is perfect for this book. Everything is fully painted, and beautifully puts across the dirty earth tones that come naturally to the town at the foot of a mountain.  You can taste the dirt in your mouth when a car leaves town along the dirty roads.  You can smell the food in the stands at the edge of the streets, and feel the heat of the sun beating down on the shirtless men.

His plot is twist enough to maintain your interest without being so confusing that you want to give up. When all is said and done, you can look back at the story again and see all the hints being dropped that you missed the first time around.  The village is filled with interesting characters, and they all interrelate in interesting ways.

Lepage uses color contrast for moonlit versus candle lit scenarios

Lepage uses his colors well.  Gabriel finds a perch in a circular window of the church, from which he watches the town at night to see what people are doing.  During one gun drop, he’s up there, and Lepage separates the two characters in color very well.  Gabriel is bathed in the blue moonlight of the night from outside.  The candle lights the gun runner inside the church, with all the warm yellows you’d picture from the flame of a candle.

He’s just a great painter.  Lepage isn’t a comic book artist who can make a sketch look cool with some watercolors thrown on top. He’s a skilled painter who knows how to use color and light on the page to tell his story.  You can see that light on every page, informing every highlight and shadow as the scenes play out.

 

Recommended?

Muchacho v1 by Lepage cover - Gabriel and Jesus

If you’re looking for a little historical drama with high stakes deep in the heart of Central America, this book is for you.   Gabriel is an interesting and sympathetic character to follow, filled with shades of gray, but a good heart, overall.  Lepage paces the story well, with new things always happening to keep your attention.  His artwork is beautiful to behold.  I can’t imagine how long it took him to write, draw, AND paint this book, which is longer than your typical album by a good 20 pages.  It pays off, though.

If you want something more light hearted or deep in fantasy land, this is definitely not your book.  There is no sudden twist of horror or sci fi in this story. It’s straight up drama for this volume. The second book goes a bit more into action/thriller territory, but the story holds up well.  I’ll have more on that later, I hope.

— 2018.016 —

 

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