Minis Monday: Nicaragua

Posted by on November 15th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

 


All excerpts from Nicaragua ©2009 Marek Bennett.

 

Nicaragua
Marek Bennett
Black and white; 204 pp.
ISBN: 9780982415313
marekbennett.com

I like my travelogues like I like my sedentary narratives: with a sense of purpose. Less compelling for me are the accounts of journeys seeking to court the unfamiliar (as if that isn’t always with us) or to educate oneself (as if that could be avoided anywhere). In my comics I like accounts that regard a change of locales as more than the opportunity to draw new things. Give me, for instance, Peter Kuper in Oaxaca or Joe Sacco anywhere.

Or Marek Bennett in Nicaragua. Bennett was my kinda traveler during a comics exchange program between his hometown of Henniker, N.H., and San Ramon, Nicaragua, a village in the coffee-growing region along the country’s northern mountains.

For the program, stateside students made minicomics of their lives which were later translated into Spanish. Children from San Ramon visited The Granite State, with dancing and more comics making, and a town meeting was held to publicly read the comics.

Nicaragua follows a return delegation of three friends, including Bennett. Loaded down with the translated New Hampshire minis and drawing materials, the trio conducted cartooning workshops in San Ramon and area schools. It was Bennett’s third trip to the country, so this is no wide-eyed innocent abroad we see here, but rather a more seasoned guest advancing his education and passing it along. This sizable book was composed on the fly, en route and in the countryside, and rounded into form following the 10-day trip. No doubt this accounts for the immediacy (if not the vehicle-jolting authenticated spontaneity) of much of the material and the vitality of all of it.

Bennett is the creator of the strip Mimi’s Doughnuts and its collected Breakfast at Mimi’s as well as a volume of his 24-hour comics, Hour 72!. He has several visual styles at his command (see 72!) but the one that is most serviceable here is that of the Mimi material which can readily stretch to frame the plausible fictive lives of an emotive cartoon cast and their environs along with the occasional talking squirrel. Art in Nicaragua, as reflects the nature and pace of its creation, is looser, more open, less polished. It is rougher but more expressive, hurried but never in haste. Bennett, given sufficient time and leeway, can unveil fuller portraits and transporting visions, but these latter shouldn’t be confused with “studies,” more like sights, such as the kitchen without walls, the country stove, the shanty of a Catholic church, the group portrait of eager students waiting in their classroom, a girl slipping through coils of barbed wire…

 

 

Nicaragua is not intended as a primer for the country or the region. The two pages of the nation’s history is hopelessly truncated (if you absolutely must have your social studies in cartoon form, Rius brought an account of land and culture up through 1984 in Nicaragua For Beginners). But that was never Bennett’s point. Instead he posits that “big ideas and names” would be “the exact opposite of what I want here. Let me get back to real human experience.” So in place of export production, social movements and chronology, we hear two friends speak early on of the “very bad” political climate and, late, of truck-driving Alvaro having to work “very hard” due to economic conditions.

We get the idea. During a workshop, a student has to take a break in order to run outside and sell his basket of tamales as he’d promised his mom. At another workshop, another student, the one with a parrot on his shoulder, is later seen herding 20 cattle past his temporary mentors. Schooling is done on a catch-as-catch-can basis. We do get the idea, even if we don’t know exactly what we are supposed to make of sacks of maize and yellow peas given for school lunches by Canada while a trash can is “donated by U.S.A.I.D. and Peace Corp.”

The book reaches its emotional and thematic heights with the actual workshops. Bennett is at his most animated, antsy and assured and his drawing reflects as much. His faith in comics and cartooning is abiding and infectious: when he, separated from fellows and about to meet his first group of students without sufficient time to unpack, prepare and brace, he panics, only to find support in a makeshift mantra: “Marek! Marek! Trust in the power of comics!” It’s a nifty, emblematic moment of humor and equipoise. Oh, he’s a proselytizer all right, an apostle, and over the course of the trip you’ll find his is a belief honestly come by. You’d wish it for all fellow travelers.

 

 

For Bennett and the book, it’s comics über alles first, last and always. They frame and give purpose to bus troubles in two countries, rains in the non-rainy season, far-off politics and up-close economies, great food and suspicious beverages, bugs, strays, barred windows, privileged vacation resorts and a world at once both touchingly exotic and strangely familiar. Bennett is agog with the campaign and its fruits; hearts and stars burst from him. Regarding the Nicaraguan comics he collects, his eyes pop out of his head (right through his eyeglasses; again, funny yet apt, poised), finding “Each page is a tiny little window into a vast untapped artistic vision.” (Some of the more than 120 windows are promised at Hennikersanramon.Blogspot.com and in forthcoming organization publications).

Bennett’s besotted but not blinded. Elated and hiking away from a successful workshop, he exalts in the beauty of the countryside, to which his young guide replies “Oh… Not for me. I see it everyday. It is a very long path.” That’s not the point either, but it is something worth taking away as a souvenir.

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.