3 out of 5
Who knows what Steve Lafler is thinking? One answer: not me. Another answer: anyone reading his books, since it’s all somewhat plaintively left on the page, or in the backmatter on occasion. Steve moved to Oaxaca; Steve occasionally played guitar there. One of the characters in Death Plays a Mean Harmonica follows vaguely that same path, those his wife is also a superhero, and there are also vampires, and, yes, Death, playing harmonica, so we’ll suppose some liberties with reality were taken to prevent this from being an autobiography.
Reading this, knowing there wouldn’t be a traditional “plot,” and likely no resolution of whatever concepts are threaded throughout, I still enjoyed it. Steve gets a pass on this stuff, even though I’d likely criticize it in others. While I’m tempted to say that’s because of my fondness for Dog Boy, even that book displayed this storytelling style, as did the Bug House books, as did El Vocho… So it’s not just bias for a particular book that makes me okay with this, it’s how Steve presents it. Which is that this stuff just happens. Get told your wife is a super hero, yeah yeah. Death shows up in your dreams and wants to jam, yeah yeah. But at the same time, characters act in response to these actions, so it’s not exactly played down for comedic effect, but the randomness of it all is certainly humorous. Meanwhile, you can’t accuse the book of being nonsense, because the majority of it is fairly grounded, lightly travelogue stuff. And I’m not one to be wooed by foody crap, but I haven’t read a book before (or comic) that’s made me so dang hungry to want to try some of the delicacies it describes.
It’s hard to recommend Lafler to people because it’s not clearly a “if you like this you’ll like that” matter. Rather, it’s whether or not you’re open to reading it. Steve’s writing is a particular experience; his half-Picasso, half-underground comix stylings are likely an acquired taste but are not hard on the eyes, and after you sink into his particular ebb and flow, the flatness of it becomes very appealing. Death Plays, specifically, is very much steeped in Oaxaca culture first, then dusted with weirdness second. It’s not a vacation – Steve moved there for a decade or so – so it’s not blind to the daily grind of life, but Lafler is more of a reactionary artist than a moralizing one, writing in response to the things in his brain instead of theorizing off of them.
Does that mean I can tell you what he’s thinking? I already answered that.
For the curious: this GN “completes” what was started in the Death in Oaxaca comics. The printing in the comics feels a little cleaner, but this is the independently published version of the GN; according to the inner blurbs, there’s another edition to come.