Daniel Alarcón did not grow up a fan of comic books — which makes it all the more startling that City of Clowns, his debut graphic novel, is such a complex, assured, and rewarding work. First published in Peru in 2010 and finally seeing print in the U.S., City of Clowns is the story of a young journalist in Lima who must deal with the death of his estranged father while undertaking his most challenging — and life-changing — assignment: investigating the strange, at times magical subculture of Limeño street clowns.
City of Clowns started out as a story in Alarcón's award-winning book War by Candlelight. Translated into comic form by Alarcón and Peruvian artist Sheila Alvarado, the tale takes on a breathtaking new dimension. Its main character, a young journalist named Oscar "Chico" Uribe, writes a detached, impersonal obituary of his deceased father Don Hugo, a philanderer and petty thief who deserted the family when Chico was fourteen; it dovetails with Chico's latest assignment, for which he must dress as one of the legion of street clowns who seek to eke out a meager living in the impoverished, open-air markets of Lima. The two assignments don't seem related at first — that is, until Chico's memories of his father unspool to reveal an incident that drives home not only Don Hugo's brutality, but Chico's inability to escape being his father's son.
It's a dynamic story, from the broad backdrop of political unrest to numerous heartrending moments, including a particularly powerful scene in which Chico, alone and overwhelmed, tries to find solace in the arms of a prostitute on Valentine's Day. Gradually, his dreamlike reverie of memory and loss begins to blur the bounds of his psyche; he forgets to take off his clown makeup and costume, not caring enough to remove them. The theme of masks crops up throughout City of Clowns, but it's handled with welcome subtlety. Even when Chico gets drunk with a clown named Toño in an attempt to ease himself into his world, their layers of identity and disguise are left beautifully vague. At first, Chico contemptuously describes the clowns as "shabby" and "absurd;" after experiencing the ways their neighbors casually abuse them or treat them as invisible, he starts to think of them — with no small amount of empathy — as "ghosts in the multitude."
That haunted atmosphere permeates every page. Alvarado renders Alarcón's source material in stark black and white, a scratchy yet refined style that's full of deep shadows and woodcut-like crosshatching. But it's her composition that truly brings City of Clowns to life. Rather than relying on a typical comic-book grid, Alvarado employs an inventive architecture of panels; some float in fields of negative space, while others are framed as bricks in a wall or sheets drying on a line. At certain points, she abandons panels altogether in favor of a more flowing, expressionist layout. Even her most daring experiments in form, though, succeed in thoughtfully conveying the pensive tone and subtext of Alarcón's meditation on guilt, regret, and forgiveness — and sometimes the gut-punching lack thereof.
While Alvarado is a simpatico collaborator, Alarcón's lack of familiarity with the graphic-novel format has its drawbacks. His surreal procession of anecdotes, flashbacks, and poetic vignettes feel jumbled and disjointed at times, and in his effort to preserve much of his admittedly piercing prose from his short story, he too often allows the artwork to be overpowered by disembodied narration and exposition.
Chico's perspective dominates, but with all that time spent seeing through his eyes, it's hard to get a clear image of him; that sense of detachment certainly adds to the gripping unease City of Clowns, but it also partially muddles an otherwise vivid story. It's not enough, however, to seriously obscure Alarcón and Alvarado's vision: A portrait of a man, a family, a city, and a way of life, none of which can escape the pitfalls of perception or the past.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.