Title: Viaje Mejor
Publication Date: 2008
Heroes: Jorge y Carmen
Villains: Blocking the aisle people, sleeping on your shoulder people, and wide-stance man.
Portland, Oregon has gained a reputation as one of the centers of American comics, both as a home for major publishers and talent (Dark Horse, Greg Rucka, Kurt Busiek, etc.) and the underground Shannon Wheeler, Craig Robinson, Top Shelf, etc.), and perhaps another sign of the wealth of comics coming out of Portland is Viaje Mejor, an experimental, Spanish language comic released by Tri-Met, who in the hype and furor of the the first decade of this century, attempted to set aside its traditional role as a transit agency and sally into comic creation. The result was a minimalist work that is hard to analyze from a critical perspective.
Like many experimental comics, such as Garth Ennis' sideways comments on life in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, "Viaje Mejor" focuses not on super heroes in colorful underwear, but the lives of two middle class people, or perhaps working class people who aspire to the ranks of the middle class. These are Jorge, a resident of the suburb of Beaverton, and his visiting sister, Carmen. There story is told in stark, realistic black and white panels. Tri-Met eschewed the use of color, instead letting the story speak for itself. Carmen greets Jorge at the airport, and is surprised that he does not have his automobile. Instead, Jorge tells Carmen that he will be riding with "un amigo", the MAX. I am not sure where Carmen is visiting from, whether she is Mexican, or Mexican-American. In either case, Jorge and Carmen negotiate the sometimes bewildering world of mass transit. The uncredited artist uses subtle but strong touches to present the almost surrealistic contrast between the familial, humble Carmen and Jorge and the stark, modernistic lines of the MAX's electrical lines. Although it is not brought up overtly, we feel their tension at trying to understand the bewildering modern world.
While the comic refuses to indulge in the beat-em-up pyrotechnics of the four color world, it does have some tension, as crime is presented. A section is devoted to showing various deviant behaviors not allowed on the train, with the villains depicted showing the break down in orderliness and civility that can occur, even amongst the supermodernistic future presented in the comic. An unexplored subtext is that of Carmen and Jorge themselves being "deviant", in the sense that they belong to a linguistic and ethnic minority that may be unsettling to the English-speaking population. In some ways, I feel that the comic slyly eludes to this, with the deviant rule breakers being foils to which the middle class, or at least striving, Carmen and Jorge can safely compare themselves to.
However, due to the short nature of the work, and perhaps due to a Lynchian decision of the creative team to not present the work as having a clear climax or message, the social and political leanings and struggles of Carmen and Jorge are never fully explored. Some readers may feel disappointed. However, due to the low cost of this comic, and the brave decision of Tri-Met to publish a work of experimental, socially realistic fiction in comic book form, the criticism of "Viaje Mejor" should not be too intense.