Content Warning for Karmen: Discussions of suicide and death.
Comics veteran Guillem March’s Karmen is a marvelous display of storytelling and masterful sequential art. This slow-burning tale shows the reader the unreliability of memory and the importance of human connection.
The story follows Cata, a woman who takes her life after finding out her childhood friend and secret love has started dating her roommate, Xisco. After perishing, she is greeted by Karmen, a spirit with a skeleton body who acts as a kind of guide for the souls of the departed.
Karmen explains that Cata has died, but while she is waiting to be reincarnated, she can go wherever she wants, do whatever she desires, and even fly across the city. Her escapades take her through a deep, introspective journey full of regret.
At the heart of this story is the role of memories in death. Peppered throughout Karmen are bits of mysterious narration explaining how memories are often fragmented and only recalled when something familiar approaches someone. Because of this, what one may view as the truth is often a fraction of the full picture.
Since memory is so unreliable, the book argues about the importance of sharing with others, so one doesn’t face a sort of second death. By passing on experiences to friends and loved ones, one comes closer to the truth and passes on wisdom while building intimate connections.
While many of Karem’s themes are heavy and emotional, it is accompanied by gorgeous, boundary-pushing art to lighten the load. March displays his incredible talents while also designing pages that demonstrate the ideas of the book.
Frequently, panoramic scenes are broken up with gutters to display motion. It forces the reader to slow down and appreciate each detail of these panels as they follow the characters walking and talking.
In a way, this technique mimics the story’s views of memory. The reader doesn’t get a full sense of the area staring at any single panel, and looking at the whole still misses some information for the gutters create some blind spots.
March also displays an incredible sense of perspective. Cata and Karmen walk around the walls of buildings, on ceilings, and up statues in an Escher-like fashion. This playfulness with positioning gives the story a loose, surreal feeling.
The coloring also has a dream-like aura. March opts for pale, hazy hues like there’s a layer of fog between the reader and the world of Karmen. The coloring physically lightens the load of the darker elements by not demanding too much of the reader.
Even the lettering seems to follow along. The balloon tails are twisty and swollen in random spots, adding to the floating feeling of everything.
While the majority of this book is phenomenal, it does have some concerning elements.
Suicide is a touchy subject alone, and Karmen doesn’t display it in the best light. How Cata dies is graphic and sudden and doesn’t seem truly necessary for the overarching ideas within.
In addition, Karmen accuses Cata of being selfish for taking her life because she didn’t think about how her parents would feel with her being gone. This conversation is never rectified before the book’s conclusion and is highly problematic as it demonizes the act of suicide.
While Cata is a self-involved and unempathetic character, in the beginning, connecting this to her suicide without further explanation or nuance is a missed opportunity and a bit insensitive. Despite this, the book does have a lot to offer regarding human connection and second chances while being a thoughtful exploration of memory. It’s a comic perfect for anyone who wants a story they can drift along with, and that causes them to think. Top this off with some amazing art, and Karmen becomes perfect for anyone wanting a story told in a way only comics can.