This post contains detailed plot discussion, but spoilers won’t hurt your enjoyment of this book.
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I find value in such things – I’m a dreamer (often, in my childhood, a daydreamer), someone who likes to find life lessons in fictional stories. But not everything needs to be out of this world.
In fact, it often seems that most people are deeply affected by stories that are down to earth, close to home. Mi Barrio is such a story.
With my head between the brightly colored pages of my comic archives, I can’t say I noticed the original release, but it seems to be a book that’s inspired many. This comic reworks some of the story into an 80 page graphic novel.
Blake, who is also devoted to publishing and promoting the book, worked with artist Shane Clester to bring it to a graphic format. Though it is an adaptation, Renteria’s voice persists. Together this team tells his life story in a way that is simple, direct, and moving.
Robert Renteria, like so many in this country, came from a background of poverty and ignorance. His peers valued short sighted gains over education and long term goals. In specific, he came from the lower class, primarily Hispanic neighborhoods of East LA.
This book tells how he came through gang membership and flashy lifestyles and found success in the business world. As a book with an inspirational focus, the message is one of persistence and hard work. In fact, that’s Renteria’s two word motto, which he imparts to a young man near the end – Hard. Work.
Of course, real life is much more complicated than this short explanation. And any memoir will have its fair share of omission and exaggeration – such is the way of human beings and storytelling.
But while the book is fairly straightforward with an obviously streamlined message, there are still slight twists and honest admissions.
It’s acknowledged, for example, that Renteria owes much to his family and it would have been much harder for him to break from a downward spiral if he wasn’t able to move in with his Aunt and Uncle in a better neighborhood – seeing their more comfortable lifestyle inspired him. He also had parents who, however poor, still valued his personal appearance and work ethic and encouraged him to aspire to great heights.
And once he had a measure of success – in well off positions for several companies – he realized that the salesmen near him were still living badly, drinking and partying in ways that reminded him much of the friends he had previously distanced himself from.
This was satisfying to me, because just a couple pages earlier I was wondering – is that it? That’s the goal? A nice car and comfortable salary?
He does seem to have a thing about cars, mentioning them at least three times. In his flashy youth, buying one for his mother, and later when the young man he briefly mentors notices his nice ride.
It’s a little odd to see this attention when there is no mention at all of a significant other or developing his own family, something of a major life goal for myself. But Renteria brings it back home – mentioning his love of family, his desire to teach and inspire.
Certainly being an author and giving lectures is impressive, but it’s not something he does for money (devoting all his time to business would get him that easier.)
Through the story, which could risk feeling preachy or obvious, Shane Clester lends a personal feel with his artwork. Produced in black and white with grayscale toning, the book avoids a corporate feel itself. I was surprised, in fact, at how warm and human the drawings are. My major fear, upon hearing about the SmarterComics series, with their decidedly business like branding, was that they would be more akin to airplane safety instructions than lovingly crafted graphic novels.
But Clester‘s art is closest to indie journal style comics. with an emphasis on eyes, heads, facial expressions. His figures sometimes have anatomy that’s a bit strange, but I felt this made the work feel even more personal instead of distracting.
There’s a bit of stiffness, but the comic isn’t really about action anyway – Clester does a fine job keeping the eye moving between frames, making for a very readable book.
The art, like the story, is simple. This could be construed as a negative, but I don’t mean it that way.
I try to judge works on their success at accomplishing their goals – does this book do what it wants to do? Is it good at being this book? I wouldn’t judge Mi Barrio by the same standards as I would the latest Superman comic or art school experiment.
Mi Barrio is a book crafted lovingly with a specific audience in mind: disenfranchised children and undereducated people with a desire to make more from their life. Sometimes it takes a little push to get people moving, especially in a society where the average person doesn’t read a single book in a year. Releasing a story like this in comic form is an excellent idea.
It’s important that this book is straightforward and simple. Studies have shown that comics help encourage literacy among children. And literacy is a key factor in success in life, with direct correlation to income levels.
Mi Barrio hopes to be a gateway, a doorway to both the world of comics and into one person’s success story.
It won’t inspire everyone (and sometimes a jaded critic like myself needs to step back and consider his own questioning) but it stands a good chance of helping those who need it most.
This print release of Mi Barrio was delivered to me with a 14.95 MSRP on the back. It’s a little oversized, but I feel that’s still a high price for an 80 page book – especially considering that the people who should read it most are the ones least likely to have that money to drop on a comic. But it’s well worth that price for inclusion in libraries, especially school libraries.
But I wanted to point out (and hence this note) that SmarterComics has made this particular release available for free in ebook form on their website! This is a great idea and I think it is their intention, if the history of the original novel holds true, to get physical copies into the right hands, MSRP aside.
I’m not sure the book will actually make you smarter (how do we measure such things?) but I can tell you that it’s had me thinking a lot over the past couple days.
It may not impress some Sequential Art and Graphic Novel aficionados, but in the right hands Mi Barrio will be a very powerful tool for the betterment of the next generation.
This book is self contained.
No prior reading required.
I’ll also be reviewing some more of SmarterComics upcoming releases soon.
If this has whetted your appetite and you’d like to check out some more memoir/journal style comics, Maus, a story of a holocaust survivor, is of course the standard that everything in this genre is measured against.
I also think Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is well worth reading.