Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea, Artwork by Christopher Cardinale (review copy)

Tucked away in a far corner of  BEA was Cinco Puntos Press – an independent publisher based in El Paso, Texas.  They would have been easy to miss if it weren’t for the cover of this book, which sucked me into their booth even though I had to elbow my way past a few other attendees to get at it.  I glanced through the artwork quickly (the reproduction  doesn’t do it justice, the colors are much richer and deeper in person) and originally thought it was a children’s book.  It wasn’t until I had time to look it over at home that I realized it was a graphic novel.

Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea is set in Rosario, Mexico.  The story is narrated by a boy, one assumes now a man, reminiscing about his childhood. It consists of short anecdotes about local events which, at first, don’t seem particularly extraordinary.   And then you discover exactly what it is that makes the town unique:  Mr.  Mendoza – the self-proclaimed “graffiti king of all Mexico”  – whose messages appear on walls, mountains, bridges and even the corpse of a monk.   He uses graffiti as a tool to critique the town and the townspeople.  “Upend hypocrites today.”  “Deflate your pomp or float away.”

Little by little a picture emerges of Rosario.  It’s not necessarily a pretty one, though I can’t say whether or not this was intentional on the author’s part.  Mr. Mendoza has appointed himself Rosario’s conscience – to which no one seems to be listening.  Until one day he decides he has had enough and leaves the town in an unforgettable fashion.

Christopher Cardinale is responsible for the artwork and steals the show (or rather, the book). I wish I knew what medium he used for his illustrations – the effect is of a rough woodblock or linoleum print.  The actual drawing quality can be uneven from section to section, and sometimes gets a bit awkward.  But to me that’s a part of the charm.  Imperfection works with this story.  The rich and vibrant colors are really set off by Cardinale’s use of thick, rugged black lines.  In many ways Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush reminded me of a Diego Rivera mural.

Another thing I pay attention to in graphic novels is the panel layout (i.e. – the composition of the picture boxes/panels on a page).  Overall I felt Cardinale did a good job.  What I was less impressed by was the layout of the text boxes.  They tended to be scattered over the page without rhyme or reason.  Huge, white boxes interrupting the rhythm of the story visually.  I had the urge to use my hand to brush them off the paper so I could get more of the images.

In the end, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush didn’t disappoint.  It’s a solid book… and one that brought Cinco Puntos Press to my attention.  There’s a hot debate going on in the blogosphere (I know, I hate that word too) these days regarding multiculturalism in publishing.  Not to get all preachy, but there’s an inequality in the representation of people of color in artwork and on covers that deserves attention.  Cinco Puntos has a whole catalog of books in fiction, non-fiction, for adults and children – all with a Latino focus.  If this is something you’re even remotely interested in, I recommend stopping by to check them out.

Publisher:  Cinco Puntos Press.  El Paso, Texas.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 933693 23 1

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3 thoughts on “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea, Artwork by Christopher Cardinale (review copy)

    1. Kim –

      It is a beautiful book and a very quick read. Sometimes too quick. It says it was based on a short story and I have to wonder if they edited it down from the original.


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