Animals in cars driving fast: 'Lowriders in Space, Book 1'
December 29, 2014 12:00 AM
By Don E. Simpson
The Lowriders in Space are a trio of anthropomorphic characters (what used to be called “funny animals”), their cat, and a junk car they refurbish to enter a contest for a lucrative cash prize.
“Lowriders in Space, Book 1” by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (Chronicle Books, $9.99) is also an educational graphic novel (what used to be called a “comic book”) that teaches Spanish phrases, revels in Mexican-American and Southern Californian popular culture, and teaches values such as friendship, teamwork, and the importance pursuing your big dreams, complete with a positive female role model demonstrating leadership in the hitherto macho-world of automobiles.
The trio includes an octopus named El Chavo who refurbishes and repaints vintage roadsters and his partner, a mosquito named Elirio who has an eye for detailing like pin stripes, chrome, and other assorted bling. But the unquestioned leader of the group, in size and bravado, is Lupe Impala, the smart and confident female mechanic who brings the junkers they salvage roaring back to life.
Ostensibly an antlered, four-legged antelope, Lupe is given the most human form as a full-grown woman, complete with tight capri-cut blue jeans, a Wonder Woman-like bustier, and a flowing mane of black hair. Resourceful and decisive, Lupe can tear apart an engine and make it run better than new, all without losing an earring.
A female protagonist who is mechanically inclined while her male colleagues tend to the cosmetic finish and bodywork is a welcome change-up in an American art form (the comic book or graphic novel) that still too often traffics (no pun intended) in regressive gender types.
Stuck working for a used car lot run by a grumbling bumble bee, our trio of heroes dreams of owning their own garage where they can build custom “low riders,” the “bajito y suavecito” (low and slow) cruising cars so important in Hispanic-American urban culture. Their shot comes when they learn of a contest with a cash prize sufficient to set them up in business, if only they can work together and salvage an abandoned Chevy Impala.
Raiding an abandon aircraft hangar for spare parts, the lowrider they create propels them, fairy-tale fashion, into outer space, where various interplanetary phenomenon such as asteroid showers, the cinto de Orion (Orion’s Belt), and the rings of Saturn magically upgrade their already stunning handiwork to a dazzling, prize-worthy luster. When Lupe, El Chavo and Elirio arrive back on earth, the other contestants, impressive as they are in for some stiff competition.
Part Cinderella story and part Hispanicized “American Graffiti,” Cathy Camper’s easy-to-follow tale is chock full of Spanish phrases and footnoted English translations. Young readers will painlessly absorb a basic Spanish vocabulary of words and phrases like barrio (neighborhood), la luna de conejo (the rabbit in the moon, equivalent to the Anglo “Man in the Moon”), and ¡Que Suave! (“How smooth!”), including many hip terms associated specifically with the lowrider lifestyle.
The story ends with a text page on the history of postwar Mexican-American Southern Californian lowrider culture, and a Spanish-English glossary of more than 50 words and phrases.
The intentionally simple art by Raúl the Third, created with red and blue ballpoint pens on toned light brown paper, will be immediately accessible to early elementary-school notebook artists of all kinds (grades one to three in particular would be my guess), as will the simple iconic language of thunderbolts, flames, and really cool vintage cars (spoiler alert: a burst of yellow is reserved for the moment the customized Impala rockets into space).
Both boys and girls, capable of their own independent literary excursions, will find this graphic novel hip, compelling, and culturally and linguistically educational. Lest the subtle “Book 1” labels on the spine and title page are overlooked, a “continued next issue” cliffhanger appears following the text pages and after the main narrative wraps up, promising a series of sequels that will send younger readers on far-flung cosmic adventures with these likeable, lowriding heroes.
Donald E. Simpson, a cartoonist holds a Ph.D. in art and architectural history from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the creator of the comic book series “Megaton Man.”
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