Review by Frank Plowright
Donnie Reynoso is an honest man who was kicked off a South American police force when his investigations uncovered a protected official as corrupt. Following up, he used his connections as the illegitimate half-brother of the interior minister, which resulted in his expulsion from the family circle. In a sleazy bar one night he’s approached by the nationally known figure of Melinda Centurion, the Intact Virgin, the governor’s niece whose virtue is promoted and whose mere touch is said to heal. In the devoutly catholic country of La Colonia her example is well followed, yet that’s revealed early as constructed myth for devious purpose, the hoax of the title.
Carlos Trillo provides a story rich in depressing cultural associations satirising the worst of South American regimes in the 1940s. Corruption is endemic, the victimised poor surplus to official requirement as anything other than the cheapest possible labour, an appalling attitude to sex with underage girls, and rebellion just a drink away. Trillo’s storytelling method is novel and arresting. Every so often he’ll have a minor character pause the ongoing narrative in order to explain some background to events, or to add to one of the main cast’s story before reaching that point. Later they become a Greek chorus in what by then has developed into a narrative staged almost like a performed play. It adds both depth and whimsy, and these characters take on a life of their own via narration only. Among them mannered and manipulative writer Milton Bates is a ghastly creation, almost incapable of opening his mouth without relaying his achievements.
Domingo Mandrafina is little known to English language graphic novel readers, and that really should be rectified. He’s a superb stylist, imbuing the various members of his dissolute and disreputable cast with personality, and bringing their grimy surroundings to life around them. His present day pages are slathered in black ink, but those set in the past are contrasted by panels bathed in light through the use of minimal shading, perhaps reflecting more innocent characters at the time.
We’re halfway through the book before the final primary cast member is introduced, and they’re the reason for the prominence of an iguana on the cover of the 1998 US edition. The sleazy Iguana is a hitman whose name induces fear among the hardest of criminals due to a formidable reputation for not only killing, but torture as the preface. He’s magnificently designed by Mandrafina as a sharp dressed man whose couture can’t entirely conceal his distinctive features. The effects of a reputation are brilliantly conveyed over the Iguana’s introductory pages as he follows Reynoso’s trail, each time learning the next destination via minimal intimidation. Some great visual touches occur as the Iguana continues to make his presence felt.
As a noir thriller in pastiche tragic play form The Big Hoax showcases a vivid imagination and a great artist, and the novelty of the telling entertains. So very satisfactory indeed. The 2020 Hard Case edition is an album sized hardcover, while the earlier Venture translation is a thinner paperback.