E. Robert Arellano recalls the arrival of the bookstore in Desemboque, Mexico, with clarity. Once a week, a road-worn pickup truck would drive up the road, he says, and the townsfolk would trumpet: "The bookstore's here! The bookstore's here!" The truck stopped and the back opened, revealing stacks of ratty little books called historietas—popular Mexican comics read by millions each month.
For just a few pesos, tales of bravery, violence, romance and peril would walk away with a new owner to be read and re-read. When the new owner finished his historieta, he'd pass it on to a friend. And he to another. And she to another. "Each one is read by five, 10, 15, 20 people," Arellano says. The idea of the whole community sharing a title is what drew Arellano to the pocket-sized historietas, he says, and sent him following his dream to create his own when he returned to New Mexico.
It's not quite pocket-sized, but Dead in Desemboque, recently published by Soft Skull Press, is the historieta of his dreams.
Dead in Desemboque heralds the story of Eddy and his two dogs. Together with a trusty steed, they travel through the Sonoran Desert to answer the call of Eddy's girl, Juanita. Along the way, Eddy's forced to kill an ornery borracho, his dogs are kidnapped and he enlists the help of the clever Seri Indians to save himself from an angry mob. Throughout it all, Eddy still ends up dead in Desemboque in a bizarre twist found only in comic books.
Dead in Desemboque is comprised of three episodes, each following Arellano's script and drawn by one of three artists: William Schaff, Richard Schuler and Alec Thibodeau. Arellano, who is head of the Academy of Literacy and Cultural Studies program at UNM's Taos campus, says he originally asked Schaff to do the illustration portion of the historieta, but Schaff wasn't sure he could do all the artwork himself. They brought two more artists onboard in a collaborative effort Arellano calls serendipitous. "Not only did they keep me from losing heart," he says, "they brought great ideas to the table."
Arellano is no stranger to the publishing world, having four books already on the shelves and another on the way in 2009. When he decided to create his own historieta in the Mexican style—with a New Mexican twist—he knew there'd be a chance no one would publish it. "As a writer of independent fiction, I have a little freedom to just take a chance," he says, and Soft Skull Press took a chance on him. "If I hadn't initiated this process several years ago, it would be really hard to get it together today," he says. "The presses aren't taking as many risks." But Soft Skull Press kept their end of the deal, he says, and Dead in Desemboque was published, though eight months delayed, on May 1.
Like most historietas, Dead in Desemboque is pure, fun-loving fiction, but there are some truths hiding under the surface. Arellano says Dead in Desemboque is loosely based on his experience traveling and living in Mexico, minus the bar fights and racing across the desert on a horse. "It was a way of making a cartoon of experience," he says, "making it a little more dramatic while nodding toward the historieta genre." There are also elements of Mexican folklore within its panels, highlighting the differences between the two towns named Desemboque in the Mexican state of Sonora and representations of the people living there, like Eddy’s friend José in the book. "There is a real person named José Cubano who lives in Desemboque," he says. "He's a little bit of a legend."
Unlike most historietas, Dead in Desemboque was published in the United States. Most of them are printed in Mexico City, so Dead in Desemboque is the first New Mexican historieta. Now all Arellano needs is a road-worn pickup truck.