- Your Brain on Latino Comics
Comic books are not just for kids any more. That is the claim at least—if the opposite was ever the case—of a growing number of scholars who have turned to the study of what many call "graphic narrative" in recent years. Frederick Luis Aldama's book, Your Brain on Latino Comics, makes a welcome intervention into the field of graphic narrative study on behalf of the relatively marginalized "Latino comic book tradition" (84). Aldama points out that in the US, "there remains a straightjacket around comic books: they are strictly the domain of young people, and those adults who still gravitate toward their storytelling form are presumed to suffer from some sort of arrested development" (3). He contests this presumption, describing instead the rich, complex, and often overtly political history of Latino comics. His book offers a comprehensive overview of that tradition, along with an analysis that attempts to bring cognitive theory, which Aldama describes as "some insights from the brain sciences," together with literary criticism (83). The result is mixed: the book is a great reference for scholars of Latino literature, graphic narrative, or US visual culture, but not a fully effective application of the insights of the "brain sciences" to comic book reading.
The first of the book's three sections will perhaps be the most useful both for readers new to the Latino comic book tradition and to more experienced readers looking for an encyclopedic genealogy of the tradition. Aldama provides a compelling account of the field's history, spending time on "mainstream" books such as DC Comics' Justice League of America and its "ethnic" comic line DC Milestone (with titles such as Blood Syndicate, Shadow Cabinet, and Kobalt), as well as cult and independent books, including Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets and Richard Dominguez's Team Tejas. That description, though, barely scratches the surface of this well-researched, cogently explained, and information-packed section. Even veteran readers of Latino comic books are likely to discover new texts in Aldama's extensive account. Moreover, the author begins to unravel "how a given comic book might challenge dominant social, sexual, and cultural codes of conduct" while also being [End Page 216] careful not to discount the importance of how comics also "create pleasing effects for their reader-viewers' brains" (19). It's a tough balancing act, but Aldama handles it well.
The second portion of the book is where Aldama is not as penetrating as he could be. His intention to discover "how [comic books'] devices make meaning in our brains" by appealing to cognitive science is an ingenious and novel approach. His argument for the importance of readers' ability to "read minds" based on graphic representations of characters' mental and emotional states is a brilliant insight and a valuable contribution to the study of graphic narrative. But Aldama does not go far enough in incorporating brain science into his work. For example, Aldama at one point argues that "comic book author-artists use different techniques coherently in ways that trigger our limbic reflexes" (93). While that statement may be true, the significance of the assertion is never explained in the context of a holistic theory of mind. One would like to see a more thorough reflection on how brain science can help us understand comics.
Additionally, Aldama's book handles its subject matter's "Latinoness" in a problematic way. Throughout, he refers almost without exception to how "Latino comic books" do this and do that. Such phrasing would seem to suggest some distinction in how Latino comic books operate. But Aldama seems caught, as he admits, in trying to sort out the universal and the particular—that is, what is true of all comics versus what is peculiar to Latino comics. Those looking for insight into how Latino comics in particular operate in and on our brains (as the book's title seems to promise) will be disappointed. Aldama's theory of mind as elaborated here seems to be a...