Flip through any recent graphic novel catalog and it won’t take long to find the latest illustrated memoir / travelogue offering readers an insider look at [insert place] during [insert time and/or moment], usually from the vantage point of the artist cataloging the most visually impressive or interesting moments while offering occasional inner dialogue. I suspect many are created simply to justify artistic grants (or, increasingly, promises to crowdfunding patreons).
Hey, I’m not knocking the books or the artists creating them; earning a living through art is tough going, so grab what you can when you can. Some cartoonists, such as Joe Sacco and Guy Delisle, have created ideal compromises that allow complex narratives to coexist alongside illustrated recreations of the time and places within them, blending both in ways that manage to educate while informing. It’s not an easy combination, which is probably why there’s so few of them worth mentioning.
Follow Me In is constructed in the former model, with London-based illustrator Katriona Chapman visually documenting her trip to Mexico at the turn of the 21st century in a part travelogue, part memoir hybrid where a young artist discovers she’s brought along more baggage than she originally thought. It doesn’t quite work…but it sure is pretty to look at.
In the early 2000s twenty-somethings Kat and Richard, disenchanted Englanders living in Amsterdam, decide to quit their jobs and set off for an extended trip to Mexico. Despite not knowing the language, with limited funds, and the ever-present spectre of Richard’s struggles with alcoholism straining at the very fabric of their relationship. Kat feels such an adventure will help rejuvenate her creative zeal for illustration, packing enough artistic supplies and tools to record as much as possible via sketches and drawings. Richard, the boyfriend, had always wanted to visit the southernmost part of North America, an early indication of the traveler writer he would one day become.
On paper, everything seemed perfect. Armed with (what they thought was) a recent travel book and a stash of cash and available credit they set forth to explore Mexico’s most interesting cities, states, and popular archaeological sites like the splendor of Chichen Itza and grandeur of the Yohualichan pyramids. Without the safety net of cellphones, social-media or even regular internet access our two adventurers will find themselves facing not just a culture completely new culture, but their own vulnerabilities.
If you plan on reading Follow Me In for no other reason, do it for Chapman’s detailed, if mechanical, sketchings and muted color illustrations. I’m a fan of charcoal-styled locales and environments (especially when colored), though Chapman’s style often feels like something out of the Highlights’ kids magazines; safe, innocuous, populated with nonthreatening people alongside equally nonthreatening villas and environments.
When not meticulously sketching some of the more impressive Mexican structures Chapman plays with the form in places, visualizing her frustrations with Richard’s drinking as a constant neon snake wrapped around her neck, perhaps a visual callback to earlier Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations that symbolize the strangulating pressure she must have felt throughout their trip.
And therein lay the problem. As our guides throughout this Mexican adventure neither Kat nor Richard offer any particularly keen insight or perspective to what they’re seeing or experiencing – they are what they are: travellers backpacking through Mexico, without a plan or agenda. As for providing information for future explorers, it’s critical to remember the timing: given their trip was nearly two decades ago – an eternity in our current geopolitical climate – it’s likely a great deal of what they saw and experienced has changed significantly.
Richard’s struggles with alcoholism wasn’t a new discovery but a problem that existed before they even left, a preexisting condition that nearly derailed the trip itself. As cruel as it might sound, it’s inclusion in this context feels almost exploitative – there’s never enough depth given to the complexities of alcoholism or why Kat would feel it necessary to sojourn to distant lands – one famous for its alcohol production – while her boyfriend suffered. And yet, throughout their adventure, we see Kat submitting to his cravings again and again, at one point almost encouraging him to partake in Tequila tasting while visiting (where else?) the town that begat the liquor’s name.
Perhaps we’re meant to feel the trip itself became the catalyst for Kat’s emancipation, not just from the destructive nature of Richard’s affliction (on which Kat was surely his enabler) but in recognizing herself as an independent person, one that doesn’t need to accept responsibility for others’ misfortunes or the mistakes they make. I’m only speculating as we’re never given much context to the inner nature of their relationship, either before or after the big trip.
To her credit, Chapman proves to be an enjoyable hands-off guide, never delivering patronizing sermons or infantilizing her Mexican hosts as “victims” of their northern overlords. It’s easy to share her genuine awe and amazement upon first coming across ancient structures and cultures that are – literally – worlds away from her European background. Neither Kat nor Richard ever fall victim to become the obnoxious “guide”, preaching lessons of tolerance and superficial condescension only the truly ignorant would ever mutter.
One stop comes dangerously close to this, however, as Kat and Richard join fellow travellers outside on a beautiful beach property where the only ‘lodgings’ available were hammocks. Some lament the growing number of foreigners (i.e. non-Mexicans) in tourist spots, as though their presence somehow diminishes the authenticity of the surroundings. Debates on their inherent privilege, such as the appropriateness of travelers paying more than the locals for goods and services, seem to forget that tourism to the area has become an enormous economic boom for the natives. Would these travelers feel the same if roles were reversed?
Chapman’s memoir feels like an earnest attempt of a talented artist to work through a difficult time by giving readers a first-hand travelogue reconstructed from memory and available sketches. Unfortunately, these two ideals never comfortably mesh, largely as we’re never given enough to work with, either from our two leads or the greater rationale behind visiting Mexico in the first place. The best memoirs are those prescient enough to keep future lessons distanced from mistakes of the past, inviting readers to experience those awkward moments and situations from which our narrator would one day – we hope – transform lemons into lemonade.
Follow Me In is a decent read, but had Chapman leaned more on the promising metaphysical and psychological aspects of their trip, rather than the technical artistry of her illustrations, it might have been a great one.