If you come to Gustaffo Vargas‘ latest comic for more of his spirited and bloodthirsty Peruvian-influenced cyberpunk, Manu Altiplano Vol. 1 easily satisfies those needs. However, journeying deeper into the comic, it proves to be a more complex affair than the rapid-fire violence that characterised his past self-published works, Trujill0 and L1MA. Compared to those two past works that brought Vargas to the attention of the U.K. indie comic scene, Manu is a more calculated, layered and slow-burning affair. The first in a three-part series that’s set in the world established in L1MA, Manu tasks Vargas with achieving fresh story-telling complexities.
A kinetic directness unites Trujill0 and L1MA, but Manu is content to take its time with its story. This first chapter maps out all the pieces for a tale of mystery and vengeance, set in the sweltering landscapes of Peru. A welcome change of pace in setting up a multi-issue arc is that Manu allows greater investment in Vargas’ ragtag youths that populate his landscapes. Initially introduced in L1MA, Lila takes centre stage in Manu, enabling this comic to become the most character-driven of Vargas’ work to date.
Vargas presents Lila as a rogue, forced to live a life of secrecy deep in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest to avoid detection from higher powers, despite her girlfriend’s Sonia’s implorations to step out of the shadows. However, Lila is as much a target as she is a fugitive. In the heart of Peru’s underbelly of crime, plans are taking shape to capture her for world-shattering information that only she knows. As an introductory chapter, Manu‘s patient story-telling introduces our players for this tale, but it remains to be seen whether or not future issues will gel these strands of character and story together.
The pieces in Manu don’t quite form as cohesively as it feels like they should, but perhaps that’s the point. The breaking-down relationship between Lila and Sonia is given great focus in Manu, with the hunt for Lila herself at the hands of criminals Puno and Vasquez is what gives Manu a feverish undertone of growling adventure. It’s as if Vargas is setting us up for the grander tale that’s sure to unfold with the next two chapters, even if the tale’s initial components here don’t blend together with the greatest of ease.
Visually, Manu is as splendidly riotous as Trujill0 and L1MA. Reflecting Manu‘s more intimate mindset, there’s no gargantuan Akira-esque mechas running through Peruvian outbacks or experiments performed on animals. Instead, warm, exotic locales are scattered throughout the comic, punctuated by a deathly red haze whenever the action kicks into a higher gear. The stop-start tactic of Manu‘s action scenes become a definite highlight of the comic, allowing the comic to flow with a natural swagger, and breathe in all the right places. Ultimately, a primal instinct surges through Manu‘s visual veins, making the comic throb to a raw rhythm.
With Manu, Vargas is setting himself up for the most ambitious story he’s told so far. Even when the plot strands presented in Manu appear disparate on the first reading, there’s a palpable sense that Vargas is laying out his weapons of choice to do furious battle with in Manu‘s forthcoming follow up, Puno, and the eventual climactic chapter later on. Manu is a welcome evolution from a restless talent.