Review: MANU Altiplan vol. 1 (Tacu Tinta Press)

Gustaffo Vargas burst on to the small press scene last year with the dazzlingly unique Peruvian sci-fi comics Trujillo and L1MA. Their mix of sleazy South American criminals and spectacular neon-infused Incan inspired visuals, made them some of the most memorable books we read all year. Now Gustavo is back, with MANU, a full length story from his sci-fi jungle world, but will his unique style of story telling be sustainable across a longer story?

Publisher: Tacu Tinta Press
Writer: Gustaffo Vargas
Artist: Gustaffo Vargas
Price: £5 from (after Thought Bubble 2019)

MANU begins in the amazonian jungle where a young woman in Incan face paint is being pursued by a cybernetic jaguar. It perfectly sets the tone for the world we are about to inhabit. A mix of old natural world and a new  high tech one, which collide in an instant. It also gives us a reminder of the kind of frenetic and visually unique world we are heading into.

The woman being pursued is Sonia, who is on the way to see her lover Canella, and fortunately for her, the jaguar is Canella’s pet Rodolfo. Canella is your classic loner hiding from the world, and when a team of mercenaries interrupt her and Sonia’s quality time we begin to wonder what she is hiding from. It’s a well established concept, (reminding us of everything from Commando to John Wick) but it works well in this context. This invasion leads to Canella visiting Sonia in the city, where her secret past is revealed when Sonia is visited by the sleazy Xolo and sets the story in motion for an intriguing next chapter.

While the story of MANU is relatively straight forward, it is well told and certainly more ambitious and expansive than TRUJILLO and L1MA – both of which suffered from trying to tell too ambitious a story in a condensed space. Here the story has plenty of room to breathe and the characters are allowed time to develop (perhaps a bit too much at times). The withdrawn and secretive Canella and the idealistic if pushy Sophia have some great moments that help develop their character, and build nicely towards the issues grand climax.

However, as with TRUJILLO and L1MA it is the visuals of the world which are the standout of MANU. We often talk about the importance of originality in small press, and this book has it by the bucket load. Just as Vault Comics’ These Savage Shores turned a vampire story into something unique by setting it in India, Vargas brings a completely new angle to the world of dystopian cyberpunk comics, by setting it in the South American jungle. With a mix of traditional clothing, contrasting with high-tech creatures, and lush tree-scapes, they are all rendered with some sublime colouring that make it really pop and make it feel completely original. (Even the language helps to make it feel like something from another world – at least it does, for this UK-based reviewer!!)

Meanwhile Vargas’s line-work feels like something from the Prog, with hints of an artist like Trevor Hairsine. However the world he has created is utterly unique. The characters and locations are truly one offs and as such make every page a journey of discovery as you try to see what kind of new and ambitious concept Vargas has created. From the cybernetic animals at the beginning, to the more gritty city shots at the end, they are all sublimely detailed but perfectly balanced.

Although Vargas’ artwork can feel a bit loose and rough in places, it has this rawness to it which we wouldn’t want to see lost by knocking away those loose edges. The speed and frenetic nature of the chase scene in the middle is a perfect example, (as is the dummy chase at the beginning which foreshadows it), but this is then contrasted with a beautiful tender moment between Sophia and Canella, or a heated row, which reminds you that this is a story built around people as much as it is around violence or outrageous high-tech monkeys. In fact, what makes MANU a really strong read is that the character moments have as much impact as the action scenes, which gives everything much more depth and substance as a result.

With books like MANU as well as this year’s Boy Abducted by Aliens Returns, Gustaffo is really creating a strong presence for himself as one of small press’ most interesting creators. There are definitely big things in his future – a story in 2000 AD is surely a must and would be a perfect fit). MANU is the perfect calling card for this exciting and innovative creator, as well as an ideal jumping on point for new fans. So remember the name, and be sure to get on board as soon as you can, with one of the most exciting and original small press comics around.