It’s officially spooky season, but webcomic wranglers aren’t going dark just yet. First, we have a lush josei-style webcomic called “Cafe Amargo” to recommend.
Created by Piapb (Pía Prado Bley)
Reviewed by Mel Lake
Note: There is a comic on Webtoon with this same title in the BL genre. As I write, this “Café Amargo” is only available via the artist’s website and Tapas.
This week, I wasn’t expecting to write about a manga by a Chilean artist, but here we are! “Café Amargo” looks and reads like a josei manga, but with the sound effects written in Spanish. The beautiful, stylized character faces, excellent shading, and professional-looking layout make for an easy and compelling read. As I browsed through the early arcs today on Tapas, I found myself amazed that this story was available for free online, as it’s as good as any manga I would have sneaked into Waldenbooks before this store not be swallowed up by the Amazon. (Ask an older millennial if you don’t know what that means. Or no, I’m not your mother. The thing is, this tape is free on Tapas and it’s manga quality!)
In an unnamed town in South America, Domingo Ramirez waits in a line of unemployment. He was a hatter but lost everything he had and got into gambling debt, losing his family in the process. While looking for a job, a chance meeting with a strange man named Auguste Chevalier will change his life. For the best? I still do not know. But the tangled web of Chevalier and the mysterious and powerful Jordana family is slowly being revealed as we encounter more and more characters related to Chevalier and Domingo in one way or another.
Like many josei manga stories, simply stating the premise does not do justice to the characters and worlds of the stories themselves. If the characters of “Café Amargo” are archetypes (Domingo is a sad father, Auguste is a mysterious bad boy, Domingo’s ex-wife Graciela is a talented and empathetic artist, etc.), they are animated by the beautiful and expressive works of art. Humor is also present in the story. The characters never quite break the fourth wall or descend into ridiculous territory, but the sweat drops and sparks of shoujo abound, giving readers a well-deserved break from somewhat serious subject matter. It’s a drama about economic desperation and the power of the rich, but it’s also a story of friendship, sibling rivalry, reinvention, and how far people will go to protect their families.
I don’t know if “Café Amargo” was written in Spanish and translated or if the original language was English. But anyway, it’s completely understandable, with just a few minor typos here and there. My knowledge of Spanish is very basic but I liked seeing it peppered with sound effects and names. Reading it really reminded me of the experience of reading manga, or the classic “Corto Maltese”, which was written by legendary Italian cartoonist and writer Hugo Pratt. Reading it, you know you’re not reading a typical American comic book. But I was completely drawn to the messy relationships and free-wheeling antics of the characters.
The interior art of “Café Amargo” is black and white, and the structure of the panels is very similar to that of a manga. If you are familiar with these conventions, you will have no trouble reading this. (Prado Bley uses a black background instead of a white background to signify flashbacks, etc.) Despite the high number of characters (many of whom are members of the same family), they all have unique enough designs to stand out, even in black and white. (Snarling Detective Alonso might be my favorite because he looks exactly like a snarling private detective and acts like one too.) Men are generally handsome and women are beautiful. But they’re also uniquely beautiful, not just cookie-cutter cutouts of pretty girls. There’s a trio of female bodyguards who could have been turned into generically gorgeous bombshells, but instead, they’re unique individuals with their own sense of fashion and flair. (I loved them!)
In addition to great designs, the halftones and shadows in the pages of “Café Amargo” are truly impressive, making this project look like a professional product. I was always able to follow the layout of the panels and never found them to be too cluttered or too dependent on spreads. I’m looking to find something to criticize here, but if I had to, I might say that the backgrounds are too plain. But honestly, it works. The story and the characters are at the center, not the setting. The background art never distracts from the story and always lets you know generally where you are. The artist even includes little extra pages at the end of certain chapters with chibis, and if you like those like me, it’s a delight.
Could “Café Amargo” become a melodrama? Maybe? I mean, of course. But it’s beautifully drawn and the relationships between the characters never appealed to me, so I’m in on it. It might be too silly for some or too serious for others, but I liked the balance of drama and comedy. The comic has 75 episodes and is available for free on Tapas. The artist also has a series in Spanish on Webtoon.