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A Review of Ballad for Sophie by Felipe Melo and Juan Cavia

Writer Felipe Melo and artist Juan Cavia collaborate to share a visually gripping story that spans time, exploring identity, relationships, and music through the kinds of work that only comics can do. The story begins frame from the view of a journalist, and invites the reader into the narrative, with wordless panels giving us a clear time and place, and the hint of some mysterious turn to come.

Setting the foundation this way, along with the realistic style, are notable moves on the part of the artist and author, as the story travels back and forth across decades, and yet keeps the reader in tow through these twists in time. Another effective part of the storytelling is reader’s introduction to the maestro, the focal point in the story, first revealed as a figure turned away who closes out the inquisitive reporter, and then gradually warming to her questions. His reclusiveness forms one side of the mystery, and the motivations this interviewer create more questions for the reader.

Drawing on what can be communicated in the comics format, Melo and Cavia convey ideas and emotions through expressions, movements, and gestures, sometimes with words contained in panels, and sometimes not – and the hook of the story is set as we wonder about the maestro’s silence. Through the narrator’s voice, the story travels effectively, first revisiting events in 1933, expanding on elements of the central mystery. The same intrigue that underscores the play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer is a feature that works on these pages, probing into the hesitation and revealed genius of a composer.

The emotional power of the story comes through in Melo’s use of historical points and Cavia’s clear depictions of suffering and loss that build a foundation for the contemporary introduction the reader experiences, filling in gaps in character and motivation in a visual and very literary way. Working in a magical and supernatural way, the reader meets the character of Triton, the producer, to convey the devilish aspects of signing a professional contract for an artistic endeavor. This is another use of symbolism that the author and artist include, adding suspense.

Ballad for Sophie depicts the price of fame, the weight of guilt, the development of a life across times of war and affliction, and the emotional consequences of a life on display. These are themes that such stories have gone to before and almost inevitably address. Arguably, the comics page presents the emotion and experiences of characters more effectively than a prose novel could. The swirling images of sexuality, temptation, and addiction add to the reading, offering a storytelling technique that allows the reader to imagine what the main character is feeling. Movies have been more of mixed bag in exploring fame, sometimes pausing on moments with thoughtful weight and sometimes glossing over them as scenery the viewer expects to see along the way.

Though these themes may be found in other biographical and autobiographical works, the power of Ballad for Sophie is the way that the story is conveyed, including the ways the artistic choices support the narrative, and the presentation of images that could only exist in the minds of characters. The graphic novel and the innovation found in certain panels lifts the book, as well as the creative turns in the storytelling. With all of this taken in mind, I recommend this book for readers to enjoy.

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