Penumbra is a Mexican supernatural comics series created in 1998 by Oscar Alvarado Mendoza, a Guadalajara-born writer, illustrator, animator, and composer. Penumbra’s vampire-inspired universe combines historical reality and gothic fiction. In addition to the comic book format, Alvarado has developed this universe through short stories and illustrations.

The subject of vampires enthralled Alvarado since childhood. Eventually, the artist found in comics a medium to express his fascination with the world of gothic creatures and stories. In Penumbra, Alvarado draws on classic versions of the vampire tradition and the personal mythology he created over the years, developing a distinctive universe thanks to which he has become a sort of cult figure among lovers of supernatural narratives in Mexico.

Even though Penumbra was highly experimental and underground in nature when it first appeared, the series gradually became a success in Alvarado’s native Guadalajara. The first issues of the series was self-published through the artist’s own imprint, Imaginaria Comics. To celebrate the project’s first decade, Alvarado published a commemorative graphic novel under the same title in 2008.

As the project evolved, Alvarado explored different storylines connected to his original idea. The latest of these offshoots is Family Portraits, which is set in Germany. In this story, two brothers from a wealthy and ancient Hannover family leave home after their mother dies and their father goes missing at war.

Even though the two brothers take different paths (Frantz goes to study arts in Paris while Frederick goes in search of their father in Germany), they eventually encounter the same fate: being turned into vampires by members of the seven legendary Nosferatu families that are organizing a rebellion and have been involved in the war. As leaders of different Nosferatu factions, Frantz and Frederic become (im)mortal enemies.

Family Portraits features a number of narrative elements that are common to Alvarado’s vampire universe, including the existence of a secret world inhabited by ancient creatures living among humans but hidden in the shadows (hence the name of Penumbra) and the inevitable ways in which these two worlds collide and impact humanity. Stylistically, the black and white illustrations of Penumbra and Alvarado’s skillful use of light and darkness reinforce the idea of this alternative world that exists in the twilight.

Alvarado is also known for other artistic work that explores gothic themes, including the animated shorts Sonámbulo, inspired by the 1920 German horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Berenice, based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story; and Murnau the Vampire, largely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 Mauricio Espinoza

Further Reading

  • Bartra, Armando. “Dawn, Noon, and Dusk of a Tumultuous Narrative: The Evolution of Mexican Comic Art.” Cartooning in Latin America. Ed. John A. Lent. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005. 253-278.
  • Campbell, Bruce. ¡Viva La Historieta! Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
  • Kendrick-Alcántara, Carolyn. Life Among the Living Dead: the Gothic Horrors of Latin American Literature. Los Angeles, CA: University of California-Los Angeles, 2007.
  • “Oscar Alvarado: Penumbra.” http://penumbraportraits.webs.com. 15 May 2015.