If all that Poison River were was dense, that would be one thing. We’ve already seen how far Beto has been willing to push his pacing over the course of discrete sequences like that climactic bit in “Human Diastrophism”–jumps in space, jumps in time, jumps in storytelling and story logic. Doing this for 180-odd pages, to the point where uninterrupted stretches of story bridged either by cuts involving a recognizable end for one scene and beginning for another or by some sort of visual signifier of a transition becomes the exception rather than a rule, is a tour de force performance to be sure, but it needn’t necessarily be a shocking one.
And if all Poison River were was brutal, that would be one thing. Beto has done bleak before–it was the exceedingly bleak Israel spotlight strip at the end of Heartbreak Soup where the Palomar stuff really came into its own, after all. And he’s done brutal (the murders in “Human Diastrophism”) and sordid (Israel’s mercenary hedonism) as well. Creating a story that can basically be described as “Luba’s Adventures Among the Worst Motherfuckers on Earth” can make for a grueling read, absolutely, but it needn’t necessarily be a stunning one.
No, it’s the combination of form and content, style and substance that makes Poison River–the graphic novel-length “origin of Luba” story that comprises this collection’s first two-thirds–one of the most singular, potent, unforgettable comics ever made by anyone, ever. When there are more characters involved in the story than in the entire Palomar mythos thus far; when their stories involve a complex web of conspiracies and betrayals, deceptions and secret affairs, over the course of multiple generations; when virtually no page has fewer than seven tightly gridded panels and most have nine or more; when those panels are filled with Gilbert’s never-stronger sooty, inky linework and character designs, which virtually never serve up the sort of iconic imagery that allows you to quickly scan and move on; when each move from one panel to the next holds the promise and threat of feeling more like a page turn or a chapter jump than a simple “and then, and then, and then”; when that feeling lasts not just for a single bravura sequence but for the longest story Beto has yet told; when it’s a story that regularly invokes such brain-lacerating topics as rape, miscarriage, racism, domestic violence, and torture; when it repeatedly slams your heart into scenes of utter cruelty and your genitals into scenes of pure depraved sexuality…It’s like your brain has to spend the length of the story running as fast as it possibly can to keep up, and every so often you run full tilt into someone swinging a baseball bat. You can’t just lie there and shake it off, you’ve got to leap back to your feet and resume sprinting, even though you know you’ve got no hope of not being knocked flat on your ass again.
I’m trying to focus on the emotional response, the feeling, of reading Poison River because, frankly, it’s so overwhelming. But intellectually, I think this is Gilbert’s meatiest work as well. I’m fascinated by how willing he is to lay bare some of his work’s most indelible tropes, like Luba’s comically large breasts and all the baggage that comes with them–with the equivalent of a corny joke, no less: They do her no good in a marriage to a man with a fetish for women’s stomachs. Given the fire Gilbert has taken for his visual depictions of women, it’s quite easy to read Poison River as a lengthy meditation on the damage that having a “type” can do, no matter what your “type” is…which means it’s an extremely black take on the whole of human sexuality, pretty much. It’s also a savagely political work, fusing his past examinations of the powers wielded by both body and brain by showing the physical depravity unleashed around the world by the ivory-tower/missile-silo conflicts of Cold War ideologies promulgated in nations thousands of miles away from the action in the story itself. There’s a haunting, recurring leitmotif involving a racist caricature comic-book character, his beatific blackface smile appearing in the background, and occasionally in context-free close-ups, as a symbol of unthinking, commoditized cruelty. Poison River may also be my favorite artistic exploration of hypocrisy, neither overly condemnatory nor in any way compromising, in terms of how it treats being queer: Nearly every character in the book is either financially or emotionally close to someone who isn’t strictly straight, and nearly all of them really don’t care, and nearly all of them would nevertheless punish those non-straight characters for it if doing so became convenient–and some of the punishments meted out are far more perverse than anything the characters being punished would dream of cooking up. The story also takes Luba herself about as far into unlikablity, even irredeemability, as it can go, before literally walking her through a tunnel and out the other side, as she and we shake off the previous events of her life like a nightmare and emerge with a scarred but strong sense of morality. There’s just a fucking lot going on in this thing.
I feel bad about barely discussing Love and Rockets X, the also-pretty-long story that rounds out the collection, in which we follow some of the Palomar characters in racially tense, hard-partying Los Angeles circa 1990. But in a way, it feels like a riff on the same ideas that drive Poison River, simply filtered through the American/urban/musical milieu normally occupied by Jaime. Racism, capitalism, the way we let sex make us into worse people, violence in the name of ideology…it’s all still there, no matter how many people call each other “dude.”
There aren’t very many comics this affecting, that much I can tell you. You can probably count them on two hands with fingers to spare. I would say I envy the people who still get to read this for the first time, but I just re-read it, and here I sit, knocked on my ass.