“It occurred to me: The basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. But they don’t.” –Richard Harrow, Boardwalk Empire
Does Gilbert Hernandez agree with this, or doesn’t he? That seems to me to be the central question of the Palomar books, and the answer depends on which one you’re reading. Palomar is very much a fiction of community; its stories are not simply about a collection of individuals who either interact or don’t, it’s about that web of interaction and the collective effect it has on everyone involved in it. Certainly in the earlier, lighter material it appears that the importance of this connectivity is paramount for Beto — a sentiment that recurs anytime the characters chafe at the encroachment of the outside world, or at co-option by the United States. On the other hand, you have things like Tonantzin’s self-destruction, or the pack of murdering ghouls who make up the cast of Poison River. In cases like these, all the things we think of as potential connections — love, sex, family, political and ideological worldviews dedicated to the greater good — are revealed as enormously destructive, utterly indifferent forces, at least as well equipped to tear people apart as bring them together. One could easily conceive of Palomar as a long chase scene in which destruction is constantly nipping at connection’s heels.
Birdland, then, is connection opening up the healthiest lead it’s had in hundreds of pages. Doing a straight-up porn comic that borrows the Palomar-verse characters Fritz and Petra gives Beto the freedom to be as silly and utopian as he wants, something he couldn’t get away with in the naturalist, politically aware world of Palomar and Love and Rockets proper. As a result, he can spend three-quarters of the story watching various adulterous pairings unfold as the characters attempt to compensate for their unhappy unrequited loves and unfulfilled lives — and then blammo, aliens can abduct everyone and grant them the gift of totally guilt-free fucking, in which they inflict no emotional pain on one another whatsoever and everyone can get exactly what they want — and then double-blammo, a cosmic mishap shows them how their romantic misadventures, their pleasures and sorrows, echo those of basically every life form throughout the history of life itself. Talk about a happy ending!
Perhaps the easiest way to see what he’s up to here is to note that by the project’s very nature, the human bodies with which he has always shown such proficiency must needs connect. I mean, just look at the amount of luscious, loving detail Beto puts into, say, Mark’s body hair, or Inez’s vagina. When a guy who draws like that is gonna do a sex comic, you’re gonna feel like those connections are worthwhile almost by default. That’s what happens when bodies start slappin’.