(Programming note: Yes, LOVE AND ROCKTOBER marches on! And I’m sticking with “LOVE AND ROCKTOBER” because “LOVEMBER AND ROCKETS” just sounds kinda goofy. Thanks for sticking with it, thanks for switching blog locations with me, and thanks for your patience with the unrelated-to-the-blog-switchover computer meltdown that screwed up my reviewing schedule last week.)
I know I just got finished explaining that biology is destiny in the Palomar stories. But what struck me upon rereading the material collected in this volume, dominated by the titular story of a serial killer’s stay in the town, is the power of ideas. Not emotional or sexual drives, even, like the web of lust and unrequited love surround Luba’s mother Maria in the suite of stories that forms the second half of the collection, but actual honest-to-god ideas. Tonantzin is literally driven mad — broken — by the late Cold War political apocalypticism of her criminal boyfriend. (He himself is freed from nihilism’s grip by a jailbird religious conversion, for all the good it does anyone.) Humberto is thrown so far off-kilter by his discovery of the avant-garde artistic tradition from the Impressionists onward that the impact, combined with his fear of the killer, drives him to abandon notions of right and wrong entirely in favor of the truth art can express. In both cases, this ends in disaster.
But there’s a counterpoint to the damage these ideas do. Pipo’s success as a designer and entrepreneur is at least as driven by ideas — from the designs she and her siblings create, to her no-nonsense but still thoughtful approach to business and investing, even to her adamant refusal to learn English as a way to defy being fully coopted by American cultural capitalism — as Tonantzin’s self-immolation and Humberto’s life-threatening secret. Similarly, “American in Palomar” Howard Miller once thought his ideas of art and genius allowed him to dehumanize and exploit the Palomarians, until his actual experiences with them revealed what a creep this makes him; now he’s returned to help Pipo and Diana rebuild and restore the town, using the money made from the artistic project that his time in Palomar forced him to rethink.
Maybe I’m just looking for pat connections here, but perhaps this is why Gilbert’s technique takes a turn for the heady here. Think of that climactic sequence in “Human Diastrophism” where over the course of three tightly gridded pages, each panel represents a jump in time and space, forcing the reader to reconstruct the events that led up to each image herself. Think of the entire Maria/Gorgo section, with its massive, unceremonious leaps throughout the history of the pair’s lives and relationship, the exact contours of which constitute as much of a mystery as the sinister events that forced them both into their secret lives. Think even of the almost playful, superhero-universe-style continuity games Beto plays — the implication that the weird animals that surround Palomar, from an eyeball-eating bird to those vicious monkeys to perhaps even those giant, tasty slugs, are the result of experiments by American military scientists; most especially the oblique revelation that concludes the volume (and all of the first run of Love and Rockets) by bridging the lives and worlds of two of the most haunting characters Gilbert and Jaime ever created. If Heartbreak Soup showed us Gilbert the literary comics stylist, Human Diastrophism shows us Gilbert the mindfucker — the Gilbert who’s still with us today.
Two more quick notes:
1) Human Diastrophism is the one point in the entire excellent Love and Rockets Library digest-size reprint program where I actually have something to object to, format-wise. I found the Palomar hardcover somewhat frustrating because it left out Love and Rockets X and Poison River, two stand-alone graphic novels set in the Palomar-verse if not in Palomar itself. But it wasn’t as bad as Locas leaving out short stories like “Flies on the Ceiling,” and at any rate I understood that when you’re talking about adding two full-length graphic novels to an already gigantic book, page count becomes a factor. However, I figured that with the digests, we’d finally get all the Palomar-verse stories in chronological order, so that Palomar Book Two would include “Human Diastrophism” and “Love and Rockets X,” and Palomar Book Three would include “Poison River” and the material originally collected in “Luba Conquers the World,” which marked the end of the first Love and Rockets run. Instead, things are collected pretty much as they were in the Palomar HC, with the “Human Diastrophism” and “Luba Conquers the World” material collected back to back in this volume, and “Love and Rockets X” and “Poison River” taken out of order and placed in Book Three, Beyond Palomar. If Eric Reynolds had a nickel for every time he’s heard me complain about this, he’d have, well, at least two bits, but this has always driven me nuts. I could be wrong, but I think collecting everything in order would have worked just fine in terms of page count, story cohesion, you name it. Human Diastrophism is a fine collection, and in all honesty the material towards the end involving Luba, her mother, her sisters, Gorgo, and their backstory isn’t really any more confusing without having read the intervening stories in “X” and “Poison River” than a lot of things Gilbert does on purpose. But it wasn’t the way the material was first released, it does make things confusing at least to an extent, and most importantly, it gives the back half of this collection a valedictory, bon voyage feel (since that material was the end of Love and Rockets, as far as anyone knew) that comes across as really sudden and jarring. Next time I may manually monkey with the reading order and stop Human Diastrophism halfway through, read Beyond Palomar, and then pick up with the back half of the book. Hey, if I can do this sort of thing for Final Crisis…
2) di·as·tro·phism (dī as′trə fiz′əm)
1. the process by which the earth’s surface is reshaped through rock movements and displacements
2. formations so made
Origin: < Gr diastrophē, distortion < diastrephein, to turn aside, distort < dia-, aside + strephein, to turn (see strophe) + -ism