By the end of his post-Palomar Love and Rockets comics, Gilbert often draws his characters like they’re the only people on earth. Their acts are isolated against a blank background, or they parade themselves in front of us and address us directly like B-movie actresses at a convention panel or motivational speakers on an arena stage. They’re larger than life and spotlit as such.
New Tales of Old Palomar reminds us that life goes on around them, and the earth surrounds them. Beto’s contribution to the Igort-edited Ignatz line of international art-comic series, these three issues present a suite of stories from Palomar’s past. They fill in a few notable lacuane–where Tonantzin and Diana came from, what was up with the gang of kids we’d occasionally see who were a few years older than the Pipo/Heraclio group, how Chelo lost her eye. A lot of this turns out to be really fascinating, especially if you’ve spent a month immersing yourself in the Palomar-verse. But to me it’s not what’s told that matters, but how it’s told. Maybe it’s seeing Gilbert work at magazine size again, maybe it’s the creamy off-white paper stock, maybe it’s the thinner, finer line he’s using, but New Tales simply feels different than anything we’ve seen from Beto in years.
Once again characters are rooted in the streets of Palomar and the wilderness beyond, stretching off in all directions. Indeed the wilderness, as much as I hate to use this cliché, is as much a character in these stories as anyone or anything else: It’s vast, almost abstractly so at times, and it houses at least as many mysteries as Fritz’s backstory. Gilbert uses it to bring the strip’s mostly forgotten supernatural and science fiction elements back to the foreground–ghosts and spirits on one hand, and sinister “researchers” on the other. And these in turn tie in to long-abandoned plot threads: Tonantzin’s slow-burning madness, say, or the hinted-at Cold War experiments that seem to have quietly unleashed genuine danger in Palomar’s surroundings, or the way Palomar seems to exist as a spiritual entity quite aside from the people who happen to inhabit it. But these connections are mostly teased out, not hit with the sledgehammer emotional force of the post-Palomar comics’ equivalent sinister or macabre bits. The trick Gilbert pulls here is to persuade us, through visuals and pacing, to put aside our foreknowledge of all that comes later, all the tragedy and horror, all the manic escapades and blackness, and exchange it for a quiet, yellowed air of mystery and menace–and eventual safety, since all’s well that ends well here. The shadow is there, but it’s only that, a shadow of the crystalline moment at hand, hinting at a vast and unknowable world beyond. Beautiful stuff.