Posts Tagged ‘comic reviews’
Over at Vorpalizer, I wrote about Jordan Crane’s excellent weird Western comic “The Hand of Gold,” and about my favorite short story, Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities.”
I wrote about Ben Jones & Frank Santoro’s unfinished neopsychedelic masterpiece Cold Heat for Vorpalizer. To be played at maximum volume.
Please read the comic; it’s gorgeous, funny, troubling, and powerful, and you can read it all on a lovely single scrolling page.
I’m going to be writing about science fiction, fantasy, horror etc. with some dayjob coworkers at our new group blog Vorpalizer.com. I got started with posts on Michael DeForge’s Ant Comic and Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Come check it out.
LOVE AND ROCKTOBER | Index, Acknowledgements, and Which Love and Rockets Books to Read First (UPDATED x2))Friday, December 10th, 2010
Below you will find links to all my posts from LOVE AND ROCKTOBER, a marathon examination of the entirety of Love and Rockets by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez (and sometimes Mario Hernandez), October-December 2010. I will continue to add links to Los Bros’ new comics as they are released and reviewed. Please click the links for full reviews.
Thank you to Paul Baresh, Jacq Cohen, and Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for their help and support during this project. Fantagraphics’ “How to Read Love and Rockets” page gets my highest recommendation for anyone interested in keeping track of the optimal reading order for the series or learning what comics are and aren’t in what book.
This was one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I’ve ever done for this blog. Thank you for reading.
Special thanks to Gilbert and Jaime (and Mario) for the inexhaustible richness of their work.
UPDATE: WHERE TO START
One of the most frequently asked questions regarding Los Bros Hernandez and Love and Rockets is which book to start reading them with. With Gilbert, that’s easy: Heartbreak Soup, the start of the Palomar/Luba saga of life in a small Central American village and, eventually, California. (Prepare to ignore the following: If you’re feeling frisky, you could start with Beyond Palomar, which contains the stand-alone graphic novel Poison River. That’s the origin story of Gilbert’s main character, Luba, and thus is chronologically the “beginning” of her story; it’s also one of the greatest comics ever made. The book also contains another stand-alone story, Love and Rockets X, which ties in with the Palomar/Luba stories but doesn’t require knowledge of them to understand or enjoy. But nine times out of ten, you’ll probably want to start with Heartbreak Soup.)
With Jaime, it’s a little trickier: Maggie the Mechanic is the start of the Locas saga, about a group of Latina punk-rock kids and their circle of friends, but it’s a science-fiction comic at first, which is different than the work for which Jaime is most renowned (since he gradually dropped the SF elements from the storyline); moreover it’s drawn in a more traditional, maximalist style than his best-known work, and I’ve seen this be a bit off-putting for some readers as well. The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. is volume two of the Locas strips, so you’re joining things in progress if you start there, but it’s much more what people are thinking visually/tonally/narratively of when they talk about Jaime’s greatness; moreover, jumping right in isn’t all that weird, since Jaime tends to make large jumps in the chronology anyway. Personally, I still recommend starting at the start, with Maggie the Mechanic, provided you think you won’t find light science fiction and classic illustration off-putting; it really is where the story of Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, Penny et al begins.
UPDATE 07/17/12: Okay, I know where to start, but how do I proceed from there?
L&R has been published, collected, re-collected, and re-re-collected in a fashion that can get pretty confusing. Heck, even now, with a line of digest-format versions that can be seen as pretty much definitive, most of Gilbert and Jaime’s stuff is still being released in standalone graphic-novel formats before eventually getting rolled into the digest series. So you end up having to bounce around between formats a bit.
Below I’ve numbered the volumes you to read in the order you want to read them. Titles in parentheses contain material that has been collected in other, more definitive volumes and thus can be skipped (though of course you should read my awesome reviews anyway).
And now, the reviews.
The “Locas” Stories
(Locas [old, disavowed review])
1. Maggie the Mechanic
2. The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S.
3. Perla La Loca
4. Penny Century
(Ghost of Hoppers)
(The Education of Hopey Glass)
6. Love and Rockets Vol. 2 #20
(Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 [old version])
(Love and Rockets: New Stories #1-2)
7. God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls
8. Love and Rockets: New Stories #3
9. Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
The “Palomar”-verse Stories
1. Heartbreak Soup
2. Human Diastrophism
3. Beyond Palomar
4. Luba in America
5. Luba: The Book of Ofelia
6. Luba: Three Daughters
7. High Soft Lisp
7x. The Adventures of Venus
8. Love and Rockets Vol. 2 #20
9. New Tales of Old Palomar
10. Chance in Hell
11. Speak of the Devil
12. The Troublemakers
13/14/15. Love and Rockets: New Stories #1-3 and “Dreamstar”
16. Love from the Shadows
17. Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
LOS BROS HERNANDEZ
(Mostly) Non-”Locas”/”Palomar” Stories
Amor y Cohetes (Gilbert, Jaime, Mario)
Fear of Comics (Gilbert)
Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 (Gilbert and Mario) (old version)
Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 (Gilbert and Mario)
Citizen Rex (Gilbert and Mario)
^ (not quite a Palomar-verse story, but not quite not a Palomar-verse story)
Love and Rockets: New Stories #1-3
featuring various stories by Gilbert Hernandez, writer/artist
104 pages each
Buy them for 33% off from Fantagraphics
Buy them from Amazon.com
in MySpace Dark Horse Presents #24
Gilbert Hernandez, writer/artist
Dark Horse, July 2009
Read it for free on MySpace.com (sorry, the permalink to the story isn’t working so you’ll have to scroll for it)
Buy it in MySpace Dark Horse Presents Vol. 4 from Amazon.com
“Fuck. Where’d all the good sex go? There used to be fuckin’ and sucking’ and pussy eatin’ and everything. Pussy eaten’ being my favorite. Now it’s rare to see sex much lately, unless it’s seen as sad or creepy or simply wrong. Shit, is that a cop?”–from “The Funny Papers”
“I didn’t get naked or do porn or have to suck anybody’s dick!! OK?!!”–from “Sad Girl”
“The naked maniac guys, the bloody cop, my up-the-butt daisy dukes…camera behind me getting a good close-up…I’ll take what I can get.”–from “Killer * Sad Girl * Star”
“They’re only animals! You did it! You did it too!”–from “Scarlet by Starlight”
The suite of stories Gilbert Hernandez contributed to the relaunched, graphic-novel-format Love and Rockets: New Stories might be his most complex work yet. By my count, you have two relatively straightforward strips, “Sad Girl” and “Killer * Sad Girl * Star,” starring Killer, Guadalupe’s teenage daughter and heir to the Luba/Fritz/Petra bombshell genes. You have a Fritz B-movie, “Scarlet by Starlight.” You have a movie Killer starred in, “Hypnotwist,” which was a remake of an earlier film we’re told; two other Killer movies are woven into “Killer * Sad Girl * Star.” You have an abstract strip called “?” with which “Hypnotwist” shares much of its visual vocabulary. You have a strip that’s similar in tone to his bleaker Palomar morality plays, “Papa,” and a similarly cold America-based strip called “Victory Dance.” Then you have a funny-animal goof called “Never Say Never,” an exercise in ’60s-style humor cartooning called “Chiro El Indio” that’s written by brother Mario, a trio of newspaper strips called “The Funny Papers,” and a kill-crazy rampage by the Martin & Lewis impersonators from Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (seriously!) called “The New Adventures of Duke and Sammy.” Finally, there’s “Dreamstar” from Dark Horse’s defunct webcomics site at MySpace.com, which is still another film from Killer’s oeuvre.
It was only in reading Beto’s stories in all three volumes that the Chinese puzzle-box intricacy of what he’s doing here revealed itself to me. Much of this is accomplished by delaying the point at which we receive vital information. In “Hypnotwist,” we don’t see Killer appear until a pair of pages deep into the strange, wordless strip. Up until then we’ve been focusing on the imagery the strip shares with the previous volume’s “?”–giant smiley faces, a tumbling glass, ducks, a door with a question mark; meanwhile, the meager information about Killer’s first movie we learned in “Sad Girl”–it involved a lot of green-screen work and running in place in a trenchcoat designed to make her look nude underneath–doesn’t tip us off about anything in “Hypnotwist” until Killer herself shows up. “Scarlet by Starlight,” meanwhile, never tips its hand, not even with subtle deviations like the hair-color games Chris Ware played with his similar sci-fi/horror story-within-the-story in ACME Novelty Library #19. Unless you happen to remember the title from Fritz’s strips, or the endpages in The Troublemakers and Chance in Hell, there’s no way to tell it’s a “movie” from the Palomar-verse until you see Killer watching part of it in the following strip. Fritz herself is buried under cat-person make-up and her humanoid speech doesn’t give her lisp occasion to manifest. (I know she has other identifying characteristics, but let’s face it, when it comes to deducing the identity of Beto characters, “giant breasts” hardly narrows it down.) In “Killer * Sad Girl * Star,” one of the movies Killer stars in is presented in such a fashion that it seems to be real life. “Victory Dance” starts out like a non-narrative exploration of figurework a la “Heroin” from Fear of Comics before becoming a story about a relationship haunted by the spectre of death and one member’s fleeing from it a la “Papa,” and finally revealing itself to be set in “Papa”‘s world. “Papa,” meanwhile, could be a Palomar-verse strip for all I know–I’d need to go back and see if mudslides or poisonous worms were ever a feature of Palomar’s surroundings. “The New Adventures of Duke and Sammy” plays “Papa” and “Victory Dance”‘s relationship/travelogue tragedies as farce. “The Funny Papers”‘ sub-strip “Meche” evokes a key backstory element in the Fritz comics, while “It’s Good to Be…” (quoted above in its entirety) seems to be a direct commentary on Beto’s current approach to sex in his comics. As is custom, the films we see the characters acting in are all reflective of the issues of sexuality that dominate their own lives. Specfically, the brutal exploitation of children at the center of “Scarlet by Starlight”–delivered in a grotesquely matter-of-fact panel, savagely angry and awful–is echoed by the far milder but still insidious sexualization of “Killer * Sad Girl * Star” later on in issue #3…and, of course, it compliments and reinforces Jaime’s “Browntown”/”The Love Bunglers” suite in that same volume. All in service of what feels like an extension of the flagellating self-critique we saw in High Soft Lisp, the quotes above being Exhibit A.
And I could probably go on! But to do so would be to imply that trainspotting is the primary value of these comics. I could just as easily enumerate the innumerable pleasures of Gilbert’s cartooning itself in these strips: The wire-thin, unwavering line with which he draws the legs of the protagonist of “Hypnotwist,” say–a style I’ve never seen him use before. That choreography in “Victory Dance.” The emergence of vast, hellish landscapes as a no-doubt-about-it theme in Gilbert’s work with the opening of “Papa.” The dead-behind-the-eyes facial expressions of the humans in “Scarlet by Starlight.” The sequence in “Hypnotwist” where a balloon-headed man’s head is popped, leaving it sagging horrifically off his neck as he crawls in the nude. The WTF repetition of the Masonic square and compass. The unexplained holes in Papa’s head. Killer as a heavy-lidded Luba lookalike. Hector as a wild-eyed gray-haired hot-tempered eminence grise.
All told, you could wrap these stories up between two covers and come up with a book of absolutely crushing intelligence, emotional heft, and visual power–a book among the best of Gilbert’s career. And by #3, Jaime is hitting a similar career peak, playing off of similarly uncompromising themes. Here I am at the end of over two months of reading nothing but going on three decades’ worth of Love and Rockets, and neither I nor Los Bros Hernandez are anywhere near exhausted. All hail.
Love and Rockets: New Stories #1
Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, writer/artists
Mario Hernandez, writer
Fantagraphics, July 2008
Buy it from Fantagraphics at some point
Buy it from Amazon.com
(Note: This review was originally posted on August 4th, 2008. For my more recent take on Jaime’s contributions to the volume, click here. And come back in two days for my review of Gilbert’s contributions to New Stories — the final LOVE AND ROCKTOBER review!)
This handsome new book-sized version of Los Bros’ hallowed series continues both Fantagraphics’ TPB hot streak – Mome and the Love & Rockets digests are also doozies of an argument for this format – and the Brothers’ almost absurd mastery of the art form.
Jaime’s contribution is your proverbial superhero epic, in which Maggie’s friend Angel joins forces with several different teams of female superheroes to help subdue Penny Century, who’s gone and pulled a Parallax (nerd points!) after her fulfilling her long-standing dream of gaining super-powers proves disastrous. It’s fun to see Jaime shift this seamlessly back into the sort of revisionist-genre storytelling he practiced in L&R‘s earliest issues. The trick to it is delivering everything you want in a superhero story – action, suspense, tight costumes – while maintaining his characters’ neuroses and having the events of the tale spring directly from them just like they would in a normal “Locas” story. Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but he’s pretty okay at drawing women, spotting blacks, and pacing panel transitions. I know, I hope you were sitting down.
For me, though, it’s Gilbert who’s killing the game here. Sandwiched between his brothers’ two superhero installments, Gilbert’s comics are mostly short, largely abstract, and completely devastating. Two subtly interlocking strips set in completely different milieux , “Papa” and “Victory Dance,” muse on love and restlessness, using disease and solitary travel to nail that feeling of wanting to drop it all and go somewhere, anywhere, as long as it’s somewhere else. Another strip flips this idea around, recasting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as jovial space barbarians who slaughter their way back together across a hostile world after their duo has been forcibly disbanded by aliens. Both “Victory Dance” and “?” showcase Beto’s skill at “choreographing” the images in each panel into a rhythm, the former literally through depiction of a dance, the latter with Woodring-esque surrealism. “Never Say Never” is also on the surreal side, invoking Freud and Dali with slightly blue gags about sex and money among funny animals. “Chiro El Indio,” written by Mario, reads like an out-of-continuity “Palomar” excerpt. “The Funny Papers” serves up three newspaper-size strips, any one of which would be the best strip I read all year. This is a guy who makes you want to push away from your table and give up.
Well, no children are brutally murdered in this one, so thank heaven for small favors! Of the Fritz B-movie books so far — and the back flap, in explaining the existence of Speak of the Devil, refers to that work as a “half-sister” of the other two — this one is the most straightforwardly a product of genre. Grifters and gunplay, seductions and quadruple-crosses, all that stuff. You can’t help but hear Anjelica Huston snarl “Get off the grift, Roy” as you read it. What separates it from, say, an arc of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal is the volume at which it’s pitched. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not hysterical or manic, it’s just that everything is keyed slightly sharp. The sex is clinically graphic, at least in terms of how the characters talk about it if not how Gilbert draws it (“Oh, shit! He fucking came in me, Wes!”). The violence is a scramble of surprised-looking people getting punched in the face and shot in the head; the most beautifully and explosively choreographed fight ends with one of the combatants quietly giving up and docilely getting into the trunk of a car on demand. The alliances and betrayals aren’t just ludicrously baroque, they’re envisioned as even more so by the participants — in fact, the worst trouble is made by characters thinking so far ahead of one another that they’re hardly within shouting distance of the reality of the situation anymore. And there’s magic, too, but like everything else it’s just used to fuck other people over. Put it this way: It’s a world where every single stray bullet kills someone. Chaos is the order.
Speak of the Devil
Gilbert Hernandez, writer/artist
Dark Horse, October 2008
128 pages, hardcover
Buy it from Amazon.com
(Note #1: Okay, so what is a Dark Horse book doing in the middle of my Love and Rockets review-a-thon? All of Gilbert’s Palomar-verse material is published by Fantagraphics, right? Well, more or less. But Speak of the Devil is definitely the title of one of Fritz’s B-movies — it gets mentioned as such in the main storyline, and you can see a poster for it in the lower left-hand corner of the endpages for the “official” B-movie graphic novels Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers. Moreover, the brief plot description we get in one of Fritz’s strips matches the plot here, so it’s not just a question of sharing a title. However, Fritz herself is nowhere to be found in the book (though it’s clear enough which role she’d be playing were she in it), and there’s no indication in the indicia or title page or wherever that this is part of the “Fritz-verse.” But how’s this for an explanation: Beto says that the Speak of the Devil graphic novel is adapted from the “true story” that “inspired” the (entirely fictional, need I remind you!) Speak of the Devil movie that starred Fritz. To me that’s enough of a connection to Love and Rockets to merit inclusion in LOVE AND ROCKTOBER, as opposed to stuff like Grip or Yeah! or Sloth or whatever.)
(Note #2: I originally posted this review on January 14, 2009. I gave the book a mixed review. I stand by at least part of the thrust (no pun intended — you’ll see) of my argument, but I’ve changed my mind about the most important thing.
“I understand that we’re not in the ‘real world’ of something like the Palomar material but in the heightened reality of the ‘Fritz-verse’ of b-movies Beto is slowly converting to graphic novel form,” I wrote, “but I still feel like the work requires psychological integrity if not psychological realism, and I don’t see how guileless serial murder flows from what we’ve seen in these characters up until that point.” You’d think I might double down on this point now that I know the book is the “real” story the b-movie was based on. But having read so much Gilbert in so short a period of time, I suddenly understand exactly how a trio of slightly kinky, slightly alienated characters become brutal murderers: To Gilbert, brutality is everywhere. Normalcy is more or less a mask. Compare these quotes, the first from Speak of the Devil, the second from Chance in Hell:
“What kind of person would do that to a kid? What kind of God would allow it? And I knew that baby wasn’t the first or the last. How many babies is this happening to as we speak?”
“Even if you do get him convicted, he’s only one babykiller. There’s thousands out there that’ll never get caught. Millions before him and millions after him.”
The long and the short of it is that the rape and murder of children has become of central importance to Gilbert’s work and worldview. I am communing with very dark material here. It has literally been keeping me up at night.)
Hmmm, you know what? Not quite sure what to make of this one. It’s Gilbert Hernandez, so it’s beautiful, in this case almost freakishly so. The image of the moon and clouds in the night sky in the first couple of panels is enormously evocative and engrossing–as cliche as it sounds, you really are instantly transported into the world of this comic. The book’s glossy paper takes Beto’s blacks to a new level of shiny, greasy oiliness. They almost look wet. He can lay out a page like nobody’s business and has the same knack for doing the unexpected but just-right with his panels that John Bonham had with his drums, from a dialogue sequence where word balloons always accompany a shot of the person who isn’t talking to a view of a make-out session that features a positioning of the two involved parties I’d never seen depicted before yet instantly recognized.
The story isn’t quite so smoothly done. I buy the character work in the beginning–I understand why each of these people is making these unusual choices. I was almost thrown by the first outbreak of violence, but then it turns out to be something different and less grievous than I thought it was, so I was back on board with what I thought was a really astute take on troubled teenagedom. I could even go along for the ride when the killing started because of the people with whom it started. I watched Snapped, I know these things happen. But as things get progressively worse, I never quite bought the ease with which our protagonists become a Mickey and Mallory menage a trois, particularly the stepmother, who seemed basically happy with her life if a little kinkier than she felt comfortable letting on with her husband. I understand that we’re not in the “real world” of something like the Palomar material but in the heightened reality of the “Fritz-verse” of b-movies Beto is slowly converting to graphic novel form, but I still feel like the work requires psychological integrity if not psychological realism, and I don’t see how guileless serial murder flows from what we’ve seen in these characters up until that point.
And there’s also this weird disconnect between the astonishingly graphic violence–seriously, this thing is brutal–and the strangely prudish sexual material. Which, I’m sorry, erotic thrillers should have nudity, particularly erotic thrillers from Gilbert freaking Hernandez, the most refreshingly no-holds-barred tackler of sexual material in alternative comics. Am I saying that I want to see the sexy female characters naked? Well, yeah, that’s partially what I’m saying, same as how I wanted to see Superman actually punch people in Superman Returns–it’s sort of the point. And while we’re at it, this isn’t Hollywood, we don’t have the MPAA breathing down our necks, we can show dick, too, as Beto has countless times in the past. To do a Brian DePalma story about peeping toms with several sex and masturbation scenes and not show any nudity at all…it’s just weird, it left me wondering why that decision was made and distracted when the over-the-top violence kicked off, like, “this is okay but nipples aren’t?”. At first I assumed it was because this was originally a serialized Dark Horse comic, but Dark Horse also published Sin City and Hard Boiled, both of them insanely violent comics with a decent amount of nipplage. I dunno, it’s odd, don’t you think? I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this comic anyway, because like its sister book Chance in Hell it’s magnetic and extremely revealing in terms of how much of its author it puts on display, but it doesn’t quite all click for me the way thematically (and even visually) similar works like Black Hole click.
(Note: I originally posted this review on January 18, 2008. This was before I’d read much, if any, of Gilbert’s Fritz material from Love and Rockets. I think the review holds up, which is why I’m re-running it; but with all of Beto’s post-Palomar Palomar-verse work under my belt now, if anything I find Chance in Hell, both its content and its very existence, even more disturbing. On a story level, the “movie” from which the graphic novel is “adapted” turns out to be a “what-if” for its co-star Fritz (whose prostitute character in it doesn’t have a speaking role), featuring a protagonist whose life easily could have been Fritz’s if her mother Maria had been just a bit more heartless or her father Hector just a bit more awful. But that right there’s the thing: Gilbert basically takes the single worst thing ever done by anyone in any of his stories, turns up the volume on it, and builds a new, even more violent and hideous story around it. “Some carry the pit in them for the rest of their lives,” says the book. And later: “There’ve been people who’ve survived, but each has carried with him a distinct odor for the rest of his life. A unique smell that he could never remove. Like mine. Like the smell I carry and must mask with a special cologne of my own design. Is there something you must mask?”)
Rough, rough stuff from the creator of Palomar. Hernandez is in the midst of creating graphic novels based on the B-movies that his Palomar-verse character Fritz starred in, but “B-movie” might give you the wrong impression here. This isn’t one of those howlers the bots made fun of on MST3K–it’s the kind of disturbing, unpleasant film starring and shot by unknowns that you might rent on a whim from the horror or European section of your old neighborhood video store, watch, and spend the rest of the evening worried about the mental health of cast and crew. The story concerns Empress, an orphaned toddler abandoned in a sprawling, dog-eat-dog garbage dump and raped so frequently that she doesn’t even seem to notice anymore. A farcical string of bloodily violent incidents leads her to a life as the unofficially adopted daughter of a poetry editor who claims to have come from the same circumstances, and then eventually to a second life as the wife of a young district attorney, but in both cases violence and squalor cling to her like a stench, to use a frequently invoked metaphor.
This is the angriest I can ever recall Gilbert’s art looking. That’s saying something: My wife, for example, finds his books almost difficult to look at–”His characters just look so hard,” she says, and they’ve never been harder than here. Right from the get-go his figures seem dashed off as in a white heat, while several early landscapes and backgrounds in the hellish dump look like the whole world is on fire. His almost supernaturally confident pacing of scenes and the cuts between them evoke in their matter-of-factness the acceptance of everyday brutality by the characters themselves. At times the jumpcuts can be quite funny, as when a scene between Empress and her adopted father consists solely of a pair of panels where they argue over whether a glass is half empty or half full; both Hernandez and his characters know how reductive this exchange is, yet also know it’s quite true to who they are.
But when that metronomic editing slows down, the effect is powerful, particularly because it is often done to draw out scenes of gutwrenching violence or tragedy. (The centerpiece scene in the brothel is as disturbing as the death squad attack in Gilbert’s masterpiece Poison River; there as here a knowing glance is all-important, but here it causes murder rather than prevents it.) The end of the book changes the pacing again, revving up the jumpcuts to suggest unsolved crime and unglued minds, and to be honest I’ve revisited it three or four times today and I’m still not sure what’s going on. Maybe that’s a problem, maybe it’s not. Since I see myself revisiting this book, a gruesome, enraged commentary on just how shitty things can be, many, many times in the future, I’m leaning toward “not a problem at all.”
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.
Love and Rockets Vol. 2 #20
featuring “Venus and You″
Gilbert Hernandez, writer/artist
Out of print at Fantagraphics
Buy it as featured in the Luba hardcover from Fantagraphics
Buy it as featured in the Luba hardcover from Amazon.com
(Programming note: As I did with Jaime, I’ll be reviewing Gilbert’s contributions to the final issue of Love and Rockets Vol. 2 and (when I get to them — still a ways to go!) the first three issues of Love and Rockets Vol. 3 on their own. Click here read about the Jaime half of this comic.)
In order to read this story, I had to turn to my massive Luba hardcover, which I believe collects all of the post-Palomar Palomar-verse stories in chronological order. I sorta wish I’d realized this going into my read-through of all Gilbert’s work, since it’s obviously how I prefer to read this stuff. But for the purposes of a review-a-thon like this it wouldn’t have made much sense to consume this material in one giant hardcover. I wouldn’t have been able to do the whole gigantic work justice in one go, especially compared to the more manageable chunks in which I read the rest of Los Bros’ work; besides, no way could I have maintained my schedule by reading the thing in two days.
But flipping through the book to get to the final post-Palomar story (to date, I believe), which remains otherwise uncollected, I discovered that the stories immediately leading up to this one are “Blackouting” and “Doralis.” If those titles don’t mean anything to you I won’t spoil it, but they were the two big audible-gasp, dropped-jaw, cover-gaping-mouth-with-hand moments from High Soft Lisp and Luba in America. “Devastating” just about covers it, though not quite–they’re the big black holes into which their respective storylines drop. Where could Beto possibly go from there?
The answer is “a happy ending,” of course. At long last he returns to Venus, Petra’s daughter and one of the least damaged, most well-adjusted, most self-assured characters in the whole post-Palomar oeuvre. Now a teenager, she’s virtually everything her mother and aunts never got to be. She has a healthy, fun-sounding sex life with her boyfriend, who also happens to be her best friend of many years’ standing. She gets along great with her mother and both her aunts despite their estrangement. Her personal segment of the extended family seems quite secure — Petra has remarried to a guy who sounds swell, Petra herself put on a bunch of marriage-security weight and sounds happy herself, Venus and her kid sister get along. Venus is smart, funny, quick-witted, kind-hearted, a pretty unabashed nerd, beautiful…just a real kick-ass kid. It’s an uplifting note to end on after all this darkness.
Most uplifting at all is Venus’s power to process and contextualize her family’s story healthily. In her interactions with her mother and aunts, we see she’s able to admire their admirable qualities — and for all the horror we’ve been shown, all three sisters have plenty to admire about them, their simple survival not being the least of it — while not letting their bad sides taint her. (If that takes a bit of denial on her part, so be it.) For example, she’s revealed in this final strip to be her Tia Fritz’s number-one fan. She’s seen all of her aunt’s movies–with the possible exception of the surreal faux-porn flick from her pre-movie-star days that’s currently causing a lot of buzz. Venus dismisses it as basically unimportant compared to Fritz’s latest release, which Fritz herself wrote and directed. We the reader can see the symbolic resonance of the clip from the strange pseudo-porn movie — a man emerges from a mist-enshrouded forest to have sex with a nude Fritz, her breasts swollen by pregnancy, only to transform into some sort of beast in the middle of the act, then disappear into the background, leaving Fritz naked, disoriented, and alone. It’s her life as a sexual being, basically…and Venus doesn’t give a fuck, because she prefers the movie where Fritz is the writer-director-star. I get the feeling that Venus is equipped to be a multi-hyphenate for her own life in a way that few of the characters we’ve met have been.
Indeed, in our final glimpse of her, she asks her late family and friends — Grandma Maria, Gato, Sergio, Dolaris — to watch over the three sisters, and then provides these guardian angels’ answers to her prayers herself, same font, same caption style. Writer, director, star. I wish her all the luck in the world.
I’ve never seen a cartoonist so thoroughly dismantle–discredit–his own artistic preoccupations.
In High Soft Lisp, Gilbert traces the relationship history of Fritz Martinez, the ultimate sex goddess in a career full of them, and in so doing reveals that her every fetish outfit and sexual free-for-all is fruit from the poisoned tree. Lots of characters in this book enjoy the living shit out of Fritz’s sexuality, not least Fritz herself, but to a man and woman they’re revealed to be creepily predatory about it, embracing the worst in themselves and encouraging the worst in Fritz. And here’s the thing: What have we been doing over the hundreds of pages we’ve spent watching Fritz adorably and kinkily fuck her way through the post-Palomar cast of Beto’s comics? What has Beto been doing? What does that say about all of us?
That’s one way of looking at High Soft Lisp. Another way is to expand Beto’s list of targets to include his critics. “Ooh ooh, the criticth are going to dithapprove becauthe I’m naked again!” Fritz says at one point after drunkenly stripping after an apocalyptically awful confrontation with her lifelong misery’s author. “I’m too often naked in my filmth. Criticth write with the finger of God!” “Fuck them,” her girlfriend Pipo responds, and it’s clear this is as much an internal authorial conversation as it is one between two characters. But then! Pipo…ugh, just ugh. Just another victimizer, no matter how complicit Fritz is in her own victimization. Shouldn’t someone be expected to know better? Dammit, where is Gorgo when you need him? And then you realize Beto wonders if maybe the critics have a point.
Certain story developments in this book made me return to Human Diastrophism and Beyond Palomar to review certain characters’ backstories, and in so doing I discovered just how different Gilbert’s art has become–much less dense, much less rooted in three-dimensional space, much more prone to techniques akin to those he uses in his non-narrative work. At this point characters routinely break the fourth wall against vast white spaces, or do their dirty deeds isolated against a blank background as though they’re the only objects on earth. And yet it’s still a single, well-observed bit of portraiture that impressed and crushed me the most here: the shaky half-smile half-grimace of pain on Fritz’s face as her father tells her off once and for all. It’s the most intensely human moment in the whole book, at the moment when Fritz’s humanity receives perhaps the most vicious wound it possibly could. I care about this human being, still a human being underneath all the sex bomb trappings, even as author and audience and characters conspire to keep that trap shut.
Gilbert tips his hand with the title. Not three sisters, even though that’s the relationship by which Luba, Petra, and Fritz can be defined without referencing anyone else, and even though that’s what they call each other all the time (well, that or “thithter,” depending). No, they have something — someone — else in common. She’s present in the very first panel of the very first story, in which she’s posited as the source of Luba’s misery. She’s present in the pivotal, never-shown blowout that sunders the three daughters’ relationship. And she’s present in the sudden, shocking, utterly depressing turn of events that happens in the book’s final story as well — a lethal legacy hinted at here and there throughout the book (a strip called “Genetically Predisposed,” Guadalupe’s fond memories of the way her daughter’s dad Hector would insist upon their medical monitoring) but which finally blossoms as vibrant, larger than life character is reduced to skin and bones and eventually nothing. If this were another series altogether I would describe this everywhere-and-nowhere character as “the hole in things, the piece that can never fit, there since the beginning.” Instead, we have another description: “I stayed to find the…the person inside that glorious frame, that…and of course the more I searched, the closer I got…?”
The inescapable ripples of long-ago events over which the characters we love had no control, and the ripples their own shitty actions send out, ensnaring others: That’s what hit me so hard about Three Daughters. Luba, Fritz, and Petra can have all the wacky sex adventures they can stand — they’re still paying for someone else’s sins in a way that can just clear the decks of their lives at a moment’s notice. Hundreds of pages of material about their zany complex romantic misadventures together brought to an end by an argument we never even see, a character we’ve known for literally decades healthy on one page, revealed to be deathly ill with stunning portraiture on the next page, gone the page after that. People two generations removed are still riding the Gorgo Wheel.
In The Book of Ofelia there was a knockout line about how God makes our lives so miserable so much of the time so that we won’t feel too bad about dying. As I’ve read Gilbert’s Palomar-verse material I’ve come to think this is basically the case. Once I talked about how unlike Jaime’s stage-like intra-panel layouts, Gilbert’s characters were placed unassumingly against backgrounds that went off in all directions. But by this point they’re stagey almost to an abstract degree, sometimes fourth-wall-breakingly so. It’s in these strips you can see the hand of these characters’ creators more than any others. The background, more often than not, is blank. It’s them and the void.
It makes my job as a critic a lot harder when I’ve spent nearly an entire book composing its review in my head only for the final few pages to smash it to smithereens. In that sense, reviewing Luba: The Book of Ofelia is hard work.
Like, I really thought I’d figured out what Gilbert was after in his post-Palomar Palomar-verse work, you know? Take the story out of a small living-in-the-past Latin-American village and transport it to shiny, wealthy California; whittle the cast down from a whole town full of people to a group that’s still large but is essentially two families, Luba’s and Pipo’s; remove the Cold War/yanqui-go-home politics and replace it with a still biting but lower-stakes critique of capitalism and showbiz; tone down the magic realism to the kind of stuff you can explain with “that’s the kind of thing that happens in comics”; crank up the sex scenes. The end result? The funnybook-Marquez days are over, and now Beto’s free to do the crazily complicated soap-opera sex-farce sitcom of his demented dreams.
And not in a dumbed-down way, either! Beto chronicles one of the book’s most titillating storylines, Pipo’s crush-turned-affair with Fritz, with genuine insight. I actually recognize the singleminded way Pipo pursues Fritz despite neither of them having ever identified as lesbians, the way the idea got into her head and heart and crotch and simply grew and grew, never taking no for an answer. I also recognize the way the intensity of their feelings sort of seeps into increasingly intense sexual experiences with all sorts of other people, too.
The comedy’s never been sharper or funnier than it is here, either, nor as tied to Beto’s great strength, the depiction of the human form. Cases in point: Boots and Fortunato. (Excuse me–FORTUNATO..!) Boots’s teardrop-shaped body and architectural hairdo framing her preposterously perpetual scowl and giant Muppet mouth as she stares directly at the reader like Chester Gould’s Influence and screams “MY APPEAL IS INFINITE!” while having an orgasm? Classic shit, man. And FORTUNATO..!? Basically the Sergio sketch in comic form and minus the Lost Boys reference. His taciturn expression and the fact that he’s actually considerably less attractive then most of the other young men in the book only made it funnier. The last time we see his powers in action he’s actually got Kirby Krackle surrounding him for god’s sake. For all that creepy and sinister and violent stuff would bubble up from time to time–from the anti-Catholic rioting in Europe to Petra’s serial assaults on anyone she feels is a threat to the people she cares about to the god-knows-what that was going on with Khamo’s drug contacts–I got within the final ten or so pages of the book thinking that my two big takeaways were going to be these two characters cracking me up.
Then the last few pages happened, and wham, I’m just punched in the face with the fact that we’re not on Birdland‘s higher plane, we’re in Poison River‘s fallen world. In this world some people will stop at nothing to get what they think they want–money, sex, love, payback. In this world there’s a price to be paid for all the hijinx and sexual slapstick, one that no one involved really deserves to pay but one that gets paid nonetheless. It’s easy to forget given how happily extreme so many characters’ behavior has been, but in this world you can push people too far. I thought I had a handle on The Book of Ofelia, but of course it turns out there was no such thing all along.