Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Gilbert Hernandez: Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories

Love And Rockets co-creator Gilbert Hernandez is one of the few cartoonists who revises his work after publication, but the slow grind of long-form comics production is such that his grandest achievement still bears an inconsistent look and feel. Fifteen years worth of Hernandez's "Heartbreak Soup" stories–set in the fictional Central American seaside village of Palomar–have been collected in Palomar, a 520-page hardback book that's best considered not as an extended narrative, but as a conceit through which Hernandez dealt with what was on his mind through the '80s and early '90s. In the first long Palomar story, 1983's "Sopa De Gran Pena," Hernandez explores how generations interact in a small community, while playing with the romantic soap-opera form and the spirit of Latin-American magic realists like Gabriel García Márquez. Having established a place and a cast of characters, Hernandez entered a phenomenally prolific period over the next four years, pouring out stories short and long. Focusing on his two main characters, Luba (a weathered sexpot who keeps popping out children she doesn't want) and Heraclio (a music teacher and intellectual with a self-righteous streak), Hernandez handled birth, death, growing political awareness, and–starting with his pitch-perfect 1985 short story "An American In Palomar"–the modern world's encroachment on a provincial garden spot. Later, longer pieces continue the series' preoccupation with how the past poisons the present and how children and adults coexist, but the sides of the panels also become crowded with tourists, migrant workers, and plagues of monkeys, all breeding violence and dissatisfaction. In 1987, the series reached a peak with the novel-length "Human Diastrophism," about the hunt for a serial killer in town, and how it implicates a preoccupied young artist and the quick-tempered, bordering-on-abusive Luba. Hernandez wove his own feelings of artistic impotence and his concerns with the causes of contemporary mayhem into a gripping mini-epic that rewarded the years readers had spent with his characters to that point. Then he left Palomar for five years, taking some of his cast with him. Palomar concludes with Hernandez's final stories set in the town, which tend to be repetitive, dreary, overpopulated, and muddled by the author's increasing use of sudden panel-to-panel time jumps. But that's only the last 100 pages of a weighty book filled with some of the most vital comic art ever produced, where even the mistakes are thick with emotional intensity. The concluding passages contain one of Hernandez's most powerful images: the self-defining sketch of a sculptor burying a likeness of Palomar's citizens in a lake, to be dredged up centuries later as a monument to a place and time.

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