Once Upon a Time in Mexico

A victim of Mexico's little-known fabric shortage: Gilbert Hernandez's Luba plays coy
Gilbert Hernandez
Gilbert Hernandez
Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories
Fantagraphics Books

"Is that the comic where all the women have big breasts?" my female friend asks.

"Well, one woman, at least," I say.

And it's true: Luba's tetas are to the black-and-white comic Love and Rockets what Snoopy's ears and nose are to Peanuts. On an otherwise small and skinny frame, they're iconic in the way all comic-book images are iconic. (When people say Dolly Parton looks like a cartoon, they mean she looks like somebody's idea of what women look like.)

Of course they were the first things I noticed about Love and Rockets as a young adult in the mid-1980s, back when my fellow Landmark Theatres employees and punk rockers began passing around the "alternative" series. Luba belonged to the portion of the book written and drawn by Gilbert "Beto" Hernandez, who for 15 years shared the title with his brother Jaime. (A third brother, Mario, contributed scripts as well; all three re-launched the series last month, after a six-year hiatus.)

Raised by their mother and grandmother outside Los Angeles, Los Bros Hernandez imagined the kind of forceful female characters they saw around them in punk rock. Luba in particular was like an idealized Exene Cervenka out of place and time. Her fictional Latin American everytown of Palomar was as abstract and idyllic as the finite little worlds of Pogo, Pooh, and Popeye. But the sweat and swearing of the ensemble cast was realistic enough. The postwar calm of this little town without phones struck me as a comics version of My Life as a Dog or A Prairie Home Companion for the Latin America that death squads and development erased. That's the news from Palomar, where the women are overpowering, the men are insane, and all the children are about to rip each others' limbs off.

There's no doubting the affection Gilbert has for this little community--or his satiric feel for the small towns we make for ourselves inside big towns. The bickering is almost musically constant in his new collection, Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories, which for the first time brings together in one volume all the tales swirling around Luba. We see her arrive as an outsider in the 1950s, the Indian mother of four kids by four different fathers who promptly displaces Chelo, the local "giver of baths." Decades later, we see Sheriff Chelo persuade Luba to become mayor as both oversee Palomar's entry into modern times.

I should admit now that before reading this collection, I never even tried to follow the storyline. There were simply too many characters (50 or more), some whose deaths were suggested so subtly (by the appearance of their ghosts, say) that you could miss them if you were reading at Sunday-funnies pace. The individual issues kept leaping decades, revisiting the dead, and indulging in long flashbacks--and flashbacks within flashbacks. It never mattered, though, because the art was always enough. Certain images have taken up residence in my subconscious. I love the goofy, gawky schoolteacher Heraclio--the Archie of the series--sitting with his arms around his pregnant Veronica, Pipo, both contentedly naked on a bed. Millions of comics before Love and Rockets had showed sex, but few captured true nudity in all its imperfection.

Happily, Palomar's single-book form suddenly makes comprehending the larger story easy. But it does that achievement one better by rearranging episodes (often disregarding publishing dates altogether) to create a real novel--what Gilbert has always intended his stories to be. (Not for nothing does he name-check Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the dialogue.)

Taken in one sitting, it's more disconcerting now to watch the town sexpot become a political martyr, delivering herself to an end that's all the more frightful because Gilbert suggests it in silhouette before confirming it pages later. Like the mysterious ancient statues on Palomar's outskirts, the artist's jagged, staccato drawings are funny and scary--their blankness inviting projection. That's the most magical thing about Gilbert's realism.

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