Thursday, August 27, 2009

Heartbreak Soup

I am not sure that I have given Gilbert Hernandez and his work the love they deserve. Since I first fell in love with Love and Rockets (in the mid to late 80's) it was more about Jaime and the Locas stories. I read a good bit of Palomar stuff, but I never REALLY read it. It could be argued that I did that with a lot of the Love and Rockets stuff I had in general, at first, anyway. I got the Locas hardcover when it came out a few years ago, but didn't pick up Palomar, and then felt stupid when it was no longer available. A few months ago I picked up the lovely 2007 Heartbreak Soup paperback. and last week I ordered the second volume that covers Palomar stuff, Human Diastrophism.

I think a lot of my dismissiveness in the past is probably due to a lack of maturity on my part. When I was first encountering this stuff I was maybe 17, and the punk edge of Maggie and Hopey appealed to me more than the goings on in a small town. Twenty-two years later I must have matured enough to appreciate it. I started reading it and could barely put it down until I finished. It was a good meaty read, and not something you could just speed through. It's about 285 pages of comics, and it is very dense with dialog and characters and intertwined plots. There are also very helpful little pronunciation guides at the bottoms of the pages that help with character names. I am ok with Spanish pronunciation, but still found it helpful.

In this volume there isn't really a single theme, a single steady plot that drives the volume, etc. We get a good number of individual stories that all exist in the same basic setting, using some amount of the same characters at various points in their lives. It really functions as a window on a small town in Mexico and focuses on the lives, loves, heartbreaks and triumphs of the people that live there. I was trying to think of something that it brings to mind, and I guess two things really struck me as being evoked in the stories. The first is the Eisner's Contract With God Trilogy, and how it really highlights a location as the central focus and we see the world that revolves around that spot, and the people that come and go. The other is the Andy Griffith Show. Palomar could be Mayberry. Both are filled with characters you might find in any small town, and both, despite their size and distance from a big city will not tolerate being made to look like bumpkins or let their 'simple country nature' be taken advantage of.

Gilbert's art is a masterwork of cartooning skill. Palomar comes across as a fully populated, 'living' town. Every character is distinct. Every character shows a real range of feelings and emotions. Faces are expressive, but body language is also clearly communicated through the art. If there is one place that I personally believe he excels the most, it would be in his portrayal of children. The stories are filled with children. If not in the foreground, then in the background. They are delightfully, and perfectly portrayed. There is that sense that kids can be kids regardless of where you put them, or what situation they might be in. I just found them to be real.

I can't speak highly enough of this. If somehow you have made it this far in your life and you haven't given this a read, then you owe it to yourself. The paperback is 14.95 and can be picked up online for less. I can't imagine that anyone has captured the human condition any better than this. The stories are sweet and sad and sometimes optimistic, and sometimes not. It's a lot like life, only with better writing and art.

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