UPDATE: If you like this review, I've posted some more thoughts on Heartbreak Soup here.
This might be my latest obsession, so prepare for lots of posts relating to this, or maybe about other comics by the same author. But for now, here's my thoughts on:
By Gilbert Hernandez
I had read some Love and Rockets here and there from picking up a random issue or two from a sale or in a story that was included in an anthology, but before this book, I had never actually followed the series. I've always meant to, but it was either not available, or too unwieldy and intimidating. So I was very excited when I heard that Fantagraphics was releasing these collections of the stories in chronological order. This first one collects comics by Gilbert Hernandez (I also got the first collection by Jaime Hernandez, but I haven't read it yet) which take place in his fictional Mexican town of Palomar. And I loved it! Gilbert is an incredible cartoonist, relating these seemingly simple stories of small-town life that turn out to be very emotionally complex.
This volume seems to be chiefly concerned with introducing the characters that live in Palomar (the stories were published between 1982 and 1986, I believe), with more complex plots to come later (at least, I think they become more complex; I would be perfectly happy if Gilbert spent the next twenty years telling these same types of stories). We learn about life in the small town and how everyone seems to know everyone else. It's also a very sexually-charged place; the women are all beautiful, and the men are constantly lusting after them.
Gilbert moves fairly quickly throughout time here; the first lengthy story, "Heartbreak Soup", takes place while many of the main characters are teenagers or children. I really enjoyed the depiction of these characters, and knowing that the series has lasted 25 years, I expected to see them grow up over a few years of real-time storytelling. Instead, Gilbert jumps ahead about ten years for the next long story ("Act of Contrition"). It was surprising, but I found it easy to catch up, as the characters were still all recognizable, both through visual depiction and their personalities. It did leave me curious about some of what had transpired during the gap, but luckily Gilbert fills in some of the gaps through flashbacks and shorter stories that take place during that time. There are still some questions though (such as how Pipo ended up marrying Gato, for one), but, as I mentioned, Gilbert kept doing stories about these characters all the way through to the present, so it's possible he has fleshed out the backstories very well.
But like I said, my favorite part of the series is just spending time with the well-drawn characters. Seeing Chelo keep a close eye on everyone, or Heraclio try to control his urges and deal with things intellectually, or Carmen act as a know-it-all; that's the best part of the book for me. And the way the characters interact is beautiful, whether it's Tonantzin using her sex appeal to control every man she meets, Luba taking care of her kids (while still trying to get some enjoyment out of life), or Chelo being protective of everybody. Beautiful stuff.
And the art! Gilbert is a master cartoonist, knowing exactly when to use lots of detail and when to depict the characters as more "cartoony". The range of emotions he has each character convey is great, and it's always easy to tell the characters apart (a more difficult task for an artist than it would seem). He's also wonderful at aging the characters as time passes, so we can see the effect the years have had on them, but still recognize them. Here's some examples:
(Luba is a pretty fascinating character on her own. For one thing, Gilbert depicts her with gigantic breasts, but then has other characters comment on that fact. Women refer to her as a "cantaloupe smuggler" or "three-headed woman", and men, of course, find her irresistible, which is probably a comment on his impulse to draw her that way in the first place. But she's also a very rich, complex character. She has four daughters, all by different men. So she's kind of promiscuous, but she also cares about her family and takes care of them. She feels kind of alone in a small town, so she opens a movie theater to bring in some culture. She's very hardworking. It's fascinating to see the different facets of her personality. And she's just one character! Every other character is just as rich and devoloped. I think she's a favorite of Gilbert's, and he's spun her off into other stories outside of the Palomar setting. I can't wait to read more about her, and everybody else).
There's also a hint of the surreal about Palomar. Characters can sometimes be seen carrying what appear to be large artillery rounds:
The town is surrounded by creepy statues:
And the main foodstuff appears to be slugs. It's an odd place, and a great setting for the stories.
So it's a wonderful book, part of a great series. I can't wait until the next volume comes out in July. Until then, I still have to read Maggie the Mechanic, the first collection of Jaime Hernandez's portion of Love and Rockets. That should tide me over.
Man, and there's more I wanted to talk about. I'll probably do more posts about Heartbreak Soup/Love and Rockets/Gilbert Hernandez soon. But there's other stuff I want to write about. So expect lots of content!