Thursday, August 9, 2007

Human Diastrophism: Is that a joke about Luba's "mountains"?

Here's the definition of "diastrophism". The meaning is probably symbolic, but I went with the easy boob joke. Anyway:

EDIT: A commenter recommended that I note that there are SPOILERS in the following review. I guess I hadn't thought it was necessary since the stories are a good 15 years old, but if I'm reading them for the first time, I'm sure others are too. I did try not to give too much away, and I feel that the best part of the stories is seeing the characters develop and interact with each other rather than plot points, but I suppose I should have put up a warning anyway. Sorry if I ruined anything for anybody!

Human Diastrophism
By Gilbert Hernandez

Yesterday, in my review of the second volume of Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets work, I mentioned that I was glad to see the stories evolving and moving in the direction I liked. Well, I can't say the same about the second volume of Gilbert's "Palomar" stories, because it does more of the same thing it did the first time around. Luckily, that first volume was excellent and exactly what I wanted to read, and so is this second one. I'm amazed at the storytelling here, with compelling work featuring a huge cast of characters which keeps getting bigger. It's quite impressive to see Gilbert continue to expand the cast, adding characters into the mix as they grow older and become adults.

A large portion of this volume is taken up by the story that shares the book's title, and it's a doozy. It's main draw is that there is a serial killer loose in Palomar, and he (or she) is randomly killing people and causing a panic, which isn't helped by a plague of crazy, chittering monkeys that has descended on the town. But that's really almost a subplot, acting as a catalyst for the human drama of the town's regular inhabitants. Luba seems to be coming to a crisis point, feeling that her children are holding her back from the life she always wanted. She seems to be taking this out on her oldest daughter, Maricela, who is starting to grow up and explore her lesbian sexuality. Meanwhile, Tonantzin has developed a political conscience, sure that the United States and other superpowers are going to have a nuclear war and wipe out everybody. She takes to stockpiling food and painting her body in the customs of her Indian ancestors:

We also see a sort of "awakening" for the young artist Humberto when Heraclio notices his artwork and gives him a bunch of books about modern artists like Picasso or Klee. It's fascinating to watch him realize that there are other artists who were doing what he was trying to do, and to see it open his mind to the possibilities of what he could do with his art:

Unfortunately, he descends into a sort of artistic fugue, acting like a withdrawn loner and barely eating or working. When he witnesses the murderer attacking somebody, he doesn't tell anyone, choosing instead to try to capture the scene in his art. I'm wondering if this is a comment on the impulses and proclivities of artists, or maybe even a self-criticism of Gilbert's, feeling like he could be doing something more positive with his talents. I would hope not, since I think this sort of story is exactly what he should be doing. Eh, I'm probably way off base.

I think Luba is the character who goes through the most changes in this story. We had previously seen her bristling at her lot in life, and those feelings seem to be coming to a head. She refers to her children as "albatrosses" and becomes physically and verbally abusive to Maricela, who is probably beginning to remind Luba of her youth and the missed opportunities she had. She goes on a bit of a sexual bender, screwing at least four different men over the course of the story (later stories reveal that there was even a fifth man, the murderer, and he was the one who sired another daughter). I feel bad for poor Archie, the man who loved her even for her faults and wished to marry her. He eventually gets pushed aside in favor of Khamo, a young, handsome previous lover who is the father of two of her daughters. Eventually, she finds a sort of purpose when Chelo asks her to become the mayor of Palomar. She admits that she already runs the town, so why not make it official? It's good to see her find some sort of peace, since while she does some pretty ugly things, we can't help but like her as a character.

A big moment in the story occurs when Luba decides to reveal to her daughters the identity of their respective fathers. It's partly because she is too tired of taking care of them herself, and also spurred by the flight of Maricela, who runs away from the town with her lover Riri. Khamo seems confused by the revelation, but the big impact is had when Heraclio discovers that he is Guadalupe's father, a fact that readers had known for some time. There's a moment early on in which some girls are teasing Guadalupe because she doesn't have a father, and Heraclio overhears and jumps in, chasing them away and yelling that he is Guadalupe's father:

It's a beautiful, ironic moment, so when they both find out that it's true, it's quite touching. It's lovely to see Heraclio accept the fact that he has a daughter so well, and to see Guadalupe acquire another home of sorts, a place to go when she feels Luba is getting too overbearing.

Unfortunately, Khamo's daughters don't have it so nice. He seems to be kind of dumb, just coasting through life on his looks and muscles, and after dabbling with Pipo, he ends up taking up with Tonantzin and her political cause, eventually leaving town with her to travel and try to have a positive impact on the world. That doesn't work out so well, as we find in the epilogue to the story that Tonantzin decides to commit suicide by lighting herself on fire in front of a (presumably) U.S. embassy somewhere in Latin America. It makes for a sad ending to a tumultuous story for the characters.

And I've barely scratched the surface of everything that happens in this story. With such a large cast, there are moments and changes for nearly every regular character in Palomar, like ex-sheriff Borro finally getting to have his way with Luba, or Chelo accidentally shooting the arm off Luba's youngest daughter (at this time) Casimira, or Luba's cousin Ofelia reuniting with her transient lover Chango only to realize that he will never stay with her, or Chelo's lover Miguel sneaking into the closed-off town to be with her, or the archaeological dig that seems to be bringing the outside world to Palomar. It's an incredibly rich work, with lots of changes for characters continued development of the world that Gilbert created. I'm amazed that he could keep everything straight, and the stories even get more complicated in the future.

After "Human Diastrophism", the timeline jumps forward several years (and keeps moving forward by leaps and bounds as the stories progress), and we see that lots of changes have occurred. Diana became a professional runner, then switched to bodybuilding after an injury. Pipo moved to the U.S. and started a line of designer clothing, playing host to several of Luba's daughters after they left Palomar. Luba gained a lot of weight after having three more kids (and getting depressed that her daughters keep running away from her), and her body actually seems to fit her gigantic breasts:

Pipo's son Sergio has grown into a soccer star, following his mother's footsteps (when she was a girl, at least). Heraclio has grown older and more tired (and become a bit of a drunk), obsessed with Tonantzin's final act of protest and feeling sad that he will never be idealistic to do something like that. Khamo, badly burned after trying to save Tonantzin, has moved back into town and married Luba. Gato seems to be hanging on to his ex-wife Pipo's coattails, believing it to be unfair that she is a successful businesswoman when he is a failure. Guadalupe moves to the States, pregnant by an unknown man (it seems to be Jesus, who has been released from jail, but she later reveals it to be Gato, prompting them to become a couple. I found this development to be dismaying, which is a testament to Gilbert's skill at character building, making me like them so much that I hate to see them make poor choices). Doralis (Luba's third daughter) also moves to the States, becoming a star on the exercise show that Pipo sponsors. She's also an interesting character, seeming quiet and reserved but displaying a fiery temperament at times that recalls previous scenes of her as a young girl playing with monkeys (and pretending to be one).

Gilbert seems to be moving forward with the cast, establishing a second "hometown" in the United States, but then he takes a left turn, introducing several new characters and telling stories that flash back many years, revealing their origins. Chief among them is Luba's mother Maria, whom we see in her younger days after she left Luba behind and moved to the U.S. She had two more daughters, Petra and Fritz, and we see their strange experiences growing up. Maria's a pretty odd character, leaving her daughters for days at a time to go to work, which requires her to wear an odd costume:

She also likes to crack walnuts with her stomach muscles:

We also meet a decrepit old man named Gorgo, whom we learn has been a hitman and mob enforcer with roots in Palomar. He pledged to protect Luba's family, and he seems unkillable.

Eventually, after we've gotten to know these characters, they meet up with Luba's daughters in America and get to know the rest of the cast. It's an interesting direction for the stories, and perhaps an indication that Gilbert is stretching beyond the bounds of Palomar, having exhausted his stories about the town and the regular cast (I'm probably wrong about that though). I think he also likes Luba as a character, so he's trying to flesh out as much of her past as he can, introducing us to her relatives and bringing them into Palomar to see them react with each other. We still see other characters, but other than Pipo and Diana, many of them seem to be fading into the background in favor of the Luba "clan".

In the final story, Palomar has burned down after an earthquake, and the inhabitants are trying to sort through the rubble of their town and their lives, with Luba thinking there is nothing left for her there and planning to move on. From what I understand, it's the end of the first volume of Love and Rockets, and it's a fitting one, putting a cap on the stories as Palomar seems to be finally joining the modern world. I believe the next volume will contain "Love and Rockets X", a story about a punk band in Los Angeles, and "Poison River", a story about Luba's past. So this might be the end of the stories (for now; I think Gilbert did more Palomar stories in the second volume of the series, and he's currently doing a series called New Tales of Old Palomar), and while it's a bittersweet sendoff, I do know there are more stories out there, so this is definitely not the last I'll see of these characters.

I feel like I should comment on other aspects of the book, especially the art, but I don't think I have much to say that I didn't already say in my posts about the first volume. The art certainly continues to be excellent, if a bit less "clean" than Jaime's. It's perfect for the stories Gilbert is telling, and I feel like I know these characters even when seeing them at different points in their lives. It's really an amazing book, and I can't recommend it enough for people that want to read good comics.

Wow, it took me a long time to get to these, but I'm always glad to write about them, since it helps me to realize my thoughts. I might have more reviews tomorrow, or I might not. We'll see. But I will repeat what I said yesterday, in case anybody missed it: I'm going to be going to the Wizard World Chicago convention this Saturday, so if any readers are going to be there (and are interested in meeting me), drop me a line in the comments and/or email, and I'll try to get together with you. It should be fun!


  1. Matt -- I realize these stories are like twenty years old, but you might want to think about adding a spoiler warning to the top of your review (which, incidentally, is very good). I'm sure a lot of people are reading these for the first time in the new collections...

  2. Done. Sorry if I ruined anything for you.