By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
In the 1980s a qualitative revolution forever destroyed the clichéd, stereotypical ways different genres of comic strips were regarded. Most prominent in destroying these comfy pigeonholes we’d built for ourselves were three guys from Oxnard, California; Jaime, Mario (occasionally) and Gilberto Hernandez.
Love and Rockets was an anthology comics magazine that featured the slick, intriguing, sci-fi-ish larks of punky young things Maggie and Hopey – las Locas – and the heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasy of Palomar. These gifted synthesists captivated us all with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences conceptual and actual – everything from Archie Comics and alternative music to German Expressionism and masked wrestlers. The result was pictorial and narrative dynamite.
Palomar was the playground of Gilberto, created for the extended serial Heartbreak Soup: a poor Latin-American village with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast. Everything from life death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in the meta-fictional environs of Palomar, and did, as the artist explored his own post-punk influences, comics, music, drugs, comics, strong women, gangs, sex, family and comics, in a style that seemed informed by everything from the Magical Realism of writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez to Saturday morning cartoons and the Lucy Show.
Beto, as he signs himself, returned to the well of Palomar constantly, usually with tales centred around the formidable matriarch – or perhaps Earth Mother figure – Luba, who ran the village’s bath house, acted as Mayor – and sometimes police chief – as well as adding regularly and copiously to the general population. Her children, brought up with no acknowledged fathers in sight, are Maricela, Guadalupe, Doralis, Casimira, Socorro, Joselito and Concepcion. A passionate, fiery woman who speaks her mind and generally gets her own way, she keeps a small claw-hammer with her at all times.
Luba is a character who defies easy description and I don’t actually want to: As one of the most complex women in literature, let alone comics, she’s somebody you want to experience, not learn of second-hand. You will probably notice that she has absolutely enormous breasts. Deal with it. These stories are casually, graphically, sexually explicit. Luba’s story is about Life, and sex happens, constantly and often with the wrong people at the wrong time. If harsh language and cartoon nudity (male and female) are an insurmountable problem for you don’t read these tales. It is genuinely your loss.
After a run of spectacular stories (all of which have been collected in a variety of formats and editions which I really must get around to reviewing) like An American in Palomar, Human Diastrophism and Poison River, the magazine ended and Luba and her extended family then graduated to a succession of mini-series which concentrated on her moving to the USA and reuniting with her half-sisters Rosalba (“Fritz”) and Petra, taken when her mother Maria fled from Palomar decades previously.
Which brings us to this delightfully massive and priceless tome: Luba collects in one monumental volume her later life as an proud immigrant who refuses to learn English (or does she?), over 80 stories covering 596 black and white pages ranging from lengthy sagas to sparkling single page skits which originally appeared in Luba, Luba’s Comics and Stories, Luba in America, Luba: the Book of Ofelia and Luba: Three Daughters. The tone and content ranges from surreal to sad to funny to thrilling. The entire world can be found in these pages.
Although in an ideal world you would read the older material first, there’s absolutely no need to. Reminiscence and memory are as much a part of this brilliant passion-play as family feeling, music, infidelity, survival, punk rock philosophy, and laughter – lots and lots of laughter. Brilliantly illustrated, these are human tales as coarse and earthy any as any of Chaucer’s Pilgrims could tell, as varied and appetising as any of Boccaccio’s Decameron and as universally human as the best of that bloke Shakespeare.
I’m probably more obtuse – just plain dense or blinkered – than most, but for years I thought this stuff was about the power of Family Ties, but it’s not: at least not fundamentally. Luba is about love. Not the sappy one-sided happy-ever after stuff in chick-flicks, but LOVE, that mighty, hungry beast that makes you always protect the child that betrays you, that has you look for a better partner whilst you’re in the arms of your one true love, and hate the place you wanted to live in all your life. The love of cars and hair-cuts and biscuits and paper-cuts and stray cats that bite you: selfish, self-sacrificing, dutiful, urgent, patient, uncomprehending, a feeling beyond words.
Just like the love of a great comic…
© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All Rights Reserved.