Sunday, June 10, 2012

Palomar, my Palomar

For the last month I've been working my way through this massive tome:

At 522 pages, Palomar: the Heartbreak Soup Stories is heavy enough that it's impossible to carry on the Metro bus or to work for me to enjoy during my lunch hour. So it's taken me several weeks to get through the stories contained within those pages, but oh man was it worth it!

If you walk into any comic shop, you cannot fail to come across at least one of the many many books written by Gilbert, Jaime and Mario, collectively known as Los Bros. Hernandez. Probably their most well-known work is Love and Rockets, which Jaime and Gilbert started self-publishing back in 1981. The comic series features an assortment of one-offs and a couple of ongoing serial narratives, one of which portrays the (fictional) small Latin American town of Palomar and its inhabitants.

Since the comics in this collected volume originally appeared scattered throughout the Love and Rockets series, they don't exactly form one continuous, ongoing storyline. Instead the stories–some as short as one page and others several dozen pages long, some with interwoven plots and others seemingly unconnected to much else besides a common location–together present a unique and complex portrait of life in Palomar.

We meet a remarkable array of characters in Palomar. I wouldn't be the first person to point out that Los Bros. Hernandez draw more realistic and varied portrayals of women than you are likely to find in most comics (to learn about how women are more often portrayed in the comics world, I highly recommend you check out Ladydrawers' awesome and info-full comic on the subject). In Palomar, women come in all shapes and sizes and make up what I estimate to be a majority of central characters in the stories. Although damn, Luba's got some big boobs.

I'm also really impressed with Gilbert Hernandez's inclusion of multiple queer, bisexual and trans characters. There is Maricela, who sneaks around with her girlfriend and eventually skips town to hide her lesbianism. There's Israel, the handsome tough guy with a sweet streak who is kind of a playboy with both genders but seems to make his relationships with men.

And then there's J├ęsus, who (mild spoiler) spends some time in prison towards the beginning of the collection, where he meets a sympathetic trans character who appears throughout the series. All of the queer characters are represented as whole people, with their queerness being only a small part of what makes them who they are; a part that is neither ignored nor constantly the focus of their stories. Palomar is a small town but its people are not small-minded.

Similarly, Hernandez draws unusually whole portrayals of people with disabilites in Palomar as well. Vicente is a good-natured guy born with a significant facial disfigurement that is (again!) not the major focal point of his character. And aside from the mere fact that there are multiple people with disabilities in the series (unusual in itself), I like how the characters talk about their disabilities rather than pretending they're not there.

The stories in Palomar jog back and forth in time so that you meet its central characters at many different stages of their lives, including their own childhoods and often those of their children. Some  of these tales are sad, some are funny, some deep, scary, sexy (this book is not for children) or just plain weird. Stories are offered from multiple characters' perspectives as well, which allows you to get to know each person intimately. As I wrote in a recent post for the Seattle Globalist, all of this has the effect of "making you feel as if you are living in Palomar for an extended stay." (P.S. sorry if it's rude to quote yourself.)

Which is probably why I felt so sad when I finished this book. It was hard to say goodbye to the people of Palomar, whom I'd gotten to know so well. Fortunately, I just learned that there is a next chapter to the tale for at least some of the towns inhabitants. Plus, I have tons more in the oeuvre of Los Bros. Hernandez to explore. I'm so lucky to have it all ahead of me.

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