Monday, September 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #246: Ofelia by Gilbert Hernandez

The essence of a soap opera is that everything appears to be continuously changing, all in flux at every moment. But all that chaos masks that everything is basically the same, and always will be. Soap operas also traditionally pack a lot of activity into a short time -- remember the traditional soap opera is a TV show, running every weekday for half an hour or an hour, with a lot of screen time to fill up and a large cast to help fill it.

Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets stories started out a mix of various things -- weird SF, magical realism, surrealism, family drama -- and all of those kept coming back, now and then, in the nearly forty years of L&R. But the core of his stories first turned to the soap-opera-tinged magical realism of the Palomar stories, and then to purer American soap opera once he relocated his major cast to Southern California in the mid-90s, at the end of the first L&R comics series.

Ofelia is the middle volume of three fat books reprinting stories from basically the same era: the decade between the end of that first comics series of L&R and the start of the book-format third series. Luba and Her Family saw everyone settling into the LA area, with stories in large part focusing on Venus, a precocious pre-teen. And Three Sisters is coming up to collect all of the last stories of that era. But each of the three books has a particular focus -- they overlap a lot more in time than a reader might expect, since each one picks up one thread of Hernandez's overall tapestry and spins that out.

So, if Luba was the stories about settling in and about Venus, and I think Three Sisters will be largely the stories about Fritz and her complicated love/professional life, is Ofelia the stories about the title character and her cousin Luba?

Somewhat. But more central here are a few figures of sexual obsession: Petra (sister of Fritz and Luba, obsessive bodybuilder, supposedly evangelical Christian but regularly sleeping around), Pipo (head of a minor sportswear and TV production empire, mother of the futbol star Sergio and both of them having manipulative affairs with Fritz), and the mysterious Fortunato (a man seen entirely from outside, unconnected by family to the main cast, who can apparently happily seduce any woman at any time and spends his life doing nothing else). In various permutations, the cast goes to fetish clubs, have group sex together, have secret affairs together, fight and argue and smile and laugh and bicker, as the tension and pressure builds up.

Hernandez's work often traffics in sudden violence: his world has gangsters lurking around the edges and is full of people with volcanic passions. Ofelia builds in that direction, somewhat like his first long story Human Diastrophism did more than ten years before, and it all ends here with a bang.

Well, I say "ends." But remember what I said at first: this is a soap opera, and those don't end. They just rotate, and agitate, and generate a lot of noise and motion -- like an unbalanced washing machine filled with soap. Ofelia has some of Hernandez's most clearly genre stories, and feels faintly pointless at moments: he has several hundred pages of stories of these characters all at the same point in their lives, and it starts to feel like too many pages without enough forward motion.

Things will start to move forward again, eventually. But Ofelia is the moment where you can see what a Gilbert Hernandez project would look like if they didn't: if the same general setup stayed in place for a decade or so as the characters churned around and around and around.

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