Monday, July 02, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #183: Heartbreak Soup by Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez started Love and Rockets doing stories not all that unlike his brother Jaime: SF stories with a Heavy Metal slant. But he changed tack much more quickly, and completely, than Jaime did, changing focus entirely to the small village of Palomar and the complicated lives of its people.

Heartbreak Soup collects the first batch of Palomar stories, roughly half a decade from Gilbert's half of Love and Rockets. (More or less 1982 through 1986; those early SF stories will show up later, with the other oddities and one-offs, in a later volume.) It does have some later pieces -- I noticed one 2002 copyright -- but it has the stories centered on a particular period of time.

When is that time? Oh, that's difficult to tell. The first long story here, the titular "Sopa de Gran Peana," actually takes place after most of the stories later in the book. Was that 1981, and the others flashbacks to the 1970s? Were they all set a few years earlier?

Does it matter?

Palomar's geographic location is just as vague: a small sleepy town somewhere in Latin America, near the still-fairly-sleepy city of San Fideo. It may be Mexico, or maybe not -- but it's nowhere near the US border, and nowhere near much of anywhere. They speak Spanish there, so it's not Brazil -- probably not farther south than the Equator, anyway -- but that's about as specific as it is.

The cast, on the other hand, makes up for it: they are clear and distinct...and numerous. This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and have since they were born. There are brothers and sisters, childhood friends, secret lovers, best enemies. And they know their relationships much better than any reader does.

Including this reader. It is slightly annoying that the Jaime books, so far, have a page of head shots and character names, while the Gilbert books, which could use much more explanation and genealogical charts, have nothing similar. But that's the way of the world: things are more work than you expect, and not as simple as you hope.

Gilbert is influenced by the magic realists -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez most obviously; he has characters reference A Hundred Years of Solitude here to underline the connection -- and so Palomar is a place where the numinous and the inexplicable will intrude into daily life, every now and then. One character's twin sister disappeared during an eclipse when they were both four, and was never seen again. There are giant stone heads, far outside of town, that may be more than just ancient sculptures. It's nothing overt, nothing obvious -- but this is a world where not everything can be, or will be, known.

Gilbert's stories are more obviously driven by lust -- often obsessive, frequently unhealthy, rarely calmly mutual -- than Jaime's are. His men in particular are creatures of raging id much of the time, driven to distraction by all of the attractive women around them. This doesn't typically end well: his men are never here actually rapists, but they pursue women with nearly the zeal of a Pepe Le Pew, and both men and women take the ends of relationships very badly.

But all of Gilbert's Palomar characters are obsessives, one way or another -- obsessed with conspiracies, like Tonantzin, or obsessed with running like her sister Diana, or obsessed with celebrities with back troubles like Ofelia, or obsessed with one of the other characters, like nearly everyone else. It's a small town where everyone knows everyone. What else is there to do?

The stories are placed here in a deliberate order which isn't quite the order the originally appeared. And some -- "Heartbreak Soup" most obviously -- seem to have been revised or touched up a few years later as he wrote his way further into Palomar and understood better what he wanted to do. So the art will seem to advance and fall back as you read through Heartbreak Soup: Gilbert also started out cramming more panels and words on the page, though he stayed much wordier and dense than Jaime did.

Of course, in a magic-realist small town full of people with secrets and obsessions, it takes a lot of words to get it all in.

I'm not going to try to explain the differences between the two Hernandez brothers: they're alike in their skill and craft at story-making, but otherwise disjoint in ways that could launch a thousand metaphors. Heartbreak Soup has the stories that made Gilbert Hernandez's reputation, the ones that made people sit up and take notice of what he could do. They're still impressive, thirty-plus years later, and still the best way to begin reading Gilbert.

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