Monday, July 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #197: Human Diastrophism by Gilbert Hernandez

Heartbreak Soup set the stage in Palomar, a sleepy Latin American town -- probably Mexican, though creator Gilbert Hernandez has been at pains to never say definitively where it is -- and introduced us to a large cast. Those stories came out over a roughly five-year span in the early '80s, and we probably expected Hernandez would continue with more of the same: move somewhat backward and forward in time, telling more stories about the complicated lives of that large cast.

But Human Diastrophism shows that Hernandez will always push to make his stories more complex, closer to life -- all families and towns are more connected than any fiction can show, but he'll keep trying. And this slightly shorter book collects stories from a ten-year span, implying Hernandez was busy with other things during that time. (We'll see some of those things, in later books in this series. And some of them, I'm sure, are the usual distractions of life.)

This book opens with the long title story -- the longest "Palomar" story Hernandez has made, even now -- a near-apocalyptic story of political radicalization, rampaging monkeys, the toxic mix of hate and love, and the coming of a serial killer to Palomar. As long, intense stories must, it changes many dynamics in Palomar, for many of the characters, and has a devastating ending.

After that, the focus shifts, first as several younger Palomar characters move to the US (Southern California, precise location not quite explained clearly). Then Hernandez throws in additional complications: living in the same region is a previously unchronicled side of Luba's family. He moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the borders between the US and the countries south, to sketch the life of Maria, Luba's mother, and her previously unknown, and much younger, daughters Petra and Fritz. These stories tend to circle Gorgo, a now-aged mob fixer who was ferociously loyal to Maria, in his quiet way, and who protected her and her three daughters from various mobsters (we assume; this is all vague) over decades, mostly by hiding them away from each other and the mobsters.

That all gives Hernandez a chance to build out a new dynamic: Palomar is a community of people who are sometimes related, but the connections there are more often of love and friendship, marriage and rivalry. Maria's family is a family, even if the two sides of it -- Luba and her many daughters on one side, Petra and Fritz and Petra's young family on the other -- were unaware of each other's existence for more than two decades. So the stories later in this volume work through those family dynamics, and through the secrets Maria and Gorgo kept for so long. It does mark what we might think of a shift from "Palomar" stories to "Luba's family" stories -- never complete, and not a clean distinction, but definitely a shift.

The timeline is still a bit fuzzy -- the "now" stories with Gorgo, after Maria's death, are probably taking place in the early 1990s, when Petra and Fritz are in their late twenties and Luba is somewhere in her forties (with children from nearly as old as Fritz all the way down to barely out of diapers). Those Gorgo stories are mostly from '93-95, coming out in a burst, maybe a flood of new ideas after all the time spent on "Human Diastrophism," maybe after time off after that story was complete. (Many of the shorter stories here are dated something like "'93-'94-'95," but "Human Diastrophism," all 105 pages of it, are dated 1987, and I'm sure it took longer than that.)

As always, Hernandez revels in the messiness of life: his people have complicated lives and motivations, and bounce off each other in unlikely but always believable ways. Some of them are deeply misguided or self-destructive, or weaker than they need to be, or deeply unhappy with things they can't change. None of them are villains; none of them are heroes (except in their own minds, where everyone is the hero).

This book has one of his single best stories, the title piece. And it showcases a massive opening up of his world, with the beginning of his incorporation of crime-fiction and B-movie elements as well. If you're serious about comics at all, this s a book you should know.

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