Monday, July 30, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #211: Beyond Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez

A couple of weeks ago, writing about the previous Gilbert Hernandez Love and Rockets book Human Diastrophism, I said that those stories came from a ten-year span, because Hernandez was busy with other things as well during that time.

Well, Beyond Palomar collects two of those things between one set of covers: two full-length graphic novels originally serialized in Love and Rockets, both of them related to the "Palomar" cycle of stories but not directly part of that main stream. First up is Poison River, originally appearing from 1988 through 1994, which tells the story of Luba's life up to the point she arrived in Palomar in Heartbreak Soup. Then there's Love & Rockets X (from 1989-1993), which is more complicated: it was the first of Gilbert's stories to show some of his Palomar characters in Southern California -- traditionally his brother's Jaime's turf [1] -- but also featured a mostly new cast, most of whom would not return in any of his later stories. (Though two of them, seen in minor and mostly-comic roles here, turn up both in the not-exactly-canonical pornographic miniseries Birdland (from the same era) and then, a little later, as Luba's sisters in stories collected in Human Diastrophism.

That's a lot to unpack. It's probably best if I tackle the two stories separately.

Poison River is substantially longer: a seventeen-part, nearly two-hundred-page cross between a family saga and a gangster epic. And it is very much the story of Luba's life up to her mid-twenties: it opens with her as a small baby, at the point where her official father -- the rich man her mother Maria was married to -- realizes that Luba is actually the daughter of the field hand Eduardo. (Presumably, this is more obvious because Eduardo is Indio -- native or mostly native -- and the unnamed rich guy is of purer colonial stock.) Maria is cast out, with the baby, Eduardo, and her maid Karlota. They take refuge with Eduardo's family, and live in semi-happy poverty for a while until Maria gets fed up and runs off.

(Maria is a deeply self-centered sensation-seeker who is never satisfied; she would have run off eventually. That's just who she is.)

Luba bounces around the fringes of Eduardo's family for her childhood, as part of the underclass of whatever Latin American country this is. (Hernandez deliberately keeps it unclear, but there are echoes of El Savador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and so on -- it could be any of them, or a fictional melange of all of them.) And then, as a teenager, she meets the middle-aged conga player Peter Rios, who falls for her hard and marries her impetuously -- right at the moment he gives up playing music and goes into managing a club.

The club is owned by gangsters, and Peter's ambitions push him upward into their ranks -- along with his former bandmate Blas, who follows him into that world for reasons that seem murky to begin with. The bulk of Poison River is the intertwined stories of the various power struggles among those gangsters, mostly having to do with their unreasoning hatred of mostly-unseen "leftists" who they fear will take over and ruin the country and with conflicts over sexual partners [2], and Luba's growing up and sexual acting-out.

Well, everyone is sexually acting out, so she's not alone. There's a lot of sex and violence before Poison River is over. Hernandez combines them occasionally, which may upset some readers, but the sex is mostly consensual, even if often in secret between people whose partners will react horribly when the secret comes out. It's also all R-rated sex; Hernandez was making Birdland around the same time, and that story is full of insertions and fluids and  really bizarre combinations. Poison River is more cable-TV than porn: we see some flaccid penises, and we can tell people are having sex, but we don't see body parts interlocking.

All of those plots eventually link back to the past -- Maria was part of the same circle of gangsters a generation before, until she fled with that rich husband, and she slept with more than one of them during that time -- so we get flashbacks and various realizations of whose daughter Luba is and an occasional view into Maria's life in the "now" of Poison River. ("Now" covers, if I had to guess, from Luba's birth around 1950 to her entry into Palomar in the late 1970s, with most of the gangster plot taking place in late '60s and early '70s.)

The body count piles up, as it usually does in a gangster story. And, in the end, Luba is alone with her infant daughter Maricela and cousin Ofelia, about to enter Palomar for the first time. Poison River is entirely an origin story: telling us the secrets behind the things we already knew. It's sordid and occasionally nasty and full of bad people doing bad things, but Hernandez makes it compelling.

The back quarter of Beyond Palomar, though, is less serious. The sixty-page Love & Rockets X takes an Altman-esque collection of overlapping plots (not that different from the Palomar stories, though each individual story there tended to be a bit more linear) to tell a less serious story of teens, rock bands, spoiled rich people, racial tension, and various love triangles (and more complicated shapes).

It does loop back to Palomar eventually, so we see a much older Luba and her growing family, but the most important Palomar character is a grown-up Maricela, who fled to Southern California with her girlfriend Riri. The two of them get caught up in the various plots -- which are mostly driven by white Californians, particularly those connected to a lousy garage band called "Love and Rockets" -- that all collide at a "big Hollywood party" where Love and Rockets is supposed to play.

This is Hernandez mostly in a lighter mode, though he still takes all of his characters seriously -- and some of them have real problems. (At least one eating disorder, some white-power terrorists, Maricela and Riri's relationship problems and worries about La Migra.) But, even in lighter mode, there are undertones: this seems to take place in 1989, but the racial tensions hint at riots to come and one character ends up in Iraq, which is explicitly mentioned. Love & Rockets X is an example of that old saying: if you want a happy ending, you have to know when to stop telling the story; all endings are sad if you go on long enough.

So we have two major Gilbert Hernandez stories here, either or both of which would be decent introductions to his work. Poison River gets quite plotty and continuity-heavy, but it's all continuity within the one story, and that's what he does anyway -- if you don't like that in Poison River, you won't enjoy a lot of Hernandez's work. Love & Rockets X might be an even better first Hernandez story: short, often funny, full of quirky characters, enough sex to keep it interesting, and that basically happy ending.

[1] Though, if you recall that Jaime's main character Maggie was mostly in Texas during this time, you could work up a silly theory about geographic coverage and brotherly competition.

[2] This gets really complicated, with basically hetero men, openly gay men, and men who seem to mostly have sex with the presenting-as-women-but-physically-male dancers at Peter's club, and I couldn't begin to map it out or guess how they would all identify themselves. I couldn't even tell you if those dancers -- some of whom are quite important to the story -- think of themselves as women or men or trans or each something different. Oh, and Peter himself has a fetish for bellybuttons, and not a whole lot of interest in "normal" sex, which frustrates the hot-to-trot Luba.

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