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Friday, 20 August 2010

Heartbreak Soup. A Love and Rockets book

written and drawn by Gilbert Hernandez
Publisher: Titan Books

“Welcome my friends, to Palomar. Where the men are men,
and the women need a sense of humour.”
- Carmen

What’s it About?
Palomar is an isolated hamlet on the coast of Mexico mostly untroubled by the passage of time or the existence of the outside world. There are no phones, no televisions and only six cars running in the entire town, most anything anyone eats is grown or hunted locally. If you want a bath most likely you won’t have one in your house so you’ll have to go see the banadora and she’ll bath you.

Palomar was the creation of Mexican-American author Gilbert Hernandez who populated it with a wealth of interesting, diverse characters. Published over thirteen years the Palomar stories were a soap opera on a grand scale as it followed the town's ever-growing, ever-evolving population through love, death, marriage, childbirth and everything in between. Heartbreak Soup is the first in a series of books from Fantagraphics collecting the entire Palomar canon in strict order of publication.

What’s Good About It?
The original Heartbreak Soup graphic novella that began the Palomar stories is a mere forty-six pages long but in that space covers love, revenge, broken hearts, underage sex, death, romance, murder, comedy, tragedy, unrequited love, police brutality, business rivalry, a ghost story and introduced more than a dozen characters. Gilbert Hernandez is one of those authors who doesn’t seem to believe in genres and with each new story you never quite know what you’re going to get. You could be getting a romance or a revenge tragedy, a story of life in quiet Palomar or the busy city life of the Palomar characters who have moved away to Felix or San Fideo. You could be returning to a character familiar from the previous stories or reading the introduction of a new one. It could be a mundane story of a woman meeting an old boyfriend at a club or a surreal story involving a wandering witch cursing the town because someone stole her baby’s skull.

Heartbreak Soup isn’t just the story of a few characters but of an entire community. The stories collected in Heartbreak Soup cover more than a decade in the lives of the people of Palomar including a few we follow from childhood and into married life. The characters grow and develop greatly over the course of the stories, some in quite unexpected directions. Hernandez’s greatest skill as a writer is to keep his audience guessing about what will happen next.

Most of the stories are self-contained in and of themselves but little bits of ongoing narrative join together to create a real saga, secrets revealed and motivations explained to create even more stories within stories. Hernandez makes use of the full breadth of human emotion: some stories are funny, some are desperately sad but most are a mixture of the two.

Oh, and for fans of sexual equality: when it comes to scenes of nudity the men have everything hanging out for the audience to see just as much as the women. This might sound like an odd thing to praise but it hardly seems fair the way in so much media female nudity is often full-frontal while men get to show off their pecs and leave everything else to the imagination. Speaking as a man, it feels like my gender just isn’t pulling its weight. Not in Palomar though; in Palomar there is full-frontal male nudity. I can’t promise you that you’ll always want to see it but it is there.

What’s Bad About It?
There are some scenes that readers might find triggering: scenes of domestic violence, for example, crop up at several points in the book. One short story involves one of the Palomar children almost falling into the hands of a child molester, a story survivors of sexual violence and abuse might find similarly disturbing. There are also numerous references to underage sex.

The word “queer” is used on several ocassions by the younger characters as an insult, seemingly the worst insult they know. It should be made clear that this does not reflect the opinion of the author as sympathetic portrayals of homosexual relationships begin to appear towards the end of this first collection, as well as a scene voicing strong criticism of the contemporary issue of AIDS-related homophobia. Might it have been preferable for the writer to find some other insult to bandy about? Perhaps, but as previously noted Hernandez’s philosophy of writing doesn’t lend itself to toning down on realism because it is unpalatable.

Finally, the jumps in time that happen between chapters can sometimes be disorienting. After a few stories the narrative jumps forward ten years and some of the characters who were children in the first chapter are married with kids, this happens with no fanfare whatever. The book collects the Palomar stories in publishing order which isn’t always the order in which events occur. The story For The Love Of Carmen, for example, clearly takes place before at least one of the two stories that follow it. This would have all been more easy to follow as the stories were originally published months apart but in this condensed format it can wrongfoot the reader a little.

What’s the Art Like?
Love and Rockets, the series in which the Palomar stories originally appeared, was a labour of love for its creator and as such wasn’t a terribly high budget production. The art throughout is black and white line work without even grey shading.

This page is pretty typical of a technique Hernandez uses often in his longer stories. On this one page we have plot points from three of the storylines running through Heartbreak Soup (the original short story). Our perspective shifts from Gato (the man in the hat in the first few panels) to cynical little Carmen and her friends in the middle panels to Chelo the banadora in the later panels. The panels are crowded with little details but the focus is always on the characters.
This is going to sound odd but with this second example I’d like you to look not at the women but at the walls of the room they’re in (and the sky, in the topmost panel) because they show how the different patterns of lines can be used to give definition and texture to the backgrounds. Heartbreak Soup might lack colour but Hernandez doesn’t leave huge blank spaces, he crowds in detail to make full use of the page.
This last example shows off Hernandez’s character work from Heraclio’s exaggerated clowning with his accordion to his wife Carmen’s quiet disapproval, from Tonantzin’s amusement at Heraclio’s antics to the expressions on the little kids in the foreground. There’s also a Death figure in the background of one panel, I’m not sure what that’s in aid of but its far from the only odd little addition Hernandez slips into his backgrounds throughout the book (see how many times you can spot Mexican artist Frida Kahlo). Little touches like these mean the art is never boring and always as integral to the story as the writing.

Other Information
Heartbreak Soup: a Love and Rockets Book by Gilbert Hernandez (ISBN 1-84576-521-4) is usually priced at about £9.99 and is available from Amazon here.

If you enjoy this collection and end up looking for the further collections of Palomar stories do be sure to check the writer’s credit. Love And Rockets was a collaborative effort between Gilbert Hernandez and his brother Jaime. If Gilbert’s name appears on a Love And Rockets books then its a Palomar collection but Jaime had his own cast of characters (“Las Locas”) who we’ll be dealing with his stories in a later review.

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