Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez

My favourite Christmas present from last month was this collection of all of Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories from the original run of Love & Rockets, a hardback volume with over 500 pages of comics. Like most other comic fans, I’d read them at the time, and regarded them extremely highly, but it had been a while since I’d gone back to them. I wondered if they might not read so well now, if maybe they would seem of their time, or perhaps they seemed very impressive in the wider context of the artform than they should – I mean, most comics set the bar pretty fucking low when it comes to literary values, which is where most of the praise for this was based.

It’s even better than I remembered, and a lot of the standard praise still makes sense. I’ve read a great deal more magic realist fiction since this started, about twenty years back, but the comparisons with Garcia Marquez in particular are still apt – this is very much like One Hundred Years Of Solitude, a lengthy story spanning decades in the life of an isolated small town in Mexico, complete with various strange and magical touches on the fringes: there are monumental stone idols on the edge of town, which talk at times; and ghosts occasionally appear beneath one tree. But mostly it’s realism, soapy tales of loves and children and violence and hatred and rivalries, with some of the best female characters comics have ever seen – again, it is true that the bar is set pretty low there, but the key characters here, Luba, Chelo, Carmen, Tonantzin and others, are exceptionally rich and strong creations. This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t great male characters as well, but it’s women at the centre of this, as in most soap operas.

Probably because he’s such a wonderful writer, and also the gorgeousness of his brother’s drawing, his art gets neglected, but he’s a magnificent cartoonist, his work like a rougher-edged version of someone like Dan DeCarlo (Archie’s greatest artist), expressive and potent, which fits well with the moving stories. He knows when to draw with care and when to cartoon broadly, and he makes them work. He’s also a tremendous designer, of pages and panels. His art tends towards the quiet, but it shouldn’t be undervalued – this comic wouldn’t carry anything like the huge emotional charge it does without art of the highest calibre.

I’m uneasy about mentioning one other factor: that this is as good an example as any of a comic you can give to pretty much any intelligent, literate adult without fear of their treating you like a retard for liking it. I think we comic fans sometimes get too evangelical about the form, and I have stopped caring whether others like comics or not, and it worries me that we sometimes overpraise things that aren’t like comics as stereotypically perceived, as if that automatically makes them better than the spandex and funny animal books, and it doesn’t. Having said all that, comics that you can genuinely set beside the greatest work of a Nobel Laureate are few and far between. This isn’t a cheap book, but in comics terms, pence per page, it’s really rather good value, and you won’t find much in the history of comics to better it for quality.

(I’ll be getting to the equivalent volume by Gilbert’s brother Jaime soon, and I expect I’ll write about that here too.)