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New Tales of Old Palomar #2
posted June 4, 2007
Fantagraphics, Ignatz series, 32 pages, May 2007, $7.95
I like to imagine that when there's an opportunity for comics fans to talk about the greatest living cartoonist, Gilbert Hernandez's name surprise those debating the matter in terms of how long it hangs in there. Like most of the all-time greats, Hernandez is prolific, linked to a significant comics movement, and can boast both a half-dozen sterling individual works and a body of artistic output greater than the sum of its individual components. I think it's the productivity that may keep him from the credit he's routinely due, the perception that his work isn't as substantive as a cartoonist we may see once or twice every few years. The speed with which he creates is one of his great advantages; the depth of his Palomar work isn't hinted at but actually accrued over hundreds and hundreds of pages.
New Tales of Old Palomar
depends on two other Hernandez trademarks: his narrative audacity, and his under-appreciated work as an illustrator. Set in a kind of lost period between familiar Palomar generations, the story follows Gato, Pintor and Manuel through an aborted youth-gang initiation as they're taken and held by mysterious, silent, futuristic observers. Chelo follows them and eventually leads them home. Not many cartoonists could add a fantastic layer to what started out at their heart as very naturally observed stories of human behavior without sending their audience into convulsions. Hernandez has made startling shifts and re-contextualizations like this one his entire career; he doesn't need our permission or our patience, because the story works right away.
The main reason the story ends up being evocative rather than feels like it's pressing is that Hernandez sets the majority of his narrative in a terrifyingly depicted open plain, an almost ruthlessly harsh, oppressive space that's antiseptic in a way that reinforces what little we see of the observers, but also somehow crackling with energy. Hernandez's art has never been better than when depicting the human figures, small and naked, against this hostile landscape. The vista even loops back into the story's revisionist look at the older Palomar works in that it depicts a nearby part of the countryside to which we've never been exposed. New Tales of Old Palomar
doesn't feel essential, but it's hard to deny the power of the cartooning, and the pleasure in getting one more view regarding one of comics' greatest places.