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posted December 31, 2004

Creator: Gilbert Hernandez
Publishing Info: Fantagraphics Books, $39.95, 2003
Ordering Numbers: 1560975393 (ISBN)

Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar is one of the five great achievements in comics literature to date, a sprawling suite of absorbing, occasionally exquisite stories set in a small town south of the U.S. border. The stories collected here were originally serialized in the first volume of the seminal comic book series Love and Rockets, where they garnered a reputation based largely, it seems, on the differences between those stories and other more traditionally romantic or even fantastic stories from Gilbert and his brothers Jaime and Mario. In that framework, and the wider, implied context of what comics ostensibly for adults were like in the 1980s, the Palomar comics were often viewed as doggedly realistic, an antidote to easy idealization. The men and women ran a more complete gamut of body type and personality, generations mixed and irritated one another with potentially ugly results, and characters acted according to a complicated mix of sexual longing, desire for affection, and hope for escape. The fanciful happenings that beat at the heart of many of the best Palomar stories were frequently processed not on their own terms but as they recalled various literary strategies. No esteemed comics work suffered more limited readings than the Palomar stories did during their first run, victims of an audience who wanted to recognize those qualities that best flattered its own relationship with the medium.

Happily, Palomar more than deserves the various plaudits that have been argued for its ambition and execution. It is a model of structural audacity, shifting between various storytelling modes with zeal and eschewing altogether the crutch of gateway characters. Hernandez has the best sense of pacing in comics, and gets equal emotional mileage out of a story summarily told ("For the Love of Carmen"), a story that depends on stops and starts to invoke a character's state of mind ("Bullnecks and Bracelets"), and a longer narrative that unfolds in a standard progression of plot events and repercussions ("Blood of Palomar"). The cartoonist additionally trusts his characters to let a story's deeper meaning play out across their lives, to wound and linger. The Palomar stories thus force the reader into actively engaging in human terms issues like the role of art and the artist, the debilitating power of memory, and the peculiar but necessary intimacy of family.

This new collection should also garner a long-missing appreciation for these stories' pleasurable qualities. Hernandez is frequently funny, particularly in his dead-on grasp of the way children process events they don’t quite understand by granting them overwhelming importance. Palomar is also beautifully drawn, classic comics storytelling augmented by an appreciation for expressive illustration. When at the end of "Blood of Palomar" the photojournalist Howard Miller unknowingly comments on the death of a former lover, what finally locks into place and punches the reader in the stomach isn’t the astute cultural point being made but the sudden, off-panel loss of an endearing character. Palomar lets us re-visit Gilbert Hernandez's great work vulnerable to the stories themselves rather than the arguments that can be made on their behalf, and there are very few experiences that compare in any art form.

This review appeared in The Comics Journal #259 in expanded form.