Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review #29: Just a Small Town Bañadora

Heartbreak Soup
Writer: Gilbert Hernandez
Artist: Gilbert Hernandez
Published: Fantagraphics, 2007

Love and Rockets is a series created by the Hernandez brothers [Gilbert and Jaime] and which consists of several different narratives. One of Gilbert's [or “Beto”, as he is nicknamed] narratives concerns a fictional village called Palomar in an unnamed Central American country. Heartbreak Soup is a collection of the first chunk of the Palomar tales. 

“Welcome, my friends, to Palomar. Where men are men, and women need a sense of humour,” says Carmen, in the first of several times that a character breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly. Without TV or telephones, Palomar is portrayed as an isolated, backwoods community, and some of its citizens are appropriately uneducated and uncouth, but that doesn't make them any less interesting. 
We are first introduced to Chelo,  former midwife and the town's only bañadora [one who bathes others for a living]. She is incredibly strong, both physically and in will, and eventually becomes the town sheriff. As a midwife, she delivered over a hundred children in Palomar [pretty wild for a town of about four hundred], including most of the central characters. Chelo is pretty much Palomar's matriarch and the eye of the storm in the chaotic small town, and thus an ideal jumping point for the rest of the stories. 
A buxom lady named Luba comes to town and sets up shop as a rival  bañadora, siphoning off the majority of Chelo's male customers with her enormous skills. This sets the stage for an eventual confrontation between Chelo and Luba. The presence of the unmarried, attractive Luba also causes jealousy to run rampant among the women of Palomar. Young Pipo is furious when her lover, the womanizing Manuel, pays too much attention to the new lady in town. In turn, the ever-pissy Gato grows more frustrated that Pipo pays him no attention. But what will occur when Pipo's former lover and Manuel's best friend, Soledad, returns from his trip to the States?
shit hits the fan
Then we have little Carmen, younger sister of Pipo, who makes it her personal crusade to improve the lives of those around her, whether they like it or not. Tonantzin, one of Carmen's best friends, becomes a prominent character later, her ambition second only to her growing sexual appetite, but her naivete leading inevitably to disappointment. 

And the boys... A group of teenage boys, always horny, often violent, sometimes poignant. We have  loyal Vicente, neurotic Heraclio, obsessive Jesús, uncomplicated Satch, hedonistic Israel, and sickly Toco. They deal with losing their virginity and losing friends, and we see the effects of sex and death on the lives of these young men. 
As you can see, it is quite the tangled web that Beto weaves. We follow their lives for about a decade, jumping around in flashbacks, watching each story arc begin, some resulting in satisfying complacency, others in heartbreaking depression. 

If I could categorize Betos' style, I would say it's sort of a soap opera with a surreal vibe [hey, anybody remember Passions? That shit was ridiculous]. The odd ghost makes an appearance, a witch curses the town, ancient and mysterious statues sit in the nearby woods, etc. Perhaps the most surreal moment is a huge party in the middle of the book [probably Dia de los Muertos, judging by the skeletons all over the place], which serves as a centerpiece and gets us caught up with all of the characters. They eat, drink, gossip, brawl, and fuck. It also includes a multitude of cameos, including other Love and Rockets characters, fellow comic-pioneers Robert Crumb and Charles Burns, and even Frida Kahlo. And those are just the ones I recognized. 

The party is an example of the unbridled liveliness of the world that the brothers Hernandez have created, and the characters seem incredibly real. Beto sometimes narrates the stories in first person, like they were told to him by the characters themselves. He seems to treat them like friends and even inserts himself into the story on at least one occasion, in a very small role as a local drunk. 

The art actually seems to adapt to the tone of the story, getting goofier or grittier at times.  Mostly, it is pretty basic and perfectly portrays the "human condition" in a small town. The unembellished drawings are complimented by an amazing amount of emotion in the minds beneath those thin, black lines of ink. 
Heraclio and a couple buddies get wasted
One sort-of “complaint” is that the ending is so abrupt, cutting off while a now-grown Israel stares wistfully into space. But then again, the beginning also seems somewhat abrupt, and life doesn't follow a traditional story arc, with a proper beginning and a denouement to wrap everything up nicely. So really, it adds to the realism more than anything. 

Besides, there is a second collection that follows the Palomar characters [Human Diastrophism], so I will be able to continue observing the lives of these people. I borrowed this one from the Jason James Booth Pre-memorial Liberry and hopefully they have a copy of the next installment!

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