From the stack: Heartbreak Soup

March 18, 2007

I think people sometimes avoid comics widely acknowledged as classics because the designation doesn’t promise a whole lot of fun. Somewhere along the way, the perception of a given body of work shifts from “something that people really enjoy” to “something that people deeply admire.” Personally, I’ll pick the likelihood of enjoyment over admiration every time, though there’s plenty of evidence that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Take Gilbert Hernandez’s Heartbreak Soup (Fantagraphics). It’s easy to see why the stories here have stood the test of time. With apparent effortlessness, Hernandez built the Central American town of Palomar into one of the richest, most absorbing fictional communities I’ve ever encountered. The pages burst with imaginative storytelling and sharply defined characters, and it’s the kind of book you want to savor.

I found that I wasn’t ultimately able to dose out the pleasure of the reading experience, because there was just too much of it. The collection was just too much fun to read, and restraint went out the window.

There was always someone new to meet, or more to learn about characters I already knew. The thrill of watching a bit of gossip – a local marital squabble or sexual indiscretion, or a childhood misadventure – polished into something like legend was too compulsively readable. The generous blend of humor, pathos, sex, friendship and family was just irresistible.

With a sprawling cast of characters young and old, good and bad, you’d think one or two would have emerged as clear favorites. Again, Hernandez’s creative generosity made this virtually impossible. There seemed to be no such thing as a throw-away character, no matter how brief their tenure on the pages. It could be argued that the women of Palomar have the edge; they run the place by virtue of a combination of hard-won wisdom, resourcefulness and independence. But while the men seem to have abdicated power in terms of the town’s social structure, they hold their own as layered, richly drawn contributors to Palomar’s fictional world.

As if all of this creative flourish and lovingly detailed emotional landscape wasn’t good enough, the collection is a steal. For just under $15, you get close to 300 black-and-white pages of comics that are as freshly engaging as they are undeniably groundbreaking.

Admiration, enjoyment and economy, all in one package. What more do you need?