In the stories collected in Heartbreak Soup (Fantagraphics), Gilbert Hernandez erected the Central American town of Palomar and populated it with an indelible citizenry the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in comics. In the stories collected in Human Diastrophism, Hernandez lays siege to Palomar and its residents, introducing a daunting array of outside forces that threaten the apparent idyll. Archeologists, surfers, leftist ideology, and even a plague of monkeys chip away at the community.
The most obviously sinister is a serial killer who seems to be targeting victims at random. There’s the obvious threat to life and safety, but the crime wave is most telling in its individual effects. As one might suspect from Hernandez, it’s less a mystery or crime drama than a catalyst for personal and sociological seismic waves. There are moments that have the tension of the thriller, but these chapters are most notable for the personal and moral conundrums they trigger.
I’m perpetually amazed at how well Hernandez can juggle seemingly disparate narrative elements. The cast is absolutely sprawling, but no one gets lost. With figures as outsized as Luba, that heartbreaking, voluptuous monster, or passionate, impressionable Tonatzin, searching and failing to find the thing that will fill the void, it would have been simplicity itself to put someone in the driver’s seat. And while that still would have resulted in a marvelous comic, Hernandez’s shifting focus and diffuse point of views make things even richer.
It’s all ultimately about Palomar, even when it isn’t set there. The bulk of the second half tracks expatriates from the hamlet who are trying to build new lives in the United States but keep getting drawn back to their home, either emotionally or physically. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the bittersweet connection to a place be articulated as well as it is here. And since the characters have been impeccably and richly conceived, there’s no limit to their possibilities.
The short pieces are also marvelous. My favorite follows sexy, outgoing Pipo as she goes from being the prettiest girl in Palomar to a woman of surprising power and substance. Broken down in sixteen-panel grids, Pipo narrates her personal journey as a sort of film strip unfolds visually.
I really can’t say enough about these comics. The world that Hernandez has created is so rich in detail and possibilities, and the characters are so engrossing, even when they’re horrid. If you’ve never read these stories, you really should, not because of their place in some abstract comics canon, but because they’re spectacularly, richly entertaining.