New Tales of Old Palomar #1
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics and Coconino Press
The Hernandez Brothers have been busy. There’s an embarrassment of new and semi-new riches for reviewers–we’ve got new collections of early Love and Rockets stuff (Jaime’s Maggie the Mechanic and Gilbert’s Heartbreak Soup); Luba: Three Daughters, the conclusion of the Luba in America trilogy and book 23 in the large-format L&R graphic novels; Sloth, a new non-Palomar graphic novel from Beto, and even plain old Love and Rockets #18. All of them deserve (and will probably eventually get) their own reviews.
The most exciting new offering from Los Bros Hernandez, however, is New Tales of Old Palomar #1, a return to the beginning of the epic Beto’s been working on for 25 years. For L&R fans, the only comic event that could match it would be a new story from Jaime about a young Maggie’s Prosolar mechanic days—you know, from when Love and Rockets actually had rockets in it. Who knows if that’ll ever happen? In the meanwhile, there’s New Tales, which takes place just after the first Heartbreak Soup stories from issues three and four of the original series.
Fantagraphics gives New Tales the deluxe treatment; it’s one of the first of their special Ignatz series of books. It’s big–even bigger that the original L&R books from the 80s and 90s–and it’s printed on heavy stock, with a heavy-stock jacket. The swanky treatment is great, but it’s the appearance from very first pages of Sheriff Chelo, Carmen, and a soccer genius Pipo that make this a very special book. In the course of its 32-pages, we see, among others, Luba, Gato, Vicente, and even Martin el Loco—many of the characters that made early L&R required reading.
For those not familiar with Beto’s work, his early L&R stories are a sort of surreal soap opera set in the fictional village of Palomar. Although the story moves relentlessly forward (though with plenty of flashbacks), there’s no single plot line; instead it’s a connected series of short narratives that combine to tell the story of the whole decidedly off-kilter village. It’s kind of a cliché to compare Palomar to Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo (from One Hundred Years of Solitude). It’s a fair comparison, but, in the interest of coming up with something new, I’m going to say instead that Palomar is like a South American version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Like the Yoknapatawpha stories, Beto’s work is a series of interconnected tales that tell the story of a place through the lives its inhabitants, in a sometimes non-linear way, from multiple points of view. There. Obligatory comparison to nobel-prize winning literature out of the way.
The story of New Tales #1 definitely fits in with the original Sopa de Gran Pena stories. Short and charming, it reads a bit like a tall tale, as some of Beto’s early stories do. It deals partly with a race between current teenage bride and future TV and movie mogul Pipo and some mysterious thieves who are so quick that no one can see them, and who no one but super-fast Pipo can catch. It also fills in a longstanding gap in the overall saga, the back story of tragic heroine Tonantzin, whose tale runs from village floozy (one of the first times we see her, in Heartbreak Soup, she’s mercilessly kicking a fat and naked masked wrestler out of her bad the morning after) and fried babosa seller (Tonantzin is most often seen carrying baskets of this native-to-Palomar giant slug on her head) to radical activist.
New Tales #1 is worth reading on its own merits, but L&R aficionados will also want to compare latter-day Beto to his earlier work on this story’s chronological contemporaries. By comparison, his return to Palomar is both freer and more casual. For one thing, there are none of the big blocks of narration so common to his stories. Granted, these are characters with background established in hundreds, if not thousands, of previous pages, so little introduction is needed. Still it’s a little jarring for me, as I’m in the process of reading the new Heartbreak Soup collection of old stories at the moment.
The result is a much lighter, more leisurely read. This is due also to the fact that this story might have taken half as many pages in the old days. Beto uses the extra space (and the oversized pages) to great effect. Instead of jamming his story into nine-panel pages, he gives us one-third, three-quarter and even full-page panels, These enormous panels add an incredible sense of atmosphere to Palomar and the strange, megalith-haunted countryside surrounding it. It is, however a cinematic feel that concentrates more on composition and storytelling than on the fine detail of the original Heartbreak Soup. In fact, as with much of his later work, there’s less detail, especially in the backgrounds–but also in the characters. His art feels both more pared down and more energetic than it used to, and more assured in its simplicity. There are few spots in the book where it also just feels a bit less polished, frankly, but overall it’s a more mature style, and much more uniquely Beto’s.
New Tales from Old Palomar #1 is a great book by an artist in his prime. It’s also a return to one of the most famous settings in independent comics in since the original Love & Rockets helped kick off the alternative comics revolution that brought independent titles out of the underground. Finally, the book just looks great, thanks to the deluxe treatment Fantagraphics gives its Ignatz books. My only complaint: I have to wait until May for the next issue.