Written & Illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics
After the conclusion of Love & Rockets vol. 1 in 1997, Fantagraphics compiled all of co-creator Gilbert Hernandez’s “Heartbreak Soup” stories in a single hardcover edition, titled Palomar (named for the small town “somewhere south of the border” in which the stories unfolded). The Palomar hardcover edition is, with maybe only one other serious contender (Alison Bechdel’s impossibly literate and moving Fun Home) the most powerful and humane comic book experience of my life.
After a few creative side-trips and explorations, Gilbert returned to his most famous characters, focusing on one-time Palomar bathgiver and mayor Luba and her family as they settled in southern California. The sum-total of Hernandez’s “Luba” comics were assembled this past summer in the hardcover collection Luba. It’s probably not fair to expect Hernandez to issue another creative virtuoso like Palomar, but in the pages of Luba, he comes closer than might be expected.
Palomar’s success comes from Hernandez’s ability to spotlight, sometimes only briefly, sometimes for extended sequences, dozens of divergent citizens in the small village. Combining humor, drama, surrealism, family and community, all drawn with aplomb, Palomar’s denizens provide Hernandez the opportunity to explore and examine the range of humanity. The end result is a fully realized, morally complex, beautifully joyous and tragically sad portrait of human community.
In Luba, the focus is similarly broad, yet also more centered. With her move to America, Luba is united with two half-sisters she’d been unaware of. Helping the family acclimate and hiring Luba’s daughter Doralis as host of a children’s television program is another olden Palomar resident, kittenish, vain Pipo. With this core cast, including Pipo’s son, a soccer star, and their own families, Hernandez sets out to explore the concept of family.
Like Palomar, Luba was created serially and is, as a result, prone to bizarre digressions. In many ways, it is these side-tracks that give Hernandez’s work its power, however. Our lives don’t follow clean storylines, and nor do his characters’. Certain themes repeat frequently, notably Luba’s sister Fritz’s low self-esteem-fueled sexual antics, which manage to be both titillating and occasionally overwhelming. Even Hernandez seemed to realize that Fritz’s lascivious lifestyle smothers other storylines, as late in the narrative Luba explains that she dreamed about her other sister Petra trying to steal the spotlight while Fritz paraded nakedly. Luba was always one of Palomar’s most lusty residents, but she never achieved the degree of debauchery Fritz manages repeatedly during the more prurient side-logs found in this book.
Luba’s stand-out character, and seemingly the character primed to take the central role if Hernandez continues to follow the family line, is Petra’s daughter Venus. Precocious, intelligent and utterly unwilling to let anybody’s bull slide, Venus provides perspective on the family’s many dysfunctions. Her youthfully innocent observations regarding Luba’s inability to accept her daughters’ homosexuality, or regarding her mother’s desperate clinging to youth and inability to forgive, provide consistent context throughout Luba.
After exploring the many connections of the family dynamic and shining a bright spotlight on the most destructive qualities of the family, Hernandez builds the book to a tragic crescendo, then shifts into a more sublime depiction of the family’s most balanced members. The calmness and maturity of Guadalupe, Hector and Venus’s lives in the time after tragedy is offset by the bizarre, family-fracturing career shift for Fritz, leaving Venus and Guadalupe effectively in the eye of a potential hurricane, providing stability as the family’s unstable parts no longer interact with one another. In many ways, this section is its highlight, offering more even-keeled perspectives on life and love.
Although Luba doesn’t hit as hard as Palomar, it remains a compelling portrait of family in all its messy glory. Alternately sexy and vulgar, beautiful and mean, optimistic and intolerant, Luba and her family encompass all the ugliness and amazement that comes with being part of the human entity.