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Autoclastic Icons: Bloodletting and Burning in Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar

By Christopher Pizzino1

The idea of comics as a traumatized medium, which I explore in what follows, asks that we change our thinking about the relationship between trauma and art. As personal, communal and historical wounds have rightly attracted more and more scholarly attention, it has become common to discuss the way aesthetic and narrative practices express or bear witness to trauma. What is less common is a sustained look at the problems that arise when a form of expression itself undergoes trauma; such is the case of US comics. As with many other instances of trauma, the damage done to comics is at once easily recognizable and uncannily elusive. The suppression of comics at mid-century, particularly the events of 1954 (including but not limited to the formation of the Comics Code Authority) have been extensively documented. Though various histories have told this story somewhat differently, it is clear that profound changes accompany the demoted cultural status comics have suffered from mid-century onward.2 The purge, and the cultural illegitimacy that intensified in its wake, altered the production and distribution of comics, not to mention their generic and thematic dispositions, in obvious ways. Yet there are ongoing problems of understanding and perception; it is difficult to grasp the scale and depth of the long-term effects of the purge. We struggle to see beyond such immediate issues as quality (the merits or flaws of various examples of comics production after the Code) and distribution (how various comics are, or are not, made widely available for consumption) to, for instance, the larger problem of a traumatized literacy, the damage done to our capacity to read comics fruitfully. Ongoing critical attempts to theorize comics, frequently conceived as a way to delineate a field or an object of study, are perhaps better seen as attempts to repair a damaged reading practice. We are actively seeking restoration, or perhaps discovery, of a kind of literacy through our efforts to redefine and rephrase the language of comics—including, for better or worse, the neologism offered in the title above.

The concept of autoclastic icons, or self-breaking images, is an attempt to understand an aesthetic hallmark of comics from the past half-century, and particularly from the past thirty years. This concept addresses the formal dynamics of comics in the context of the suppressed status the medium has endured. At present, our sense of comics history is changing as the medium gains ground in the struggle for legitimacy. While the increase in legitimacy is certainly welcome, the new conditions, in which the most obvious scars from the era of the purge are beginning to fade, can prompt us either to underrate or to ignore what distinguishes comics produced during the period of transition. The violence done to comics has often affected not only the general conditions in which comics creators have worked, but also the aesthetic contours of what they have produced. When this issue is visible at all, it is usually addressed along general lines, perhaps by noting the way a given creator has been harmed by restrictive labor conditions (and is able/unable to flourish outside them once greater freedom is attained), or by pointing out how a creator’s work has been hampered by lack of opportunities for an appreciative audience (and succeeds/fails once the audience is available), and so forth. Here I want to focus on the more difficult issue of how the overall conditions of comics have appeared—aesthetically transformed, but nevertheless clearly visible as such—in specific and complex ways on the comics page. Not all creators provide opportunities to pursue this issue, but among those who do, Gilbert Hernandez is one of the most urgently important. His work registers a deep awareness (clearly conscious in some cases, less so in others) of the destructive forces that have impinged upon comics, and his self-opposed aesthetics demand complex, multivalent reading, intervening reflexively in the process of consumption. I will focus on the opening phase of his work, the first fifty issues of Love and Rockets (1982-1996). In this phase, he creates an aesthetic that resists the cultural demotion of comics as a cheap, easily consumed commodity. At the same time, his work is deeply skeptical of an optimistically progressive vision of comics as destined for legitimacy. In place of these two visions of comics (the former a longstanding stereotype, the latter a more recent one), Gilbert charts a difficult third path that registers the violence done to his medium, and manifests it aesthetically in ways that make radical demands on his readers.

To reveal these aesthetics most clearly, we can begin by noting the differences between Gilbert and his brother Jaime when they depict violence.3 In the work of both brothers in Love & Rockets, violence is usually iconic, to use Scott McCloud’s term, conveyed through prominent sound effects and motion lines.4 In Jaime’s case, this iconic quality is tempered and made a specific element in a controlled narrative language. For instance, bloodshed appears infrequently and is represented with restraint. If we inspect the blood Jaime creates, there is a strong sense of its being applied to a pre-existing image with careful respect to the proportions of objects and figures. The latter take special priority; figures often retain an elegant completeness that is embellished, but not marred, by a modicum of additional ink (Figure 1).5

Figure 1: From Maggie the Mechanic 63.5

Given this controlled aesthetic, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Jaime’s stories often feature professional wrestling. A bounded realm of methodically and ritually performed movements, in which events are expressed through poses, sorts well with his overall pictorial vision. If we apply careful visual forensics to Gilbert’s depictions of violence, we arrive at quite a different aesthetic. Frequently poses are secondary to acts, and figures are more likely to be visually distorted in and through violence. Bloodshed can be copious and gestural; ink is, in some cases, applied so heavily that figures are partially obscured. Note the profusion of gore in Gilbert’s representation of Chancla, victim of an attempted murder in “Human Diastrophism,” one of the central narrative arcs of the Palomar stories (Figure 2).

Figure 2: From Human Diastrophism 80.8

Blood nearly overwhelms the figure; Chancla seems not so much drawn over as nearly blotted out. An essential material element of most hand-drawn comics (and of all printed ones), ink can have a usefully metaphoric relationship to blood as a pictorial element; they both flow, drip, spill and run. In the work of Gilbert, such metaphorics attain extraordinary resonance and force. As readers, we become aware of the materiality of the elements that make comics function, and violence is usually what provokes this awareness.

In fact, for Gilbert, violence is not simply one narrative element among others, but functions as a lynchpin in the dynamics of comics making and reading. A signal instance of copious, gestural blood in the Palomar narratives occurs toward the end of the story “An American in Palomar” (Love & Rockets issues 13 and 14), which, not coincidentally, is deeply concerned with how Palomar as a narrative space is connected to the creator who renders the town visible, and to readers who see the visible images he makes. The creator-surrogate, US photographer Howard Miller, visits Palomar with hopes of producing an award-winning book featuring the town’s inhabitants.6 While in Palomar, he seduces local resident Tonantzín Villaseñor with false promises of fame in Hollywood. When some of the young men of the town learn that Miller has broken her heart, they assault him. The assault and Miller’s callousness are neither condemned nor justified by the story as a whole, which portrays all parties to the conflict as ethically ambiguous. The young men who assault Miller have repeatedly harassed and stolen from Tonantzín themselves, and her friend Carmen believes Tonantzín exploited Miller as much as he exploited her (Heartbreak Soup 169.1-4, 188). What is crucial about the assault is that while the circumstances surrounding it are complicated, the depiction is brutally simplified.

Figure 3: From Heartbreak Soup 189.4-5

Gilbert shows us one panel in which the assault begins, and then a cluster of blotches, as if to suggest he has splashed ink onto the page (Figure 3). At one level, this depiction condemns violence as an oversimplified reaction to ethical complexity. The assault on Miller does not solve or balance the conflicted relations between him and those whose images he has taken, nor does Miller seem to learn much from the experience (as his self-aggrandizing internal ramblings indicate [Heartbreak Soup 190]). In fact, the assault changes nothing. No residents of Palomar end up feeling differently about Miller’s visit as a result of it, and Miller himself moves past the moment and produces his book as intended from the first. Yet this “bloody” panel underscores violence as a key part of depicting, seeing and being seen.

No discrete cause seems fully adequate to explain such a reduction of visual and narrative complexity to splashes of ink. As Gilbert arranges things, there is no prime mover for such a moment, be it a failure of communication, ethics or vision. Whatever is at work would appear to be more pervasive, and more strongly tied into the dynamics of comics as a site of image production and consumption. We should note first that, as a visual device, the bloody assault on Miller strikes in all directions at once. As already suggested, it is most obviously a self-critique on the part of the creator. Visually alluring female characters like Tonantzín are central to the Palomar stories, and here Gilbert attacks himself as the maker of their images, subjecting himself by proxy to a violence that seems to come from outside the representational. At the same time, there is a critique of the viewer, that ever-present “American in Palomar,” whose desire to consume the artist’s images is affronted by splashes of ink in the place of figures. Further, there is a critique of some of Palomar’s residents, whose violence makes them (at least momentarily) unrepresentable; their assault on the interloper is a breakdown of effective communication across lines of difference. In theory, each of these forms of violence is separate, though some are narrative consequences of others. What is crucial is that Gilbert’s radically simplified, gestural bloodiness acts as if all vectors of force are connected at some level other than the causal. The panel, even the page itself, seems to bleed as a symptom of an encompassing destructive energy.

If pages can bleed in Gilbert’s work, it is likewise the case that they can burn, and the prominent place given to burning is deeply significant throughout the later issues of Love & Rockets. At the end of the narrative arc “Human Diastrophism” (issues 21-26), Tonantzín, now a political activist, immolates herself (Human Diastrophism 121.1-4). Her companion Khamo is badly scarred in an unsuccessful attempt to save her life, and his disfigurement becomes a recurring visible reminder of her death. Once introduced in this dramatic way, the motif of burning resonates backward and forward along Gilbert’s development of the entire Palomar timeline. For instance, in the arc “Poison River” (issues 29-40), protagonist Luba is nearly scorched by a cigar while in infancy (Beyond Palomar 7.4-6), and much later, her daughter Casimira (fathered by Khamo), with typically exuberant mischief, lights her own prosthetic arm and becomes a sort of self-immolating torchbearer, carried on her father’s shoulders (Human Diastrophism 139.5). Consciously or unconsciously, this motif aligns Gilbert’s characters and the medium in which they have their being as similarly imperiled. Notably, burning is the kind of destruction that most readily can happen—and has happened—to both flesh and paper. Thus, it makes visible two overlapping kinds of vulnerability: that of the denizens of Palomar—whose lives and dignity are often threatened as they interact with each other, with their own histories, and with the outside world—and that of comics, subject as the medium has been to marginalization and suppression, including, in the middle years of the twentieth century, repeated acts of immolation.

Yet burning also seems to mean more than simple death or disposal. Combustion paradoxically implies a release of energy resulting from annihilation, a revelation of potential that obliterates what is revealed, and Gilbert exploits this dynamic in a way that is specific to the traumatized condition of comics making and reading. The burning of Tonantzín might initially recall current theories about the expression of trauma in narrative. In an extended reading of Freud’s well-known case of a parent dreaming of his burning child, Cathy Caruth discusses trauma under the heading of ethics, emphasizing the relationship between self and other as that of witness and victim. Awakening from his dream to discover the reality of his dead child (awareness of which has been both announced and delayed by the dream), the parent illustrates for us “the trauma of the necessity and impossibility of responding to another’s death” (100). The paradox Caruth unfolds requires a very specific scenario in which the victim has already been destroyed while the dreamer/witness is caught impossibly between engagement and disengagement with the victim’s destruction. Tonantzín’s death is markedly different from such a scenario. Exploiting the paradoxical valences of combustion, Gilbert uses the motif of burning, like that of bloodletting, to underscore agency along multiple vectors. The death of Tonantzín is, importantly, a suicide, and it indicates not her victimhood but the strength of her moral conviction and political passion (neither is precisely specified, but she is generally characterized as concerned with social justice). Equally important is the fact that Howard Miller is an unwitting witness to the suicide; he learns of it from a report on television, and responds philosophically without knowing that Tonantzín is the one who has killed herself. In this instance, Miller is positioned even more ambiguously than he is in “An American in Palomar.” There is a distance from the singularity of what Tonantzín has done (“That kind of thing happens all the time,” he observes) and a partial understanding of her motives, as when he claims that “there comes a point for some of us where talk or art or propaganda just isn’t enough …” (Human Diastrophism 121.2-3, 6). Miller’s position is both more ethically distant and more interpretively engaged than that of Freud’s dreamer. By turning Miller into a commentator on the suicide, Gilbert points to his own agency as his character’s destroyer even as he affirms that his agency is part of an ambiguous political impulse that goes beyond artistic creation in the usual sense. The presence of Miller, the outside observer who is never more than a tourist when he visits Palomar, also involves us as we consume images of Tonantzín, one of several highly sexualized characters intended to seduce the viewer as much as she attracts the desires of both men and women in her town. Repetition—central to most theories of trauma—redounds here upon the reader not as witness or survivor, but, in more complex fashion, as co-participant in an irrevocable act of consumption. Thus, in the Palomar stories burning can be, simultaneously: something characters do to themselves as they determine their own destinies, something the comics creator does to his characters as he directs their fates, and something comics readers do to characters by consuming images of them. Far from being a simple index of victimization, burning pervades or surrounds the death of Tonantzín in a violent dynamic of agency and destruction, recognition and alienation. Gilbert creates a narrative moment that is inseparable from the act of making comics, from the act of reading them, and also, perhaps most disturbingly, from the act of destroying them.

Stepping outside the narrative and aesthetic practice I am attempting to describe, I admit that it is at odds with much of what has been assumed about the early work of the Hernandez Brothers. Initial responses tended to see it as achieving a new visibility, both of Latino characters in English-language comics, and, together with other titles emerging at the time, of alternative comics as a viable entity. Further, the unfolding of both Gilbert’s Palomar stories and Jaime’s Hoppers stories in Love & Rockets was seen as a new expansion of narrative possibilities—again, for Latino comics and for US comics as a whole.7 Many aspects of Love & Rockets certainly justify the initial responses. Certainly it is true that visibility is a crucial category for the Palomar stories; even apart from their intrinsically visual nature as comics, they demand constant attention to categories of sight. The case of Howard Miller is one of many that raise issues of perception and the gaze with keen attention to responsible depictions of Latino culture. The idea of narrative expansion is likewise appropriate; early in Love & Rockets, both Gilbert and Jaime removed most of the science-fictional and superhero elements from their stories and focused on realistic depictions of daily life, a narrative direction that had few precedents at the time. However, even as Gilbert maps the lives of his Palomar characters along an increasingly extensive and more or less consistent chronology, he repeatedly introduces destructive elements that frustrate impulses toward visibility and expansion.

These elements, such as the assault on Miller and the burning of Tonantzín, I am calling autoclastic icons, self-breaking images that bring a sense of their own disintegration into the heart of their function as signifiers. This aesthetic strategy is, I am arguing, specific to comics produced in the US (and in some cases the UK) after the purge, and is best understood as a response to the oppressive conditions it ushered in for comics as a medium and for comics makers. Other creators who deploy autoclastic iconography are beyond my scope here, but I will note their general importance before further exploring examples from Gilbert’s work. If we examine the dominant narrative concerning US comics of the last thirty years—the period in which, to return to my earlier metaphor, the most visible scars from the purge have begun to fade—we see a macro-version of the accepted narrative concerning the Hernandez Brothers. It is a Bildungsroman narrative of growth and development marked by new formats and ambitions (both crucial to the emergence of the “graphic novel” as an identifiable category) leading to broader comics readership, increased mainstream cultural respect, and a general sense of the medium’s “growing up” or “coming of age.” If we care about the fate of comics, it is difficult to dispute the utility of this narrative. For instance, as some comics teachers know from their own experience, the narrative is description powerful enough to work prescriptively, allowing for a vision of comics in the university classroom as the natural consequence of changes in the medium itself. In short, it is easier to speak of the “rise of the graphic novel” than it is to trace a traumatic story that includes threats of censorship, distribution problems, and struggles over creators’ rights. Bearing this latter (more accurate and complex) narrative in mind, however, it is clear that the story of the last three decades is not actually a Bildungsroman narrative of natural growth and maturation. It is, rather, a story of power, of struggles for creative agency and cultural legitimacy against overwhelming material, institutional, and ideological barriers.8

If we grasp the age of the “graphic novel” in this fashion, we should not be surprised at how often contemporary comics creators struggle with the various discourses of the Bildungsroman, such as growth, maturation, socialization, social cohesion, and legitimacy.9 These discourses are typically approached with a bold skepticism, leading to stories of troubled development, in which standard narratives of progress are satirized or derailed. What is especially notable is how frequently the thematics of troubled development are reflected in formal and aesthetic devices that directly challenge, and self-reflexively highlight, the act of reading. In Gilbert’s case, the implosive violence of bloodletting and burning constitutes a key visual and thematic nexus, where lack—of safety, meaning, and legitimacy—manifests itself in multivalent ways. It should be stressed that this aesthetic, which might at first look similar to some strains of literary or philosophical postmodernism, is specific to the cultural position of comics. To imagine, for example, that Gilbert puts his images under erasure, in the deconstructive sense, would be to apply a concept relevant only where legitimacy has already been granted in advance, as is the case with philosophy as a discourse, or the novel as a genre. This typical kind of erasure points to limited insufficiency within what is already a space of welcome for acceptable utterance. The medium of comics, unlike the novel, has long been forced to subsist without a guarantee of legitimacy or long-term survival in the US, and autoclastic icons register these conditions visibly on the comics page. In Gilbert’s work in Love & Rockets, the pervasive dissolution circulating among the creator, his comics, and his readers declares the troubled conditions in which comics production and consumption take place.

The extremity of Gilbert’s visual and thematic tactics indicate a need to address deep problems for which, in Howard Miller’s words, “talk or art or propaganda just isn’t enough.” Yet these tactics do not express despair. What might seem at first to be gestures of simple negation—as if Gilbert is merely doing to his work what was long done to US comics as a whole—announce the power of comics to manifest the traumas to which the medium has been subjected, and to allow those traumas to resonate with other historical experiences in which progress and growth (either personal or cultural) are thwarted. The resonances among the aesthetic, the cultural, the personal, and the historical are often deeply critical and open-ended, rarely suggesting a clear path to healing and progress, yet the violent expressiveness of Gilbert’s aesthetics (even when what is expressed is a blotch of ink) contains an affirmative element. In Graphic Women (2010), Hillary Chute has persuasively urged an understanding of comics as having a positively representative function in relation to trauma:

The stories to which women’s graphic narrative is today dedicated are often traumatic […]. However, the authors do not project an identity that is defined by trauma: they work to erase the inscription of women in that space. […T]he force and value of graphic narrative’s intervention, on the whole, attaches to how it pushes on conceptions of the unrepresentable that have become commonplace in the wake of deconstruction, especially in contemporary discourse about trauma. Against a valorization of absence and aporia, graphic narrative asserts the value of presence, however complex and contingent. (2)

The avoidance of “an identity defined by trauma” in the women’s life narratives Chute discusses recalls an exchange between Gilbert and one of his readers in issue 31 of Love & Rockets (December 1989). The reader inquired, “do you think you could develop a character whose life wasn’t pure misfortune? Someone who didn’t have a miserable, depressing life? Someone I could care for, but not pity?” (Harris 33). Gilbert responded, “None of my characters has had a ‘miserable, depressing life.’ None. And I don’t do requests” (33). Coming as it did after Tonantzín’s suicide, Gilbert’s terse declaration affirmed a principle of vitality over and against that of abjection (while its coda announced a commitment to challenging readerly satisfaction). The dynamics of Gilbert’s work depart, in some ways, from what Chute describes, particularly in the casting of “presence” as a fragile category and of the comics medium as likewise fragile and given to destruction. There is, furthermore, radical insistence on consumption (reading) as a practice of destruction; this violently interrupts an easily affirmative relationship with Gilbert’s characters. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense that comics’ fragility, and the looming destruction attendant on the very act of reading them, can usefully be made manifest, and that comics are sufficient to address their own and the world’s threatened condition, however violently self-opposed the tactics needed for such a task.

As these tactics manifest in the Palomar stories, narrative as well as visual elements are transformed. Gilbert sends his Palomar stories along new trajectories that depart both from the narrative models of many serial comics and from the closure-oriented (and culturally legitimizing) tactics of the novel. While the first Palomar arc, “Heartbreak Soup” (issues 3-4), ends with somewhat predictable tragic closure through the death of Manuel, later stories discover new kinds of endings that leave characters in states of suspension or exile. “Holidays in the Sun” (issue 15) is one example. The story follows longtime Palomar resident Jesús, imprisoned for assaulting his wife Laura, as he serves his sentence. Incorporating a number of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, Gilbert portrays Jesús as internally imprisoned by conflicting desires as surely as he is externally incarcerated on a remote island. At first, the two fantasy figures that reappear in the story, Luba and Tonantzín, present themselves as an escape, both from the reality of daily life in the prison and from guilt-inducing memories of Laura, who seems to push her way into the fantasies (Heartbreak Soup 203.4-5). By the story’s end, however, it is clear that Jesús’s desires are compromised precisely by their fragmentation into various irreconcilable fantasies, and by their alienation from his actual life—in which, notably, he has a sexual relationship with a fellow prisoner. The story’s final page features a striking five-panel sequence in which Luba, Tonantzín, and Laura call out to Jesús in rapid succession as he works in a field. Each figure is presented as an interruption to any extended fantasy engagement with the others, and in the story’s final panel, Jesús appears pensive and trapped (Figure 4). This sequence generates both narrative and visual autoclasm. Jesús’s perpetually disrupted, unfocused desire is paralleled by disruptions in our attempts to read and participate in this desire. As characters and as visual elements, the various female figures differ too much to become aspects of one another but overlap too much to allow for some choice among them. Together they convey a sense of Jesús’s suffering as an experience that cannot be resolved either into serial enjoyment (one fantasy after another) or into closure (desire reconciled or relinquished).

Figure 4: From Heartbreak Soup 212.5

The kind of suffering that Jesús undergoes, it should be stressed, is not part of any moral economy; Gilbert has made clear in interviews that he does not punish his characters for their desires, or for the ways they act on them (“Pleased” 91-92). What does emerge from “Holidays in the Sun,” and from other early Palomar stories, is a critique of restrictive gender roles and a call for new possibilities. The machismo of the men of Palomar is a particular target, not only for its oppression of women (Sherriff Borro’s bullying of Chelo and Luba, Jesús’s violence against Laura, the routine abuse Gato inflicts on Pipo during their marriage) but also for its inability to provide a coherent model of masculinity. As one humorous panel in the story “The Reticent Heart” (issue 12) makes clear, most teenage boys of Palomar feel that there are only two options open to them; they must become either “virile, stud-like men” or “hopeless geeks” (Heartbreak Soup 157.3). Gilbert takes care to show that this model of development is insufficient to account for the reality of adult social roles and desires. Of particular interest is the character of Israel, who is presented as the exemplar of Palomar’s “virile, stud-like men,” fiercely loyal and brave (as when he singlehandedly wrestles a panther attacking his friend Heraclio [Heartbreak Soup 123.3-5]). Yet Israel is bisexual, a fact Gilbert drops casually in “The Reticent Heart,” where we see that Israel’s romantic fantasies include both men and women (Heartbreak Soup 156.2). The contrast between Israel’s imagination and that of the other boys clearly indicates a desire to broaden available roles for Latino men, and for Gilbert’s male readership more generally, and in so doing to push past incomplete stories of adult manhood.

Although Gilbert engages in progressive critique of limited gender roles, he refuses to provide finished, easily accessible alternatives. In the case of Israel, adult discovery of a range of desires does not lead to a stable or coherent identity. In the story “Bullnecks and Bracelets” (issue 19), Israel is another figure of suffering in exile. Unable to return to Palomar because he has had an affair with Heraclio’s wife Carmen, he is also haunted by the sudden loss of his twin sister in early childhood. The sister’s disappearance occurs during a solar eclipse, and the image of the sun obscured, its corona visible, recurs in the story as a figure of meaning revealed through visual cancellation. The shape of Israel’s vitality is defined by the connection he lacks, and his apparent strength becomes a reminder of his vulnerability, as when one of his lovers advises him not to exercise too energetically: “Careful … you don’t want to hurt your shoulder again” (Heartbreak Soup 271.1). Unable either to maintain or give up life as a gigolo, Israel moves aimlessly from one sexual and/or emotional attachment to another. His desire to form bonds with others conflicts with his anger at the fact that such bonds do not sustain him. At the climax of the story, shortly after another disappointment in his attempts to find his sister, Israel finds a way to express rage against his life: he instigates an orgy. This occurs at a decadent bohemian party attended by the kinds of wealthy men and women whom he services. In a modified version of the same tactic used in “An American in Palomar,” Gilbert shows six panels in which only dialogue, screams, sound effects, and fragments of images (generally suggestive of sex and violence) are visible, followed three panels later by an image of the eclipse (Figure 5).

Figure 5: From Heartbreak Soup 283.1-6, 9

The visual/metaphoric pun is unavoidable: Israel’s rage eclipses both its origins and its ends, and registers trauma by refusing coherent representation in the traditional sense. The autoclasm here comments on pressing social and political topics (particularly the relationship between sexual identity and class), but goes beyond or beneath these topics toward the broader question of an unfinished or unrequited existence—a question Gilbert manages to ask, through self-breaking images, without suggesting an answer.

Israel is both a subject and an object of desire, and in this he indicates a carefully balanced mode of characterization that Gilbert refines over the course of the Palomar stories. It should be noted that in revisions of major Love and Rockets arcs for collected publication, Gilbert’s revisions often bear on character development, and seem intended to maintain equilibrium between agency and victimization. For example, in “Human Diastrophism,” Gilbert alters the appearance of Tonantzín, together with a few details of her story, in a way that emphasizes both the clear trajectory of her fate and her own role in it. While the main thread of “Human Diastrophism” concerns the presence of a serial murderer in Palomar, Tonantzín shows us a differently focused story of how the town interacts with the outside world. Thanks to the influence of letters, first written by the imprisoned Geraldo and later forged by Maricela and Riri, Tonantzín becomes concerned with the critical state of global affairs. She tries various ways of acting on her new concerns, including a period in which she dresses in traditional/indigenous clothing. In the original serial comics, this clothing is very revealing, leaving her almost naked (Figure 6).

Figure 6: From Love and Rockets issue 23, 5.7

Revisions make the garb slightly more substantial, de-eroticizing her figure to some degree (Figure 7).

Figure 7: From Human Diastrophism 50.7

This shift in appearance is not a matter of chastening her sexuality (again, such impulses do not manifest in Gilbert’s work). It does, however, emphasize Tonantzín’s transformation from a flirtatious woman who wants to be appreciated for her beauty to a political subject who wants to change the world. Neither of these identities is presented as better or worse, but the difference between them, and Tonantzín’s agency in moving from one to the other, is important. If the choice to become an activist is influenced by forged letters (which Maricela and Riri create out of a desire to be close to Tonantzín), it is nevertheless a choice Gilbert allows her to own. Such balancing gestures ensure a measure of dignity for Tonantzín’s choice to commit suicide while, again, making that suicide the meeting place of multiple acts (perpetrated by creator, character and reader) of destruction.

Turning to the broad political horizons of Gilbert’s work, we should note that Tonantzín’s story concerns both the fate of an individual engulfed by forces she struggles to comprehend, and the fate of the world itself in the grip of insoluble crises. This latter, larger horizon is more persistently visible in “Poison River,” the lengthiest, most complex, and most heavily revised of the Palomar arcs. Tracing the childhood and early adulthood of Luba through tumultuous political struggle and the violence of organized crime, the story allows Gilbert to realize his vision of comics in a more complete and overt form, partly by expressing more clearly what kinds of narratives he rejects as inadequate. First, and most obviously, he rejects stereotypical, genre-driven serial narratives. These he represents through comics featuring Pedro Pacotilla, a racist caricature who, in the words of one disgusted character, is “the good little black boy who’s happy to be poor and uneducated” (Beyond Palomar 36.1)—in other words, a disenfranchised victim who embraces his own disenfranchisement. As images from Pedro comics recur throughout the years of Luba’s life in “Poison River,” it becomes obvious that Pedro never ages or changes; he represents comics driven by genre and ideology, unable or unwilling to protest an oppressive status quo. These kinds of comics contrast strongly with Gilbert’s stories of Palomar, which allow for decay and transformation, and, at times, boldly critique social and political norms. Charles Hatfield suggests that the recurrent presence of Pedro sometime rhymes with Gilbert’s own narrative intentions, and thus “opens a self-reflexive dimension, a space for auto-critique” (102).10 Pedro’s frequent non sequitur appearances are, admittedly, a comic appearing within a comic, and they invite us to interpret the main action in their light. But this reflexivity is accompanied by a sense of the difference between comics about Pedro and Gilbert’s own comics about Luba, the latter being open to the possibility (however fraught) of change. Each time Pedro interrupts the flow of the narrative, his presence indicates the intransigence of the kinds of comics he represents—their inability to change, their unwillingness to speak meaningfully of the world outside their own images, and the aesthetic violence necessary to appropriate them for more productive ends.

While I believe that this violence does, in Gilbert’s view, liberate comics from the deadening strictures of the commercial and the propagandistic, it does not clearly indicate a way forward. Hatfield observes that, in “Poison River” as in US history, voices criticizing comics can be heard all along the political spectrum (100). It is therefore significant that while “Poison River” clearly distances itself from comics narratives driven by stereotypes, it also rejects narratives of progress preached by both the left and the right. In “Poison River,” the latter are most obviously condemned through the figure of criminal boss Garza, a right-wing mouthpiece who spouts clichéd patriarchal and nationalist sentiments. He relentlessly persecutes Peter Rio, Luba’s first husband, out of pretended concern that Peter is a communist, but his real motivation is a jealous grudge that has little to do with politics. As Hatfield notes, Pedro becomes identified with the story’s gangland characters (100-101). This indicates that the unchanging world of Pedro and the false promise of Garza’s rightist vision are two sides of the same coin. Gilbert is not as overtly critical of leftist characters, sympathetically represented by Luba’s cousin Ofelia and her comrades. However, even these characters’ progressive agendas sometimes fail to grapple with the realities they are attempting to alter. For instance, Ofelia’s friend Gina urges Ofelia to expose Luba to fine arts work, such as Frida Kahlo, as a corrective to the Pedro comics Luba loves. But Kahlo’s work terrifies Luba, who is still a toddler; the model of development imposed on her is no less unworkable for being progressive (Beyond Palomar 37.2-5). Ultimately, what Gilbert observes of almost all his politicized characters is that their visions of progress impose oversimplified models of growth on complex realities where development is frequently uneven and haunted by lack.

In “Poison River,” the critique of both left and right becomes more intense as such narratives result in explosions of violence. One such instance is a gangland shootout, provoked by Garza, in which he and several others die. At the conclusion of this scene, after two panels of copious bloodshed, Gilbert includes one of Pedro’s many non sequitur appearances (Figure 8).

Figure 8: From Beyond Palomar 114.6-8

In this case, the juxtaposition allows for mutually reinforcing critique of propagandistic comics and destructive ideologies. As Gina’s comments make clear, Pedro stories abet right-wing class oppression, so it is no accident that the emptiness of Pedro’s smile mirrors the hollowness of Garza’s anti-communism. Both are facades concealing what is, at best, a lack of complex and productive social vision, and at worst a brutal cynicism. A similar moment, this time aimed at both left and right, occurs late in “Poison River” when three men are publicly burned alive (Beyond Palomar 178-81). Gilbert refuses to make clear whether the men are soldiers of the rightist government or rebels of the leftist insurgency. The fact that either is possible (and neither is guaranteed) is key to the burning itself. Just before the burning commences, Ofelia, who was once brutally raped and beaten by rightist thugs and hopes the victims are soldiers, scans the crowd and spots Luba’s lover Antonio, an ex-soldier who seems to identify with the victims (Beyond Palomar 181.1-3). Antonio’s presence seems to alter Ofelia’s response to the burning. Though it prompts her to grieve, it provides no closure; it manifests her trauma without furnishing either a panacea or a scapegoat (Beyond Palomar 182-83).

This unstable dynamic is enacted in miniature in the three-panel sequence that shows the burning itself, beginning with an image of the unburned victims and ending with an image of their living bodies aflame, separated by an image of the fuel and the match that create the fire (Figure 9).

Figure 9: From Beyond Palomar 181.4-6

Interrupting as it does the story of Ofelia’s encounter with Antonio and with her own past, the sequence invites contemplation as a triptych, and can be approached in at least two ways. Seen as a single, spatially divided unit, the panels highlight the volatile barrier between life and death, which are clearly distinct yet urgently adjacent. Scanned left to right, the panels cue us to an understanding of our own reading as enacting the burning, identifying the reader as participant. In the lower corners of the first panel there are two shadows, each indicating the head of an unseen witness present for the burning. These elements rhyme visually with the head of the match that ignites the fuel in the second panel, suggesting that the reader is the one who, by reading, sets off the event being witnessed. Whether the reader is dispensing justice, enacting revenge or simply committing a crime is unclear, but in McCloud’s terms, reading the panels sequentially prompts us to enact closure as combustion.11 Here, autoclasm manifests in an oscillation between two opposed modes of apprehension—one a clarion call to witness, the other a radically ambivalent invitation to violence—that can be neither adjudicated nor reconciled. At the moment of their destruction, the three victims are passive (unlike Israel and Tonantzín), but they bear the ambivalent dynamics of oppression and victimhood that animate both the micro-narrative of Ofelia (herself the violent abuser of Luba) and the macro-narrative of political conflict between left and right. What is crucial is the way Gilbert incorporates these ambivalences into the act of reading itself; the unresolved conflicts in the plot of “Poison River” resonate with self-opposed alternatives for consuming its images. In creating parallels between autoclasm at the level of form and the dynamics of violence at the level of content, Gilbert simultaneously displays comics as a medium struggling with the conditions of its own existence and makes the struggle a powerful mode of expression for personal and historical tragedy.

As Gilbert has gradually revealed through interviews, “Poison River” was a turning point in his career as a comics creator. Its poor reception and sales were certainly a factor in his and Jaime’s decision to end Love and Rockets after fifty issues.12 The Palomar characters (now living in the US, for the most part) have appeared continually in other series, including a second, shorter run of Love and Rockets (2000-2007), but their portrayal has been markedly different in a number of ways. “Poison River” was criticized for its length and labyrinthine complexity, and the influence of these criticisms is already visible in the final issues of Love and Rockets. Gilbert creates more free-standing short stories, which can be read on their own while also constituting a larger, more complex narrative if read as a group.13 In subsequent work, however, deeper changes occur. Autoclastic elements are much less prominent, and in place of narratives of destruction, Gilbert has increasingly written stories that seem designed to avoid it. The first such work was actually published while he was creating “Poison River”; Gilbert created the pornographic miniseries Birdland (1990-1991) as a relief from the difficulty of completing this complex arc (Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez 106-7). For the characters of this series, no amount of sexual promiscuity produces any harm. In a 1995 interview, Gilbert states that Birdland is a “different world where there’s no AIDS, there’s no rubbers” (Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez 107)—in short, a world without trauma, in which ejaculation (absurdly copious and frequent) seems to take the place of bloodshed. The characters in Birdland are flat and instantly readable (unlike the characters of Palomar, who reveal their complexities gradually), an aspect of the work that Gilbert claims bored him even at the time of creation (Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez 106-7). Yet such characters, and trauma-free narratives appropriate to them, have continued to be a significant part of Gilbert’s work, and have often been deployed with a metafictional playfulness that has its own rewards, however different it may be from the tone of the Palomar stories in Love & Rockets.

Notably, metafictional elements are already present in Birdland, which is not just a world without trauma but a world without any narrative consequences in the usual sense. The story features a heart pendant, apparently of alien origin, that seems to have the power to stop the narrative and begin it afresh, redistributing the characters into new configurations. In place of the broken heart icon that frequently concludes the Palomar stories in Love & Rockets, Gilbert puts an image of an undamaged heart that is also an inexhaustible source of retconning: it can endlessly erase and rework any story in which it appears. This too has remained a strong feature of Gilbert’s work, not least in his continued use of Fritz, who initially appears in Birdland and, together with her sister Petra, has subsequently been spliced into the Palomar universe (both characters are recast as Luba’s half-sisters). Gilbert has turned Fritz into a B-movie actress and is currently publishing various comics purporting to be adaptations of the films in which she appears. Thus far, they do include traumatic plot elements and moments of autoclasm (particularly the graphic novel A Chance in Hell [2007]), but these elements are now situated in a larger framework that insists upon its own fictionality. Irrevocable marks—on characters, on our sense of what it means to read them, or on the medium itself—are nowhere present, and Fritz herself, both as character and as image, seems to hold the promise of pleasurably inexhaustible consumption. Meanwhile, in the Palomar timeline itself, Petra’s daughter Venus (like her aunt Luba, an avid comics reader) lives through adventures that contrast markedly with those of older emigrants from Palomar. Growing up in a labyrinthine tangle of erotic and social conflicts, Venus emerges unscathed from various brushes with sex and violence (and with violent, sexy comics, which she reads indiscriminately alongside other old and new titles), enjoying an adulthood free from trauma. When violence arrives among adults in the Palomar timeline, it is now frequently displaced and contained as tragic closure, such as a sudden and accidental death, that does not give rise to autoclasm.

In this characterization of Gilbert’s work since Love & Rockets, I risk turning to a more familiar kind of conversation about the way the condition of comics can affect creators and their work. The later comics of Gilbert Hernandez have almost certainly been influenced by reader rejection of the most ambitious Palomar stories, and this rejection is related to comics-specific problems of audience, distribution and legitimacy.14 The important thing, I would argue, is to see that Gilbert’s early Palomar work is already influenced by such problems, and manifests them in innovative ways. If readers did not initially value such innovation—if, in fact, Gilbert’s interventions into the process of consuming his work were too radical to retain a wide audience at first—it is all the more important to attend to it now. What distinguishes the Palomar stories of Love & Rockets is not simply their social realism (though this was certainly rare in comics of the time), but the way they inscribed their own difficult conditions, making them strikingly visible and relevant to a range of personal and political traumas. As I have argued, these comics broke with the conventions of the Bildungsroman (stories of coherent growth and development) as surely as they departed from those of the mainstream comics serial. Gilbert’s more recent work has returned to both sets of conventions, and has done so in powerful ways that may continue to prove fruitful in the years to come. Nevertheless, in his work in Love & Rockets, Gilbert Hernandez generated an aesthetic that was unknown in the novel and necessary to the history of his own medium; he created comics that bleed, and burn.


[1] Thanks to Channette Romero for invaluable feedback on this article while it was being drafted. I gained many helpful insights into Gilbert’s work from the members of University of Georgia’s Comics Reading Group, including Susan Rosenbaum, Miriam Brown-Spiers, Laurie Norris, and group founder Casey Westerman. My textual scholarship was greatly aided by the boundless knowledge (and massive Love & Rockets back issue selection) of Rob Brown and Devlin Thompson at Bizarro-WUXTRY in Athens. Time for completion of this article was provided in part by the Willson Center for the Humanities. Thanks also to Derek Parker Royal and Christopher Gonzalez for their generous editorial support. Lastly, many thanks to Gilbert and Jaime, and to Jacquelene Cohen at Fantagraphics, for their generosity concerning image permissions.

[2] See Gilbert (1986), Nyberg (1998), Beaty (2005) chapter 4, and Lopes (2009).

[3] For the purposes of describing Gilbert’s aesthetics, I have kept my focus on Jaime, regular co-contributor to Love & Rockets, without reference to the more intermittent contributions of Mario, whose style differs greatly from that of his brothers. While they differ in their portrayals of violence, Gilbert and Jaime both tend toward a synthesis of the realistic and the iconic (see McCloud’s charting of their work on 52-3 of Understanding Comics). Mario deploys a style that, in contrast to the work of his brothers, is at once more realistic in terms of detail and shading and more loose and expressive as regards perspective, proportion and line.

[4] See McCloud chapter 2, particularly 27-39.

[5] For all references to images in the comics of the Hernandez Brothers, I have used the most recent collected editions of their work, the Love and Rockets Library books published from 2007 onward, with the exception of Figure 6.

[6] On the subject of Miller as a surrogate for Gilbert himself, see Nericcio, page 94.

[7] See the Comics Journal 126 interview, in which both Jaime and Gilbert—the latter, in particular—repeatedly express their ambitions to create both a new kind of comics and a new representation of Latino culture for a US audience.

[8] For a recent and admirably comprehensive account of these struggles, see Lopes (2009). See also Gabilliet (English translation 2010), particularly chapters 15-17.

[9] In arguing for the Bildungsroman as a paradigm for (and narrative avenue to) legitimacy, I am indebted to the work of Joseph Slaughter (2007). Slaughter ably points out the hegemonic capacity of the Bildungsroman both to grant legitimacy to subjugated persons, cultures and nations, and to shape their narratives of growth along pre-existing lines. Though Slaughter is concerned with the Bildungsroman in the international context of human rights, his argument is eminently relevant to the story of US comics. In recent decades the position of comics has been changed, in part, by the “graphic novel” as a figure that expresses the development of comics toward a pre-existing paradigm of legitimate literary expression. The skeptical attitude that Gilbert Hernandez and a number of other prominent contemporary comics creators express towards easy narratives of growth and progress is, I would argue, best understood as resistance to such a paradigm.

[10] Though Hatfield persuasively argues that Pedro has a “polysemic” function in “Poison River,” I see Pedro as identified more strongly with right-wing ideologies (101). Gilbert’s probable source of inspiration for Pedro is the Mexican comic book character Memín Pinguín; my thanks to Pedro Morán-Palma for pointing me to this antecedent.

[11] On the dynamics of closure in comics reading, see McCloud chapter 3, particularly the discussion of reader involvement on 63-68.

[12] Charles Hatfield, assembling evidence from existing interviews along with new conversations with the artist, has best established the impact of “Poison River” on Gilbert’s career; see 102-107.

[13] For example, see the three stories “Bread, Love and Maria” (issue 45), “The Gorgo Wheel” (issue 47), and “Luba Conquers the World” (issue 48).

[14] Again, see Hatfield 102-107. See also an interview in The Comics Journal issue 281 (2007), in which Gilbert expresses an apparently sincere wish to avoid “serializing anything in Love & Rockets ever again” (103).

Works Cited

Beaty, Bart. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 2005. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. 2005. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2010. Print.

Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Harris, Charlie. Letter. Love and Rockets 31 (1989): 33. Print.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2005. Print.

Hernandez, Gilbert. Beyond Palomar. Ed. Kim Thompson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. Print.

—. Birdland. Seattle: Eros Comix, October 1990-July 1991. Print.

—. A Chance in Hell. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. Print.

—. Heartbreak Soup. Ed. Kim Thompson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. Print.

—. Human Diastrophism. Ed. Kim Thompson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. Print.

—. “Human Diastrophism Part 3.” Love and Rockets 23 (1987): 1-17. Print.

—. Interview with Steven Grant. The Comics Journal 281 (2007): 101-103. Print.

—. Reply to letter of Charlie Harris. Love and Rockets 31 (1989): 33. Print.

Hernandez, Gilbert, and Jaime. “The Hernandez Brothers.” Interview with Neil Gaiman. The Comics Journal 178 (1995): 91-123. Print.

Hernandez, Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario. “Pleased To Meet Them …” Interview with Gary Groth, Robert Fiore and Thom Powers. The Comics Journal 126 (1989): 60-113. Print.

Hernandez, Jaime. Maggie the Mechanic. Ed. Kim Thompson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. Print.

Lopes, Paul. Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2009. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.

Nericcio, William Anthony. “Artif[r]acture: Virulent Pictures, Graphic Narrative and the Ideology of the Visual.” Mosaic 28.4 (1995): 79-109. Print.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 1998. Print.

Slaughter, Joseph. Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form and International Law. New York: Fordham UP, 2007. Print.

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