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Picturing the Transnational in Palomar: Gilbert Hernandez and the Comics of the Borderlands

By Jennifer Glaser

“I may describe geographical boundaries, but it’s really about the human borders and what happens to you when you cross those borders.” (Hernandez, “Palomar and Beyond” 231)

In 2004, Shelley Fisher Fishkin dedicated her American Studies Association (ASA) Presidential address to the writer and critic Gloria Anzaldúa. Like Anzaldúa in her landmark Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Fisher Fishkin was intent on marking the “borderlands, crossroads, and contact zones that disrupt celebratory nationalist narratives” (19). Anzaldúa’s work on the mestiza consciousness, engendered by her Texas-Mexico border identity, inspired Fisher Fishkin’s remarks at the ASA precisely because it prefigured the reconstitution of the field of American studies—what Fisher Fishkin called a “transnational turn” in the discipline. In her speech, she asks her audience to imagine an American studies with a number of questions central to Anzaldúa’s project in mind: “What topics and questions become salient if we reconceive our field with the transnational at its center? What roles might comparative, collaborative, border-crossing research play in this reconfigured field? If national borders no longer delimit the subject of our study, then how can we allow them to delimit the scholarship that demands our attention?” (21-22). Subsequent to this speech, a number of critics have made these queries central to their own, increasingly transnational scholarship, “focus[ing] on spaces that resist being reduced to a ‘national tradition'” and “paying attention to the ways in which analogous hybridities and fluidities shape other spaces less territorially and culturally ‘stable’ than we may have thought” (21).1

Much of the work scholars have conducted in the field of transnational American studies has crossed borders between “high” and “low” culture, as well as those between nations. Nonetheless, despite its commitment to challenging both generic and national boundaries, the medium of comics has long been neglected in the newly constituted field of transnational American studies. After all, comics are artifacts of culture that cross boundaries in a number of ways. Situated between visual art and literature, as well as between elite and mainstream cultural production, comics exist in an aesthetic “borderlands” of sorts. As the global audience for Japanese manga—not to mention its influence on the production of comics throughout the world—indicates, the reception of comics is itself often a transnational endeavor. If, as Benedict Anderson argues, “imagined communities” in modernity are constituted through their commitment to a variety of print media, the medium of comics allows its readers to imagine and participate in a distinctly global community that admits to few borders.2 Bruce Campbell contends that “graphic narrative is therefore a useful medium in which to study the cultural politics of globalization […] . The narrative character of the comic opens it to an abstract social vision, much as Benedict Anderson and others have observed that the novel form has historically imagined the nation (6).3 As Campbell suggests, much work has been done on the novel as a form around which ideas of the nation and national identity can coalesce. Franco Moretti has argued, alongside Anderson, that the novel helps us to see the spatial abstraction of the nation-state in a more concrete form. In Atlas of the European Novel (1998), he writes of the nation-state:

What does it look like? How can one see it? [… V]illage, court, city, valley, universe can all be visually represented—in paintings, for instance: but the nation-state? Well, the nation-state… found the novel. And vice versa: the novel found the nation-state. And being the only symbolic form that could represent it, it became an essential component of our modern culture. (17)

If, as Moretti suggests, the novel is a form that helps us to envision a space that cannot be easily “visually represented,” how much more apt is the space of comics to help us see the nation-state and the transnational borderlands that undermine it during our own global age? Moreover, if, as Edward Said argues, “imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible […] to read one without in some way dealing with the other” (Culture and Imperialism 693), might not the more hybrid space of comics provide us with a form useful in critiquing imperialism and imagining borderlands spaces that subvert the very notion of the nation-state and its unselfconscious categorization of subjects into citizens and others-outsiders?

I believe that what Frederick Luis Aldama calls “the Latino comics tradition” has a particularly important position in the configuration of transnational American identity and the representation and humanization of America’s often silenced others within (122). How might the space of Latino comics function as an analogue for the space of the nation or, more precisely, the “borderlands” that Anzaldúa sees as a productive aesthetic and ontological space between nations? Chicano/a writers, in particular, are often profoundly engaged with questions of space and spatialization due to the historically vexed relationship between the US and Mexico and the shifting borders between them. In Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies (2002), Mary Pat Brady analyzes the power of space in Chicano narratives, arguing that Chicano (and particularly Chicana) literature “offers an important theoretics of space, one that, like many critical space studies, implicates the production of space in the everyday, in the social […] [and] argues for and examines the relevance of race, gender, and sexuality—as well as class—to the making of space” (6).

For Chicano comics artists like the Hernandez brothers, “the making of space” is even more important (6). After all, comics is a profoundly spatial medium. As Charles Hatfield points out in Alternative Comics (2005) the Hernandez brothers’ work “cuts to the heart of a paradox essential to comics: that time, in a literal sense, is space” (71). If diaspora is about the maintenance of identity across space and time, the Hernandez brothers depict diasporic identities by playing with the inseparability of space and time in the comics medium. The work of the Hernandez brothers (as comics artists Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez have come to be called) has long provided an important space for the analysis of the making of transnational identities (6). Particularly, Gilbert Hernandez’s “Heartbreak Soup” stories and the dense social world of Palomar that they describe provide a productive entryway to discuss transnationalism and comics. In his detailed depiction of both Central America and the US, Hernandez constructs an “imaginative geography” for Chicano border and Mexican diasporic identities (Said Orientalism 54). I contend not only that Gilbert Hernandez’s work is transnational in character and spirit, but also that the comics medium itself is often a fundamentally transnational enterprise. Comics prove a useful space (both literal and figurative) from which to theorize and understand the transnational. Both Benedict Anderson and Arjun Appadurai have usefully theorized the ways in which “imaginary” social spaces function to cement community during global modernity. The community of Palomar that Hernandez constructs in painstaking detail in his “Heartbreak Soup” narratives is an imaginary social space “that irremediably fuses Mexico and the United States, Mexicans, Chicanas/os, and even, sometimes, plain-vanilla gringo ‘mericans” (Nericcio 195). As William Anthony Nericcio points out, Gilbert Hernandez “explores the symbiotic relationship between points Unitedstatesian (estadounidense) and points Latin American” (194). The Palomar stories “recast tried and true archetypes of Chicanos and Latinos, demystifying both the stereotypes of Latinos and comic books themselves in the process” (Nericcio 194). This demystification of Latino stereotypes is continuous with Hernandez’s stated “goal to tell stories that are entertaining and engaging for a general audience, but specifically to humanize Latinos, to give a different angle from Latinos from what is normally given in pop culture” (Hernandez 223). Throughout his Palomar stories, Hernandez attempts to redress the absence of Latinos in American popular culture. As he puts it, “Latinos haven’t seen things in the mainstream that represent them in any kind of humanistic light. You can go back to television and movies, and Latinos are more or less a joke” (Hernandez 223-24). Hernandez’s images, and those of his brothers, battle with these mocking media depictions of Latinos and Latino culture.

Born in Oxnard—an area of California filled with immigrants of Mexican and Japanese descent—Gilbert Hernandez and his brothers came of age during the heyday of the underground comix scene of the late 1960s and 1970s. Following in the footsteps of R. Crumb, Bill Griffith, Dan Green, and others, Jaime and Gilbert (and, to a lesser extent, their brother Mario) began constructing their series of Love and Rockets comics in 1981. Their style—which borrowed from elements as diverse as Archie comics and the more thoughtful, autobiographical narratives of the underground scene—provided a distinct alternative to the mainstream Marvel and DC comics fare being offered during the same time period. By the early 1980s, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez were at the forefront of what had once been the underground comix scene. Their collaborative masterwork, like the work that ran in Art Spiegelman’s magazine Raw, expanded the possibilities of comics as a narrative form. Noting the Hernandez brothers’ formal innovation, as well as the multicultural and multinational nature of their work, Patrick Markee remarked in a review that the world of Love and Rockets was “the kind of new American place that is almost never identified on our cultural road map” (25-26). In Gilbert’s stories of the Central American village of Palomar and Jaime’s narratives of a fictive barrio called Hoppers, Los Bros Hernandez construct transnational and multiracial spaces unique in the sphere of comics.

For this reason, the Hernandez brothers have had an effect on artists both inside and outside the traditional world of comics. In her introduction to The Art of Jaime Hernandez (2010), an overview and appreciation of the work of Jaime Hernandez put together by Todd Hignite, Alison Bechdel suggests that his work had a profound impact on her own depictions of lesbian identity in her ongoing strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). She claims that Jaime has made “a vast contribution to the visual representation of women, not to mention the deconstruction of the male gaze” (9). Dominican-American novelist Junot Díaz has stated that he wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) in order to finish the work the Hernandez brothers had started in Love and Rockets. In an interview with La Bloga, a blog devoted to Latino literature and the arts, he shares that “they were the secret fathers of [his] book” (Díaz). Oscar Wao was an attempt “to honor these Chicano brothers who had a large role in teaching [him] how to write” (Díaz). Throughout Díaz’s landmark novel, references to the Hernandez brothers are synecdochic for the hybridity of Latino pop cultural production. Moreover, Díaz places the Hernandez brothers in a genealogy of transnational Latin American and Caribbean artists and thinkers that includes Édouard Glissant, Derek Walcott, Patric Chamoiseau, Aimé Cesaire, and others. Díaz singles out Gilbert Hernandez for praise, arguing that “for those of us who are writing across or on borders […] he was […] more important than anyone else. The stories he was writing on Palomar were recognizable to [those of us] who grew up in the Third World, in a way that made everything else seem shabby and familiar. And his eye is stupendous” (Díaz quoted in Timberg). Díaz says that “[i]n a real world, not the screwed-up world we have now, he would be considered one of the greatest American storytellers” (Díaz quoted in Timberg). He also admits that Belícia Cabral, Oscar’s mother and the diasporic matriarch of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was modeled on Luba, the “large-breasted woman with a challenging past” in Hernandez’s comics (Jaggi).4

Analyzing Gilbert Hernandez’s work—particularly his series of narratives about the Central American town of Palomar—from the purview of transnational or borderlands studies allows an analysis of the power of both globalization and the transnational at the thematic and formal levels. Hernandez’s work admits to multiple national and aesthetic commitments. In his stories of Palomar, it’s possible to see influences that extend from Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez to the work of Mexican historietas and fotonovelas, underground comix in the US, mainstream postwar comics (such as the Archie and Dick Tracy comics), and Japanese manga. In addition to these aesthetic influences, Hernandez’s work borrows from and attempts to represent a complex social backdrop that includes California’s burgeoning 1980s punk scene, Cold War American culture, and the liminal Mexican-California border identity that the Hernandez brothers had embraced growing up. In order to chart these complex transnational commitments, I will look primarily at two of Gilbert Hernandez’s most novelistic contributions to the Love and Rockets series, “An American in Palomar” and “Human Diastrophism,” both of which were collected in the large compendium of his work on Palomar released in 2003. I will also focus briefly on his other work in Love and Rockets, including his use of intertextuality in “Ecce Homo” and his portrayal of Mexican immigration and diaspora in Love and Rockets X.

“Palomar and the Transnational Beyond”

The omnibus of Palomar-centric stories Gilbert Hernandez released in 2003 makes the analogy between the body of the text and the body of the city/borderlands explicit. Opening the front cover of the title, the reader is treated to the silhouette of a cowboy figure and the words “welcome to Palomar.” Hernandez never explicitly labels Palomar a Mexican city. It instead becomes a stand-in for a variety of small Central American towns, a fairy tale “somewhere.” In an interview, Hernandez says that “[he] made [his] Palomar work reflect a more general Latino culture” (“Palomar and Beyond” 227). While Palomar “looks close to Mexico … [he] really just wanted any Latino from anywhere to feel like they belonged there” (227). Remarking on the way in which readers want to project themselves into the characters, he claims that he “never located it specifically in the real world” in order “that readers of all Latino backgrounds could place themselves there” (228). This move—coupled with the somewhat cartoonish visages of Palomar’s residents—allows Hernandez to tap into what Scott McCloud calls the “iconic” side of comics. According to McCloud, many comics artists favor drawing the faces of their characters with less photorealistic detail so that their readers can more actively engage and identify with the figures. Coupled with the generic nature of Palomar, this technique allows Hernandez to “help readers project a part of themselves into [the world of Palomar]” (“Palomar and Beyond” 228). For Latino readers, this desire for projection is particularly strong because there are so few figures in popular culture with whom they can identify. Hernandez remembers “when kids from the neighborhood would talk about seeing a movie, and they weren’t sure about the hero who had dark hair and dark skin, they would always speculate that he was Latino.” Palomar is set in a place outside “the real world” to maximize these sorts of identifications (228).

This play with the unreality of time and space goes even further in Hernandez’s Palomar stories. The characters in his contributions to the Love and Rockets series inhabit a different temporality and narrative form in Palomar than they do in the United States. When Pipo and Diana, two of the narrative’s central characters, travel to the US to market their clothing and exercise line in the story arc “Luba Conquers the World,” they move from a seemingly ahistorical fairy tale village to a fast-paced and edgy Los Angeles. They also move from a Latin American-style magical realist narrative that recalls Gabriel García Márquez’s use of cyclical time in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to a more linear, basic realism in the US component of their story. The way time works in Palomar is what has led many critics to call the space “mythical.” Hernandez himself uses the term in a number of interviews. However, the mythology he creates in the village of Palomar is not the ahistorical sort of conventional myth. Instead, Hernandez’s terra incognita proves distinctly historical and politicized. Even if Palomar is constructed to be a world in which all (Latino) readers can see themselves, it is nonetheless a world inscribed with the palimpsest of Latin and Central American history—its unique history of colonial domination and racial hierarchy and mixture.

Hernandez’s increasing engagement with the question of whether the residents of Palomar are subjects or agents of history reflects the ambivalence about historical representation often expressed by writers and intellectuals in the postcolonial sphere. Caribbean writers, for instance, have long grappled with the lacuna left behind by the transatlantic slave trade and European and American imperialism. As Édouard Glissant has pointed out, the ruptures in subjectivity caused by long-term oppression have rendered the history of the Caribbean as a “non-history” of sorts (62). Hernandez deals with the gaps in the history of Central America by writing a micro-history, a genealogy, of Palomar, complete with its own mythology and system of beliefs. Hernandez’s deep commitment to relating the details of each character’s past and his/ her relation to the other inhabitants of Palomar humanizes his characters.5 Hernandez’s complete accounting for the history of every character in Palomar also makes the town’s inhabitants seem real, providing his many gringo readers with their first deep look into life in a Central American town. Like something out of The Iliad or The Odyssey, Hernandez provides the history of even Palomar’s most minor characters.6 These genealogies also locate the characters in a larger Central American history and the complex relations to the nations along the northern border that come along with it.

Despite Hernandez’s reluctance to identify Palomar as a Mexican town, it is clear that the inhabitants of the village have a complicated relationship to the US, their nearest northern neighbor. From the earliest Love and Rockets stories devoted to Palomar, Hernandez uses the figure of Disneyland to represent the ambivalence of this relationship and the ways in which the children in particular live in the shadow of their ideas about American wealth and pop cultural power.7 A number of children in the Palomar stories state that Disneyland would be their first stop if they ever get to the US. Jesus’s younger brother, Toco, who dies of a coughing fit during one of the “Heartbreak Soup” stories, uses the image of Disneyland as a talisman against his feelings of rejection when his older brother and friends won’t allow him to look at a pornographic image they’re holding. Recognizing the importance that Disneyland has in the world of images that is the US, Toco suggests that “Disneyland’s way better’n any old girl, I bet … ” (Palomar 24.6).

Throughout his Palomar stories, Hernandez is deeply engaged in providing his readers with a look at the town’s racial imagination, which differs so greatly from how race works in the US. Gilbert Hernandez suggests that representing Latinos in comics form opens up a wide range of possibilities for the artist. He might “write a character with a Hispanic name, but sometimes he looks like a black person, sometimes he looks like a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy. That’s the thing about the mix of Latinos around the world. The skin color ranges from the palest to the darkest” (“Palomar and Beyond” 227). Race and the representation of race remain fundamental facts of life in Palomar. Luba, the de facto leader of Palomar, inhabits such a powerful, yet vexed, role in the town in part because of her half-Indian racial heritage. Born of an upwardly mobile, light-skinned woman who soon escapes to the US and an Indian worker, Luba represents the mestiza consciousness of Central America. Known as “La India,” her darker complexion, wild hair (which her cousin Ofelia mocks in “An American in Palomar”), and protuberant breasts make her both an object of lust for Palomar’s residents and an object of ridicule when she ventures outside of town to the larger city area. Luba’s power comes in part from her invocation of the spectral Indian that haunts postcolonial Central America. It is not incidental that Luba is erotically drawn to Khamo, who often dresses in traditional indigenous dress to reflect his similarly “Indio” background. Luba’s power also arises from the way in which she challenges gender conventions. Wielding her phallic hammer and preceded by her outsized breasts, Luba is often described as “Amazonian,” a term that takes on a powerful context in Hernandez’s tropical narrative.8

Luba is both like and unlike the Indians who live in the mountains surrounding Palomar and play an ambiguous role in life for the villagers. The Indians’ liminal role is evidenced when Israel, Heraclio, and friends search for their lost buddy Jesus in the mountainous area surrounding town in the “Ecce Homo” story arc. There, they encounter a group of Indians who speak in a language unintelligible to all but the college-educated Heraclio. Israel, who has spent the most time outside Palomar living a decadent life in the city, mocks the Indians’ language as incomprehensible gibberish, unselfconsciously taking on the perspective of the conquistadors who first encountered Mexico’s indigenous population. It is Heraclio’s literacy about Central American history that makes him embarrassed by Israel’s rude behavior to the Indians. Indigenous identity continues to occur as a trope throughout the Palomar stories. Tonantzín Villaseñor, whose first name conjures the mother goddess in Aztec myth, returns to a tribal dress that recalls her indigenous ancestors when she becomes fearful about the apocalyptic repercussions of the Cold War in the “Human Diastrophism” narrative (Figure 1).

Figure 1: From Palomar 307.1

To Tonantzín, this performance of origins responds to the exigencies of the atom bomb, marking her as an outsider critical both of American foreign policy and the effects of Cold War tension on Central America. At the same time, as the image of Tonantzín suggests, it marks her as distinct from traditional Catholicism and the pieties of the church that upheld colonialism for so many centuries (not to mention the American tourists on the beach who wear even less than she does). Dress is not the only way in which commitment to indigeneity is signaled in Palomar. The stone deities that surround town are peripheral to life both literally and figuratively, but they also provide a portal to the old, native ways of life. There is something powerful and dangerous about these figures that recall both Aztec spiritual belief and the Aztecs’ use of stone and stone carving in their art.9 Children almost meet their death jumping from the stones into the water beneath them. And, after Humberto is barred from creating art (in the wake of his complicity in the town’s serial murders) in the “Human Diastrophism” narrative, he turns to secretly working in a similar medium—constructing stone statues of the town’s residents and then dropping them underwater to be found by future generations when the riverbed dries up. This dream of permanence seems to invoke the town’s ancestry, as well. But, Palomar is more than a fantasy of indigeneity or autochthony. In Hernandez’s hands, it is also a living, breathing creature that must respond to the demands of globalization whether it cares to do so or not.

“An American in Palomar” provides Gilbert Hernandez with one of his best opportunities to emphasize the visual possibilities of the comics form to shed light on debates over globalization. The representation of village as peripheral to polis and Mexico as peripheral to US identity is central to the ideology of American empire. Hernandez’s Palomar refuses this dichotomy and the unequal distribution of power that goes along with it. While the big city dwellers who visit Palomar conceive of the small town as periphery to their more urban lives, the residents of Hernandez’s fictional town do not see their own lives as marginalized or insubstantial. The dissonance between outsiders’ vision of the town and the image of Palomar maintained by its residents is dramatized and concretized by the collision between local and global values that occurs when an American photographer arrives to compile images of the townspeople for a National Geographic-style monograph. The cultural capital of the town as a space untouched by the world is best seen in this series of comics as it proves the first example of a character from the US explicitly entering the borders of Palomar.10 In this two-part series, American photojournalist Howard Miller gets more than he bargained for when he attempts to absorb Palomar’s residents into his vision of the Third World. Miller approaches his project in Palomar with cynicism. Hernandez writes: “With years of experience freelancing for various geographic magazines behind him, Howard Miller is familiar with his chosen source material while jaded by it as well” (Palomar 185.2). In contrast to the specificity that Hernandez as artist provides to his reader in his representation of Palomar, Miller views the town as generic, “just another group of Indians and Blacks and whatevers to him” (185.2).

Luba, Miller’s narrative counterweight, traffics in images, too. As the owner of the local cinema, she is aware of the power of images as mediating forces in the lives of Palomar’s residents. When she is told that Bruce Lee has died, she keeps it from her patrons, knowing it would upset them to learn that the global action icon was dead. It is not incidental that most of her interactions with Howard Miller, the American of “An American in Palomar,” happen in front of the movie theater she runs. Here, Luba’s vision of her own identity and that of Palomar’s other residents clashes with Miller’s idea of the town. When Miller encounters Luba, she is disheveled and dirty, her clothing tattered and her hair mussed from working outside in the heat. She is just what Miller imagines a Palomar resident should look like. Luba agrees to return to the theater the next day for a nice family photo, not realizing that “‘nice’ pictures are the last thing Howard Miller wants from his visit to Palomar. No ‘hot’ photojournalist ever got the notoriety Miller seeks shooting sunsets and waterfalls” (184.6). Here, Hernandez emphasizes that Miller sees the people of Palomar as mere components of the landscape, no different than the tragic picturesque of decaying buildings in front of which they stand (Figure 2).

Figure 2: From Palomar 184.6

The image on the following page shows Miller at the center of a group of grotesque, disembodied heads that invoke both the faces of Palomar and the classic archive of photographic images of American poverty and despair (Figure 3). In the face of the babushka-clad old woman, the reader witnesses a hint of Jacob Riis’s photographs of the immigrant slums of New York at the turn of the century (Figure 4), as well as the wizened visages of Southern poverty captured by Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). As Miller conceives of it, “the more tragic, humorous, sentimental or wretched the better” (Palomar 185.1).

Figure 3: From Palomar 185.1
Figure 4: Jacob Riis photograph

In many of Hernandez’s drawings in “An American in Palomar,” Palomar’s residents watch Miller taking photographs of their fellow townspeople—a fact that draws attention to the way in which Miller’s photographs portend an increasing infiltration of the outside world into Palomar (Figure 5). With Miller’s arrival, the residents of Palomar see themselves through the eyes of an “American” for the first time with the accompanying self-consciousness this sort of external perception brings. Not incidentally, the way Hernandez draws Miller—with the Nordic features of a stereotypical American gringo—also draws attention to the racial difference of Palomar’s residents, as well as to the otherness that Miller possesses once he crosses the border into this Central American town. This emphasis on the mutually-constitutive nature of binaries, racial and national, also emerges in Miller’s complaints about the food and music south of the border, a complaint echoed when Jesus goes to US in “The Way Things Went,” a Palomar parable.

Figure 5: From Palomar 185.2

The contrast between how Miller sees Palomar and how Palomar sees itself, how the polis sees the village and how the village sees itself—one of the central tropes of globalization—is further dramatized in Miller’s relationship to Tonantzín. Miller’s power in Palomar arises from his imagined proximity to a world of images—in this case his status as an American with access to Hollywood. When Tonantzín allows him to photograph her and begins a short-lived affair with the photographer, her head is filled with her own archive of images, most prominently herself as a Marilyn Monroe-style movie icon—an image she has adopted from the many American films that have spilled over the border into Central America since World War II (Figure 6).

Figure 6: From Palomar 183.4

The scale of Hernandez’s textless drawing emphasizes the ironic contrast between Tonantzín’s outsized fantasy life and her smaller reality as a traditional babosa vendor, a life rendered in the darkness of silhouette. At the same time, just a few pages later, Tonantzín is depicted looking at herself naked in a mirror, the bubble over her head filled with the song “Hooray for Hollywood” (Palomar 187.3). While Tonantzín is clearly pleased with what she sees in the mirror (as are the boys peeping at her through the window), she is also increasingly seeing herself from Miller’s perspective. Hernandez’s focus on the mirror as a site of self-consciousness and identity in this scene makes clear that Miller will be only the first of many men who bring danger to Tonantzín with their conception of who she should be.

Later, when Miller is taken to see and photograph the stone icons on the edge of town, he encounters a side of Palomar he hadn’t imagined seeing. Miller strays inside one of the stone figures and gets lost. He begins to hear the haunting voices of Palomar’s residents pursuing him with the words “what the hell do you think we are? A freak show?” (189.1). In these images, Hernandez renders Miller’s features much more roughly and cartoonishly than he had in previous panels. It is as if the photographer has finally been dehumanized in a matter similar to his dehumanization of his photographic subjects in Palomar (Figure 7).

Figure 7: From Palomar 189.2

As Hernandez makes clear in “An American in Palomar,” the members of the community are perfectly able to protect both themselves and their idea of themselves from Miller. When Luba finds out that “a portrait of Luba and her family is what Miller wants for his book, but it is not quite the picture Luba is expecting,” she physically attacks the photographer for his patronizing attempts to cast and sell her family as south-of-the-border other to an American audience (195.6). When Miller disappoints Tonantzín and undermines her dreams of returning to the US with the photographer, the young men of the town beat him up, exhorting him to “go back home and shit on your own women” (201.6). Nonetheless, the photographer’s entrance into the life of Palomar’s citizens foreshadows much of what will happen to them when the outside world further encroaches on their lives in later issues of Love and Rockets—when it becomes increasingly difficult to protect themselves. After all, it is Miller who witnesses and legitimizes Diana’s being “the fastest girl in the world”—a fact that eventually leads to her leaving Palomar to become a world-class athlete. His shaking up of town life is a smaller version of the cataclysm that will hit in “Human Diastrophism,” a later series of comics. Miller’s relationship with Tonantzín also portends her eventual destruction from forces outside town. Near the end of “Human Diastrophism,” the reader learns of Tonantzín’s fate. After leaving town to pursue a new-found preoccupation with politics, she attends a protest and sets herself on fire, committing suicide. Without television sets, the citizens of Palomar never see this terrible moment.11 Instead, Hernandez shows his readers her death by moving north of the border to Howard Miller’s American home, where he is watching television with his girlfriend, Cathy. Cathy looks up from her issue of The New Republic, symbol of her bourgeois pretensions, to see a woman burning alive on television. Hernandez’s decision to show the way in which such acts of protest become spectacular for American television viewers emphasizes the distance—both literal and figurative—between the US and Central America (as well as between the US and Vietnam, which is invoked in this scene). At the same time, this series of panels show that Miller, bent on seeing one side of Palomar, continues to refuse to see another, less picturesque side to the town (Figure 8).

Figure 8: From Palomar 423.1-4

He claims not to recognize the woman on-screen, and quickly turns his attention back to how he might improve his photographic technique. This is not the last time that the reader of Hernandez’s Palomar stories will see Miller or his photos. In “Chelo’s Burden,” after Palomar has been struck by an earthquake and reduced to rubble, we see the book that he produced after his visit to the village—now an elegiac reminder of what the town once was. Although seeing these photos gives the residents joy, it also functions as a memento mori of sorts and suggests that Miller’s entrance into Palomar sowed the seeds for the town’s eventual destruction. The reader is left to wonder how dissimilar Gilbert Hernandez’s own book is from the book about Palomar Miller creates. Does any depiction of a space by the outside world destroy something of its spirit?

In “Human Diastrophism,” Hernandez creates a novelistic meditation on the encroachment of the outside world into the sacrosanct space of Palomar. Shrieking monkeys are converging on the town from the jungle surrounding it. A serial killer haunts the village. Peripatetic laborers work at an archeological excavation site at the edge of town. Tonantzín becomes convinced that Palomar will be the site of a Cold War apocalypse. The effect of global capitalism on the micro-village of Palomar manifests the ways in which even the remotest spaces (Palomar’s sheriff Chelo worries over whether she should bring the first telephone to town) are touched by globalization. The title of this Love and Rockets serialized graphic novel is instructive. “Diastrophism” is a term that comes from the Greek word for “twisting.” It describes the actions that cause deformations of the Earth’s crust, including the faultlines that contribute to earthquakes. Hernandez’s use of the term for his series is significant because it marks the artist’s increasing turn to the historical and political in his work. On a metaphorical level, the characters’ lives are being churned up by the changes that have come to their village. The name is also more specifically resonant within the context of Mexican history. The comics that make up “Human Diastrophism” were serialized during 1987-1988, only a few years after the massive earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1985, killing more than 10,000 people. While much of the world of Palomar remains outside conventional markers of time, Hernandez’s invocation of the great earthquake both here and, later, in “Chelo’s Burden,” his narrative of the town’s later destruction and rebirth, locates the story firmly in real events. Time is catching up to the residents of Palomar. When Sheriff Chelo tries to imagine how she will announce the serial murders to her constituents in Palomar, she asks the town mayor, “What announcement do we give our people, Alcalde? Lock your doors and windows, because the crazy outside world is here … and it’s got a dull knife … ?” (340.3).

“Human Diastrophism” functions as an allegory for the changes that globalization is bringing to Palomar. It is also one of Hernandez’s most formally innovative comics—and one of those in which he most clearly shows his commitment to transnational aesthetics from the Mexican historieta and the American comics tradition to the high art modernism of Picasso and Paul Klee. The Hernandez Brothers are famous for using the kind of “closure” McCloud describes in Understanding Comics. This technique, which asks readers to fill in the blank spaces left behind by the comics artist, requires a great deal of interpretive energy as it is predicated on “trusting the wholeness of page and of story to clear up abrupt, nonlinear transitions” (Hatfield 70). As Hatfield suggests, “this technique opens up new potentialities in terms of shifting viewpoint, narrative recursion, symbolic juxtaposition, and, above all, the reader’s active engagement in interpretation” (70). Hernandez’s drawings in “Human Diastrophism” are powerfully cinematic and filled with the sort of “uncued closure” that Hatfield describes .12

Figure 9: From Palomar 332.1-7

On one entire page (Figure 9), he begins with a wide shot of the malignant monkeys encroaching on Palomar, rendered almost entirely in black with small patches of white to dramatize the animals’ open maws and frenzied “chit, chit, chits” (Palomar 332.1). Beneath this wide panel is a textless image of the archeological dig being undertaken on the outskirts of town—another variety of encroachment. In this image, the massive stone icon that links the residents of Palomar to their indigenous past stares passively into the distance, refusing to meet the reader’s gaze. Miniature images of Luba and one of her children, Doralis, are framed by the stone deity as they approach an unidentifiable worker at the site. In the foreground, American archeologists remove local artifacts as a sombrero-wearing, Central American worker begins to haul some of their heavy booty out of the frame. In the next panel, Hernandez zooms in as Luba asks one of the workers where she can find her cousin Ofelia’s boyfriend, Chango. The stone deity looks over her shoulder, the balloon with Luba’s words almost appearing to come out of his mouth as she approaches the worker, her daughter Doralis unseen but offering her imitation of the monkeys’ “chit chit” from a place outside the frame. In this focus on Luba and the worker, Hernandez depicts Luba in profile, obscuring her face so that the reader can more intently focus on the visage of the worker, whose importance will emerge in the next panels. Beneath these panels, Hernandez treats us to the image of Luba’s face in agony and confusion as she realizes that one of the other workers is her former lover and the father of her children, Khamo. Just as Hernandez distracts the reader with this camera-like focus on Luba’s pained face, a figure outside the frame casually addresses the worker from the previous panel as “Tomaso”—a name the reader recognizes from the first pages of “Human Diastrophism.” Without directly explaining the connection to the reader, Hernandez uses another wide shot to end the page. This image depicts a fence that marks the boundary line of Palomar, and lets the moon illuminate yet another narrative that encroaches upon the usually peaceful town—this one the story of one of Tomaso’s victims, whose skeleton rests in the desert outside Palomar and speaks her murderer’s name aloud as a promise of vengeance.

Hernandez’s interest in indirection and closure continues in his depiction of Tomaso, whom the reader never directly sees committing murder. When he attempts to kill one of the town’s young women, we see only the flash of the killer’s knife and face against the dense blackness of Hernandez’s panels and Humberto’s shocked recognition of what he is witnessing (Figure 10). The reader must infer the violence that has taken place in the gutter space between panels. When Tomaso kills the town’s mayor (opening the way for Luba’s own mayoral ambitions), the reader is not given direct access to the violence he commits. Instead, he/she is left with the cinematic aftermath of the crime scene and the wide-eyed horror of the mayor’s baby (Palomar 361.2-5).

Figure 10: From Palomar 347.4-10

Tomaso’s murders are not the only chaotic events taking place in Palomar. The outside world is invading the town in other ways. Tonantzín is slowly being driven mad from the letters the prisoner Geraldo writes her about the coming end of the world. The letters to Tonantzín that catalyze her political transformation are missives from the outside world and a man who once brought violence to the peaceful Palomar. But, as Hernandez makes clear, these letters do not all arise from outside Palomar. When the semi-illiterate Tonantzín asks Luba’s daughter Maricela and her friend/lover Riri to read Geraldo’s letters to her, the two young girls—miserable with their lives in Palomar and enamored of the beautiful Tonantzín—manufacture their own letters, filled with cataclysms far worse than any Geraldo could imagine. “Human Diastrophism” is about the sometimes disastrous collision of global and local sources of knowledge. Such knowledge is often married to violence and discomfort. Before becoming Tonantzín’s tutor in the ways of nuclear fallout and the Cold War arms race, Geraldo attacks her and holds her at gun-point to avenge his cousin’s death at the hands of Chelo. After Humberto is introduced to the world of Picasso and Klee through the books that Heraclio gives him, he becomes a complicit witness and chronicler of murder. Hernandez also highlights the overwhelming nature of knowledge gleaned from the outside world with his meta-fictional attention to books in “Human Diastrophism.” On facing pages, he depicts Humberto’s frenzied absorption of the art books Heraclio brings him and young Guadalupe’s attempts to return her book on the sky and solar system to school. In one of the “Heartbreak Soup” stories that directly precedes “Human Diastrophism,” Guadalupe, one of Luba’s daughters, becomes preoccupied with charting the limits of the sky and, in noticing this boundary, starts to see some of the limits of life in Palomar. Trying to return the book, Guadalupe’s face and body are obscured by the massive tome she is carrying (Figure 11). In a much more minimalistic style than he normally favors, Hernandez draws Guadalupe against a bleached-out backdrop, her body a book with legs protruding beneath it—symbol of how the text overwhelms her. Moments later, the book is stolen by a monkey—just another of the chaotic elements in the text.

Figure 11: From Palomar 337.6-7

Hernandez increasingly uses such formal means to indicate the Pandora’s box of problems introduced in “Human Diastrophism.” He emphasizes perspective in order to highlight the changing point of view of Palomar’s inhabitants. Tonantzín looks out at the village from the vantage point of one of its magical trees. Shown in silhouette, the panel takes up the space usually reserved for three or more panels (Figure 12).

Figure 12: From Palomar 324.4

The reader is forced for a moment to look at the world from her perspective and ask whether Tonantzín is paranoid or merely being shunned by her friends and family in Palomar because she is bringing the uncomfortable realities of the rest of the world to the sleepy town. Hernandez also illustrates the increasing pace of life in Palomar and the frantic nature of events in “Human Diastrophism” through formal means. The reader is treated to an almost-textless cinematic montage of close-ups that frame the increasing tension in the village. Hernandez zooms in on the sun, Luba’s winking face, and an image of a man in indigenous dress chaperoning a boy in a formal suit with a cross (Figure 13).

Figure 13: From Palomar 333.1-3

As the world spins out of control, and the villagers attempt to deal with the encroachment of the outside world on Palomar, Hernandez’s style becomes more rushed and he juxtaposes images from throughout the Palomar narrative to indicate to the reader the way in which the story is rushing to its violent conclusion. As Luba has sex and approaches climax, the inhabitants of Palomar attempt to kill the monkeys who have taken over the town, Carmen tries to forcefeed Tonantzín, and Luba’s daughter Doralis is found to have “gone native” in the monkey population. The chorus of “chit chits” from the monkeys is met with the “gobble gobble” of the guests eating at Carmen’s table. The monkeys are bludgeoned, their innards flying over the boundaries between panels (Palomar 384.1-9). Hernandez visually renders the space of Palomar as one of increasing tension, anxiety, and violence.

Hernandez also manifests an increasing investment in intertextuality in “Human Diastrophism”—a powerful metaphor for the ways in which both the actual text of Palomar and the lives of the town’s residents are becoming increasingly porous and open to/contaminated by the other. In “Human Diastrophism,” Hernandez introduces his readers not only to the serial killer Tomaso, but also to the nameless American “dudes” who visit Palomar’s beaches. Hernandez doesn’t develop the tourists’ stories in this volume (although they do make a later appearance in Love and Rockets X), but he uses them to show the ways in which Palomar is being penetrated by American culture, including American music. After “the dudes,” as they are called, complain about the lack of good surfing off the coast of Palomar, they argue about the merits of heavy metal versus thrash punk music. In one of the rare departures from Hernandez’s depiction of life in Palomar as outside the vagaries of history and popular culture, the dudes play competing tunes by the heavy metal group The Scorpions and the thrash band Suicidal Tendencies at top volume. As the rest of Palomar is overrun by a serial killer and a band of mischievous monkeys, the surfer dudes inject this classic American debate over pop music into the mix (Palomar 333.4-7). In “Ecce Homo,” Hernandez plays with intertextuality even more overtly. In this story, R. Crumb, Frida Kahlo, and other extraneous figures from the world of comics and art make an appearance in the village. These textual intrusions emphasize the increasing encroachment of the outside world on Palomar and the forces of globalization that were affecting Mexico at the time.

Increasingly, Hernandez seemed to suggest that it is impossible to avoid portraying how American life has come to affect Palomar and the dreams of its inhabitants. In the wake of “Human Diastrophism,” a number of the village’s residents leave for the US. The north—and particularly the US—is distinctly linked to both commerce and violence for Hernandez. When Pipo and Diana move to America in “Luba Conquers the World,” they do so in order to more officially participate in the world of capitalism and economic exchange. Hernandez depicts the differences between life in the US and Palomar in visual terms. Pipo creates a television program to market her line of clothing. Here, Hernandez marks his increasing interest in the world of images and the omnipresence of mass media in the lives of Palomar’s residents, past and present. The television program sells the women’s sexuality in a series of overcrowded panels that work on the reader with the overbearing insistence of advertising culture in the US (Figure 14).

Figure 14: From Palomar 482.1-4

The death’s mask of the clown’s face marks the dark underbelly of the business depicted in the panels. Having grown up in a village with a strict dress code for women and no access to communications technology, the women of Palomar are nonetheless perfectly capable of learning the vernacular of American television. Inez, the Latina broadcaster Pipo hires to lead the show, had learned this vernacular too well—and is now starving and exercising herself into skeletal form. In different ways, however, the women of Palomar mark their resistance to American ideology. Hernandez challenges hegemonic cultural norms pertaining to the female body in his portrayal of Doralis. When Inez begins to shrink, voluptuous Doralis becomes the star of the show, her fan base extending from Latino men to the many gringos who favor her womanly physique over the harsh outlines of the blonde Inez. Pipo, despite her economic success in the US, refuses to learn English—a clear act of resistance. When the earthquake strikes Palomar, the women all come back to help rebuild their hometown.

Hernandez is also interested in depicting the complexities of border-crossing and US-Mexican relations in other ways in his Palomar stories. In Love and Rockets X, Hernandez returns to the story of Maricela and Riri after they’ve escaped from Palomar. Here, he depicts the harsh realities of race and immigration policy for members of the Mexican diaspora. Hernandez juxtaposes the women’s open expression of love (an expression they never would have felt comfortable manifesting in Palomar) with the discourse of “la migra,” the immigration police, to show the way in which many members of the Mexican diaspora live in fear of arrest and deportation in the US, only miles from the southern border (Love and Rockets X 7.4-6). Here, the ideology of American individualism that draws so many immigrants north rubs up against the fundamentally dehumanizing culture of the immigration authorities.

As the complexities of US-Mexican relations became a political reality for Hernandez and his characters, Hernandez himself became more self-conscious about his own role as an artist. After all, much of Hernandez’s work is about the ethics of representation. In “An American in Palomar” and “Human Diastrophism,” Hernandez manifests his fascination with the different visual media available to capture the world of Palomar. In “An American in Palomar,” there is the craven photographer Miller. In “Human Diastrophism,” there is Humberto, the young artist who unintentionally captures the murderer in action and whose passivity in the face of this act of witness allows Hernandez to meditate on his own role as the creator and chronicler of the world of Palomar. Throughout his work, Hernandez uses the visual nature of comics to question the ethics of witness as they pertain to artists and other chroniclers of people’s suffering. Through Humberto, Hernandez also emphasizes his own divided commitment to “high” and “low” artforms. Under the influence of the books given to him by Heraclio, Humberto sketches his fellow citizens in the abstract language of Cubism, a language that Hernandez implicitly condemns as too disinterested to contain either the residents of Palomar or the killer in their midst.

At the same time, in both narratives, Hernandez is preoccupied with the power of competing representations—Palomar from within and from without. After the earthquake destroys the town, the stone statues of Palomar’s citizens that Humberto crafts and hides beneath the river create an alternative mythology and a set of deities for future inhabitants to make sense of and worship. These statues function as an archive of the town’s history not unlike the one that Hernandez crafts in his many Love and Rockets narratives about the village. In this representation of the townspeople representing themselves, it is impossible not to see a version of the “writing back” against the conventional narratives of Central America proffered by canonical American literature. If national identity is consolidated through an emphasis on the difference between home and away, self and other, Hernandez’s Palomar is a space with both national and transnational stripes. Palomar is a town that tries and fails to maintain its boundaries against the outside world. It is also, in Hernandez’s able hands, a meditation on the beauty of spaces that straddle both national and aesthetic boundaries and the possibilities of the comics medium to represent and celebrate the complexity of such spaces.


[1] This idea of the nation also borrows from Homi Bhahba’s concept of the nation as process in his essay, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.”

[2] Like Douglas Wolk in Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2007), I will refer to comics as a “medium” and not simply a “genre.”

[3] Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) suggests that national identity coheres not only around the medium of the novel, but also around the more easily-disseminated medium of the newspaper.

[4] The similarity between Luba and Belicia is particularly evident in Hernandez’s Poison River, which details the story of Luba’s early life and relationship with a gangster reminiscent of the gangster figure who changes Belicia Cabral’s life in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

[5] As his his narrative world grew, Hernandez became increasingly preoccupied with providing these character histories. In Poison River, he provides the lengthy background on Luba’s story; in another comic, he provides us with Tonantzín’s tale.

[6] I am reminded here again of Junot Díaz and the epigraph he uses to open The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—where he asks what brief, nameless lives might mean to Galactus. Throughout the novel, Díaz, like Hernandez in the “Heartbreak Soup” stories, attempts to give a name and story to these often ignored lives.

[7] It is interesting to note that Disneyland also has a prominent place in theorizations of postmodernism and America’s place within it, most notably in Baudrillard’s writing about the simulacra.

[8] Luba is most often called “Amazonian” in Luba: Three Daughters, Hernandez’s later work about Luba’s relationship with her two long-lost and similarly Amazonian sisters.

[9] At the same time, in Hernandez’s cartoonish rendering of the deities, they are somewhat comical and ridiculous-looking.

[10] Although this is the first significant incidence of an American entering the borders of Palomar, in “Duck Feet” Hernandez illuminates the results when a different sort of outsider visits Palomar. When a bruja, or witch, loses something sacred to her in Palomar, she curses the whole town, causing most of the citizens to come down with a grotesque disease. It is congruent with the fairy tale logic of Palomar that life stands still during the period of illness. It is also significant that contamination can only be brought to town by a stranger.

[11] Instead, they find out about Tonantzín’s death from the ash that rains down on the town and the ghostly specter of the woman that haunts a local tree.

[12] In a number of interviews, Hernandez has emphasized his fealty to the medium of film, which he sees as the number one influence on his comics. He particularly notes his love for silent film, an explicit analogue to the sort of work with textless images seen in “Human Diastrophism” at certain moments.

Works Cited

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. New York: Mariner Books, 2001. Print.

Aldama, Frederick Luis. A User’s Guide to Postcolonial and Latino Borderlands Fiction. Austin: U of Texas P, 2009. Print.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 2006. Print.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 1987. Berkeley: Aunt Lute Books, 2007. Print.

Bechdel, Alison. Introduction. The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death. By Todd Hignite. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2010. Print.

Bhahba, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Boundaries of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhahba. London: Routledge, 1990. 291-323. Print.

Brady, Mary Pat. Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Campbell, Bruce. ¡Viva la historieta! Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009. Print.

Díaz, Junot. Interview with Greg Barrios. La Bloga. La Bloga, 2007. Web. 28 Jan 2012.

—. Interview with Maya Jaggi. The Independent. The Independent, 2008. Web. 28 Jan 2012.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.

Fisher Fishkin, Shelley. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies—Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004.” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 17-57. Print.

Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. Print.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Hernandez, Gilbert. Love and Rockets X. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1999. Print.

—. Luba: Three Daughters. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2005. Print.

—. Palomar. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003. Print.

—. “Palomar and Beyond.” Interview with Derek Royal. MELUS 32.3 (2007): 221-46. Print.

Markee, Patrick. “A Love and Rockets Collection, Volumes 1-15.” The Nation. The Nation, 2008. Web. 28 Jan 2012.

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

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel: 1800-1900. New York: Verso, 1999. Print.

Nericcio, William Anthony. Tex(t)-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the ‘Mexican’ in America. Austin: U of Texas P, 2007. Print.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

—. Orientalism. New York: Vintage. 1979. Print.

Timberg, Scott. “Drawn to a Dark Side.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 2007. Web. 28 Jan 12.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. New York: De Capo Press, 2008. Print.

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