Review by Graham Johnstone
Gilbert Hernandez is of course best known for his continuing stories of the inhabitants of the village of Palomar and their descendants. It’s perhaps the most sustained piece of work by a single creator in comics (with some competition from kid brother Jaime), but he’s always supplemented this with other work.
Fear of Comics collects his various self-contained stories published in the five years up to 2000. It could equally be called Fun with Comics as Hernandez frees his experimental side. The cover shows a wide-eyed, open-mouthed male face. Is that fear or fun? Behind him stands a woman looking like a 1950s housewife. She looks stern brandishing a retro style ‘Hoover’. You can imagine she’s thinking “Why are you spending time in these frivolities, you’ve got bigger stories to tell…” but he’s enjoying himself too much to care.
Hernandez’s art may seem simple when compared to the often overwrought art of many current comics, but he’s a master of composition, expressive brushwork, and illustrating human experience through faces and body language. It’s only his talent and decades of work that make it look simple.
Some stories are in the spirit of Palomar’s magic realism. In ‘Spirit of the Thing’ a small village responds to the unexplained arrival of a glamorous woman. A hunchbacked man falls for her and seeks answers from a magical tree. It helps him but extracts a heavy price. ‘Abraxas’, a companion piece, revisits the village with a different focus.
‘Return of the Tzik’ is from the 1980s and in his early humanistic sci-fi style. In a future with 1920s Art Deco styling, news emerges that Earth’s former enemies the Tzik, are coming back – supposedly for a trade deal. We follow this through salt-of-the-earth couple Franky and Kitten, as they hear it on the news, and as the story intrudes into their life with the most unexpected consequences. Like his brother Jaime, and contemporaries like Charles Burns, Gilbert combines a real feel for the pop culture of his youth, with a flair for recreating it in fresh ways to tell real human stories. Some of the stranger fantastical pieces read like an acting out of aspects of the writer’s personality.
There are over thirty items in the book. Some are single illustrations with text such as his ‘Gallery of Humanitarians and Beloved Martyrs’, and many shorts are short, but concentrated. ‘A Piercing Denial’ reveals the narrator and his approach to relationships in a single page. He adapts ‘great American novel’ Moby Dick in a six panel half page.
It’s all worth reading and coming back to. Well, with the exception of his self-portrait where he’s wearing only the emperors new clothes…
Fear of Comics is volume 17 of the Complete Love & Rockets, but all the stories are self-contained. Any Gilbert fans will want this. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, it’s an ideal place to start.