Review by Frank Plowright
After bringing Love and Rockets to a close Gilbert Hernandez spread his attentions far and wide for several years before returning to his much-loved cast, but incorporating significant changes. There’s an equal focus on lisping therapist Frtizi and her equally statuesque sister Petra, long settled in California, and the younger half-sisters of Luba, Palomar’s tragically world-weary matriarch.
It’s not unreasonable to assume you’ve picked up the wrong book to begin with, as Luba herself doesn’t appear until the halfway point, with the preceding pages occupied by ‘Letters from Venus’. Drift with the flow. Venus is Petra’s precocious teenage daughter, aged approximately twelve, and Hernandez’s characterisation of her is first rate. She’s simultaneously precocious and knowing, yet also misses aspects of what occurs around her. Her mother’s sexual relationship with the guy that she has a teenage crush on for one. When that relationship ends Petra destroys the comic store where he works, but Venus assumes she’s done so in retaliation for breaking her heart.
When we do reach Luba she’s her familiar tragic self in most respects, but also a changed, older woman. The anger that once fueled her defences has worn away, to be replaced by a form of fear in her new environment. In Palomar she ruled the roost, but her confrontational methods won’t work in California, and she’s desperate to ensure her husband can join her despite problems associated with previous drug convictions. Her situation’s not helped by an inability to come to grips with English.
There’s some audacious storytelling here, and not everything is explicit. Hernandez is a subtle writer, and also very playful, and because he draws the strips as well there’s a precision to his intended moods. One tale is Venus’ experiences in the company of Sergio, her celebrity football player cousin. They visit entirely inappropriate places, the usually cocksure Venus even remarking on this as they pick up Sergio’s drunken mother from an underground car park. Sergio’s activities are concealed, yet we can hazard a good guess. No need, though, as the following story details the same day from Sergio’s viewpoint. Capricious, yet clever, the pair combine for the full experience.
Fritzi and Petra were the pegs around which Hernandez hung his explicitly erotic graphic novel Birdland, and their incorporation into the ongoing family saga brings increased sexual content both here and in the following Book of Ofelia and Three Daughters. It occurs in a very matter of fact manner, having far more in common with European comics presenting similar sensibilities. For the most part it’s joyous sex, although Fritzi’s insecurities eventually lead her down a darker path in search of satisfaction.
In addition to sex, Hernandez also more successfully incorporates the whimsy of his more left field strips via dreams and drug induced hallucination sequences. He’s very fond of a bizarre design introduced on a lighter in the earliest pages, and it recurs in several places thereafter, a sort of in-joke. Also on the agenda is the occasional well-conceived editorial piece, the sample page concerning comics, in which Hernandez seemingly just needs to get something off his chest.
Don’t be sucked into believing this is somehow lesser material than the earlier, more linear Palomar stories featuring the same characters. There’s a great skill in drip feeding an ongoing story in otherwise self-contained short segments, and Hernandez is a master.
Originally released as Luba in America, the collection has been retitled for release in the uniform Love and Rockets editions, and the entire content along with sequels features in the smaller size hardcover Luba.