Review by Frank Plowright
Six years after issuing the first half of Maria M. in Book One, Gilbert Hernandez returned to finish the story, but anyone hoping to buy the conclusion alone will be disappointed. It’s combined with the previously published material, meaning anyone who invested in that is paying a list price of $30 for only 50% new content.
The opening section failed to sparkle, and even when placed into greater context by the new pages it still transmits as Hernandez going through the motions. Sometime in the 1950s, the Spanish speaking Maria arrives in Los Angeles to be pawed by a number of men in low paying jobs, all of them entranced by her massive breasts. Despite objecting to that, she has strangely few concerns about subsequently posing naked for photographers and making exploitation movies, until marriage to a considerably older gangster already with adult sons supplies a comfortable life. Hernandez has previously produced enjoyable erotica (see Birdland), but Maria M.’s opening sections are a depressing parade of pandering to anyone wanting to see him draw a naked woman with massive breasts over and over again.
Technically that art is very accomplished, featuring a large cast of individually distinctive characters, their emotions well composed, even when suppressed. The panels themselves are equally distinctive and well composed, so while the plot disappoints, the art remains Hernandez’s strength.
Maria’s marriage moves matters into gangster territory, also a theme Hernandez has explored very effectively with depth and sensitivity (see Poison River), but this is still going through the motions, at least for someone with Hernandez’s capabilities. It’s a perfectly serviceable gangster plot, if marred by the skipping stone over water method of marking time, a technique used in Hernandez’s stories for years, but here clumsily applied to what’s already lacking any richness or surprises. The earlier volume’s content ended with the ageing gangster’s son Gorgo, an object of attraction to Maria, jailed for his crimes.
The new content returns Maria to centre stage five years later, a released Gorgo is assigned to be her bodyguard by his ailing father. There’s no greater depth than the opening half. People are who they are, and events play out accordingly and violently as Maria discovers there’s a price to comfort after all. It fills in the exact background of Gorgo’s relationship with Maria, and how that in later years transferred to protection of Hernandez’s signature character Luba, Maria’s daughter, but previous glimpses of Gorgo pretty well told that. Most substantially two earlier stories titled ‘Bread, Love and Maria’ and ‘The Gorgo Wheel’ fitted the essence of Maria M’s second half into a compact 27 pages. They’re found in Luba Conquers the World or the 2007 edition of Human Diastrophism.
Assorted people become infatuated with Maria throughout, but Hernandez never gives this substance beyond attraction to massive breasts, the eternally passive Maria herself certainly never being developed any further that as her life is rolled out as a grindcore film. That’s odd, as she had a personality, unpleasant though it was, in earlier stories. The art shines, and a few inventive touches mark Maria M. as the work of a superior creator beyond that, but otherwise it rolls all the way to an inevitably predictable ending with barely any passion to be found.