REVIEW: Blood of Palomar

bop
Gilbert Hernández
Fantagraphic Books
$18.95, 117 pages

Set in the 1980s, Blood of Palomar is a thrilling book about Palomar, a fictional, chaotic Latin American town.

The main thread is the murder mystery. The bodies pile up quickly, and clues are given along the way, sometimes subtly tucked into the artwork.

An uneducated teen artist, Humberto, is the only one who knows the killer’s     identity. His promising art starts as abstract drawings of all the people of Palomar; he loses his mind and his chance for a career by visually recording the murders but not reporting them.

Meanwhile, large, menacing troupes of monkeys overwhelm the town, and people club their brains out for sport.

Hernández’s writing and artwork are excellent, albeit not lifelike. The black-and-white pen work is perfect—there are a vividness and richness to the action, story, and scenes already that would likely be drowned in color. With 34 characters and multiple story threads, a first read can be dizzying, yet all is exquisitely kept in balance.

Though certainly most characters are not given much depth, the large cast gives the sense of a real community. The main characters are complex, flawed, and fascinating.

Luba and her family are the focus. Luba looks like the fertility statues unearthed at the archeology sites outside town. Most of her children have different fathers, and her cousin, tragic Ofelia, does most of the child rearing. Luba exerts power in Palomar with her sexuality, and there are hints that she will wield political influence.

One of Luba’s daughters, Maricela, is in a committed lesbian relationship; however, because of the conservative nature of the town they must keep it a secret. For example, women serve 30 days in jail for showing too much skin even in a tropical climate. Maricela and Riri are trying to run away and escape the persecution they would face in Palomar. Their relationship seems to be the only one that matures beyond the physical, and it seems to be the only one that lasts. The man who wants to marry Luba loves possessively, jealously, and pathetically. The heterosexual relationships, in which there are gender power struggles, are shown almost grotesquely in animalistic sex scenes, sweat, hairs, warts and all, and without romantic love. Onomatopoeia is included during these panels, but if that lessens the artistic merit of the work then T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land should not be so highly praised (“Twit twit twit. Jug jug jug jug jug jug. So rudely forc’d. Tereu.”)

This kind of off-putting sexuality, blood, and severed heads are contrasted with moments of calm and the rare, innocent, heartfelt moments when Luba plays with her children. Complex, vivid characters and realistic motives are combined with the evil monkeys, giant slugs for food, and a girl pulled out of the river who is possibly possessed by spirits. There is an exaggerated feel to it. This magical-realism style is originally from Latin America, and it works perfectly with the timely satire. Timely for 1989, this edition’s release, but it is still very relevant.

The U.S. has had high-stakes investments in Latin America for generations—sometimes in support of a coup d’état: Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). The marines occupied Nicaragua in the early 20th century, and then the Reagan administration illegally funded the Nicaraguan Contras by illegally selling weapons to Iran. The CIA allegedly assisted in the attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s government (2002). The U.S. strongly influences economics in places like Honduras, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Panama.

Tonantzin, the vendor of fried slugs, is another memorable main character who is frustrated by injustices in the region. She is first educated after years of illiteracy by a man writing to her from prison, but his letters change from history and politics to religious zealotry, and she becomes disillusioned. As Tonantzin walks around town in the body paint and loin cloth of her native ancestors, people assume she has gone mad. What happens to her as she attempts to find her own way, serve as the voice of reason against nuclear proliferation, and turns to activism, is unforgettable.

In Blood of Palomar’s world, the Cold War is slowly poisoning the people of Central and South America. The problems come from within, too—the identity crises of the town and difficulties in modernization have multiple causes, the murders are insular, and some characters mention corruption in their country’s capital city. The mayor doesn’t want a phone line in order to keep a distance from the encroaching super powers. The mayor and sheriff are also worried about how to censor what information gets in and out once they do let in the rest of the world. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are not blamed, but their military industrial complexes’ supply trains and ships chug by in the background.

Old men loaf and talk dejectedly about how war is just a matter of a single bomb. Tonantzin’s mental breakdown comes from nuclear fallout fears. Characters repeat, “Will the snow be ice or ash?” throughout the book. What the people want is independence, but sometimes that is brutally checked. In one scene, Luba’s cousin remembers “a peaceful socialist activist” who she knew and the things that happened to him for his beliefs. How can the town modernize without selling its soul? They want to achieve healthcare, education, and infrastructure without any imperial strings attached.

This is not a post-colonial world, but a land still colonized economically. Some characters are scathing critiques of North America’s and Europe’s liberals. Instead of old, upper-class tourists staying at fine resorts and beaches, Hernández chose to focus on a different kind of economically-necessary annoyance to the locals. The two tourists in the book combine the worst elements from many sectors of 1980s American counterculture: surfing, metal, and punk—because it addresses, as one says, “real stuff like society and the government and Reagan and-and society….” They use words like brewskies and bong. The only times they are seen interacting with locals is when they try to seduce the women or bludgeon the evil monkeys.

There’s Sven, the worldly archeologist who brags about making a fortune off the artifacts of his digs—the industry of discovery.

Then there’s the American yuppie couple watching a Latin American protest on the news. “Are they all crazy, or what?” the woman says. Her husband, a photojournalist, says condescendingly, “No, not all,” before going into platitudes about love and the importance of those poor peoples’ struggle, “however modest that change.”

Though caricatures, these minor characters show the absurdity and disconnect of such empty symbols, plausible speech for a lot of people. To wit, I have deviated from a review of the book to commentate on foreign policy in the Americas, and I have never even been to any nation within Central or South America.

For most of the characters, there is no interest in politics or global affairs even when the problems become salient. The people of Palomar go on paradoxically regardless of, in spite of, and because of the world.

Blood of Palomar haunted my thoughts long after I finished reading. There’s a second climax to this book beyond the murder story. Hernández’s work warrants checking out more books in the Love and Rockets series, many of which he has also done.

*For further reading on interventionism in Latin America, a good starting point—other than the writers from those countries, of course—are the chapters “The Flag Follows Commerce” and “Subduing the Banana Republics” in Sidney Lens’ The Forging of the American Empire. Or there are sure to be a plethora of history books at the local library.

Set in the 1980s, Blood of Palomar is a thrilling book about Palomar, a fictional, chaotic Latin American town.

The main thread is the murder mystery. The bodies pile up quickly, and clues are given along the way, sometimes subtly tucked into the artwork.

An uneducated teen artist, Humberto, is the only one who knows the killer’s     identity. His promising art starts as abstract drawings of all the people of Palomar; he loses his mind and his chance for a career by visually recording the murders but not reporting them.

Meanwhile, large, menacing troupes of monkeys overwhelm the town, and people club their brains out for sport.

Hernández’s writing and artwork are excellent, albeit not lifelike. The black-and-white pen work is perfect—there are a vividness and richness to the action, story, and scenes already that would likely be drowned in color. With 34 characters and multiple story threads, a first read can be dizzying, yet all is exquisitely kept in balance.

Though certainly most characters are not given much depth, the large cast gives the sense of a real community. The main characters are complex, flawed, and fascinating.

Luba and her family are the focus. Luba looks like the fertility statues unearthed at the archeology sites outside town. Most of her children have different fathers, and her cousin, tragic Ofelia, does most of the child rearing. Luba exerts power in Palomar with her sexuality, and there are hints that she will wield political influence.

One of Luba’s daughters, Maricela, is in a committed lesbian relationship; however, because of the conservative nature of the town they must keep it a secret. For example, women serve 30 days in jail for showing too much skin even in a tropical climate. Maricela and Riri are trying to run away and escape the persecution they would face in Palomar. Their relationship seems to be the only one that matures beyond the physical, and it seems to be the only one that lasts. The man who wants to marry Luba loves possessively, jealously, and pathetically. The heterosexual relationships, in which there are gender power struggles, are shown almost grotesquely in animalistic sex scenes, sweat, hairs, warts and all, and without romantic love. Onomatopoeia is included during these panels, but if that lessens the artistic merit of the work then T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land should not be so highly praised (“Twit twit twit. Jug jug jug jug jug jug. So rudely forc’d. Tereu.”)

This kind of off-putting sexuality, blood, and severed heads are contrasted with moments of calm and the rare, innocent, heartfelt moments when Luba plays with her children. Complex, vivid characters and realistic motives are combined with the evil monkeys, giant slugs for food, and a girl pulled out of the river who is possibly possessed by spirits. There is an exaggerated feel to it. This magical-realism style is originally from Latin America, and it works perfectly with the timely satire. Timely for 1989, this edition’s release, but it is still very relevant.

The U.S. has had high-stakes investments in Latin America for generations—sometimes in support of a coup d’état: Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). The marines occupied Nicaragua in the early 20th century, and then the Reagan administration illegally funded the Nicaraguan Contras by illegally selling weapons to Iran. The CIA allegedly assisted in the attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s government (2002). The U.S. strongly influences economics in places like Honduras, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Panama.

Tonantzin, the vendor of fried slugs, is another memorable main character who is frustrated by injustices in the region. She is first educated after years of illiteracy by a man writing to her from prison, but his letters change from history and politics to religious zealotry, and she becomes disillusioned. As Tonantzin walks around town in the body paint and loin cloth of her native ancestors, people assume she has gone mad. What happens to her as she attempts to find her own way, serve as the voice of reason against nuclear proliferation, and turns to activism, is unforgettable.

In Blood of Palomar’s world, the Cold War is slowly poisoning the people of Central and South America. The problems come from within, too—the identity crises of the town and difficulties in modernization have multiple causes, the murders are insular, and some characters mention corruption in their country’s capital city. The mayor doesn’t want a phone line in order to keep a distance from the encroaching super powers. The mayor and sheriff are also worried about how to censor what information gets in and out once they do let in the rest of the world. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are not blamed, but their military industrial complexes’ supply trains and ships chug by in the background.

Old men loaf and talk dejectedly about how war is just a matter of a single bomb. Tonantzin’s mental breakdown comes from nuclear fallout fears. Characters repeat, “Will the snow be ice or ash?” throughout the book. What the people want is independence, but sometimes that is brutally checked. In one scene, Luba’s cousin remembers “a peaceful socialist activist” who she knew and the things that happened to him for his beliefs. How can the town modernize without selling its soul? They want to achieve healthcare, education, and infrastructure without any imperial strings attached.

This is not a post-colonial world, but a land still colonized economically. Some characters are scathing critiques of North America’s and Europe’s liberals. Instead of old, upper-class tourists staying at fine resorts and beaches, Hernández chose to focus on a different kind of economically-necessary annoyance to the locals. The two tourists in the book combine the worst elements from many sectors of 1980s American counterculture: surfing, metal, and punk—because it addresses, as one says, “real stuff like society and the government and Reagan and-and society….” They use words like brewskies and bong. The only times they are seen interacting with locals is when they try to seduce the women or bludgeon the evil monkeys.

There’s Sven, the worldly archeologist who brags about making a fortune off the artifacts of his digs—the industry of discovery.

Then there’s the American yuppie couple watching a Latin American protest on the news. “Are they all crazy, or what?” the woman says. Her husband, a photojournalist, says condescendingly, “No, not all,” before going into platitudes about love and the importance of those poor peoples’ struggle, “however modest that change.”

Though caricatures, these minor characters show the absurdity and disconnect of such empty symbols, plausible speech for a lot of people. To wit, I have deviated from a review of the book to commentate on foreign policy in the Americas, and I have never even been to any nation within Central or South America.

For most of the characters, there is no interest in politics or global affairs even when the problems become salient. The people of Palomar go on paradoxically regardless of, in spite of, and because of the world.

Blood of Palomar haunted my thoughts long after I finished reading. There’s a second climax to this book beyond the murder story. Hernández’s work warrants checking out more books in the Love and Rockets series, many of which he has also done.

*For further reading on interventionism in Latin America, a good starting point—other than the writers from those countries, of course—are the chapters “The Flag Follows Commerce” and “Subduing the Banana Republics” in Sidney Lens’ The Forging of the American Empire. Or there are sure to be a plethora of history books at the local library.