Gilbert Hernandez and the Infinite Sky

As I think I mentioned last week, I've been spending my summer reading through Fantagraphics' collected editions of Love and Rockets' first volume. Although I had believed that I was playing catch up in my classes at comics college, it turns out that I had actually read parts of Gilbert Hernandez's stories before, I think out of the big, not just long, physically big and heavy, Palomar collection. A few days ago, when I cracked open Human Diastrophism, the second Heartbreak Soup trade, it also became clear that I hadn't yet read all of them, because I'm pretty sure I would have remembered the above page. 

I love this page, from the short story "Space Case." Here's what's going on: one of Luba's daughters, Guadalupe, becomes interested in the sky, in the way that it goes on forever, in the fact that it goes on forever, into infinity. As she learns more, from her teacher, from her mother's cousin Ofelia, she gets increasingly distracted by it, ignoring her dinner and finding herself unable to sleep. She walks over to the window to look at the sky, and what she sees, what we see, is the cosmos, tranquil and violently turbulent, of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

There's an interesting question about whether Guadalupe has ever seen Starry Night or if instead she's replicated it sui generis, but there's simply no way to know either way, and it doesn't matter. What Hernandez seems to be suggesting, what he's suggested elsewhere, most explicitly in a couple places with Heraclio and Carmen and in the story An American in Palomar, is that the isolated and seemingly backwards folk of Palomar are just as capable of living high art lives as anyone else, that the imagination of their children know no bounds. Read more liberally, and in the context of the story's discussion about Galileo, "Space Case" is a statement about what comics are, and what they can be: the cartoonist has a home in the art world, but that he's been made to turn that home into a prison, his work shunned on the outside by everyone on the outside but his friends. History, Gilbert Hernandez says, will vindicate the cartoonist, the innovator under house arrest, the child with the big imagination. 

It's all well and good to say that, but then Hernandez goes ahead and backs it up. Take a look at the page one more time; it's your basic 3x3 composition, except that, in the most technical sense, there are eight panels instead of nine. In the space where the exact middle frame should be, there's just gutter and composition, given a panel-like quality by its surroundings. What goes on in the "panel" is actually happening in the in-between, in the infinite place where comics storytelling takes place, where artist collaborates with reader. 

There are a few things this does. For one, it gives the page a three dimensional quality, insofar as certain things (the eight actual panels) are foregrounded, while another appears to drop back a little bit, looking like it might disappear entirely, marking it as different, as important somehow. In fact, what's really going here is that the composition of middle panel exists behind the composition of the other eight-- it is in fact the whole page. This gives Luba's family, and their meal, an extra smallness in the face of the infinite universe, in the whole of space and time. 

Such a broad perspective is a chilly one but, like in much of Hernadez's work, the larger machinations of the universe are given short shrift in favor of a present kindness; tenderness is the remedy for the cold. You'll notice, for example, that the page's fourth panel (counting like you read) is slightly larger than the rest of them. Luba's calling her daughter and her cousin to dinner is given just that much more precedence. And then, in the composition itself, Luba's concern is the first thing we read--"What's the matter Guadalupe? Aren't you hungry sweetheart?"--long before we notice what exactly it is we're looking at, and from what perspective. No matter what happens in Heartbreak Soup, to its characters, by its characters, sympathy and understanding come first. Sometimes, in Palomar, it's the only thing that can get you through the night. 

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