One of the major graphic novel events of the fall season is undoubtedly Palomar: The Complete Heartbreak Soup, coming from Fantagraphic Books. Collecting 15 years worth of Gilbert Hernandez's stories from the long-running comic Love and Rockets, Palomar is a sprawling work of humanity and imagination, tracing the lives, loves and deaths of villagers in a remote Mexican town where "the men are men, and the women need a sense of humor." Ranging from the amorous adventures of Luba, a mixed-race seductress who runs a bathhouse, to supernatural tales of murder and gangland violence, the book proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that comics can be literature of the most powerful kind.
PW: Your brothers and mother were all comics lovers. Was being a cartoonist always something you had in mind?
Gilbert Hernandez: Actually, no. It was such a part of me growing up that I never thought of it as a vocation or anything. I thought of it as amusement or to impress other kids. I impressed them too much, sometimes, because bullies would insist that I do their art projects for them.
PW: What made you decide to do Heartbreak Soup?
GH: There's no one real answer. It was the early '80s, I was just coming off of being in the punk music scene, getting inspiration from that. I Iooked around, and I didn't see my experience out there in pop culture. The reason I chose to go with Palomar was that I could put enough of my own experiences and observations into a comic strip in a simple and direct way, using a small village.
PW: Your work is often compared to Gabriel García Márquez. How do you respond to that?
GH: I understand it now. It helps people grasp what it's like, and they get the background. I hadn't read his work until [I had been doing Heartbreak Soup for years], and I was surprised. I read it and could see where the comparisons were coming from.
PW: Did the story unfold from the characters or stories you wanted to tell?
GH: Equal parts. The process is so organic, you can't take one without the other. There were times where the characters were telling me what to do. But I've learned since that there's no such thing. The characters are you, you're always telling them what to do, even though it seems the other way around. Heraclio, Luba, Carmen and Chelo were my favorite characters, and I surrounded them with stories. As things went on, I always felt guilty about abandoning characters, so the cast became huge.
PW: Is Luba the centerpiece of the book?
GH: She became the centerpiece. It turns out in the end that Luba and Heraclio [a mild-mannered accordion teacher] are two parts of me. He's sensitive to a fault and introspective, whereas Luba is completely feral ferocity. It's id and ego.
PW: What part of Palomar is based on your life?
GH: The original story about a bunch of adolescent kids hanging out and discovering sex and who they are, and little elements. For instance, in the first story, when Jesus' brother, Toco dies, and Heraclio and Vicente witness Toco's father being carried by men, that was something I actually saw.
PW: Much like in real life, no one really ever ends up happy in Palomar.
GH: There are a lot of disappointments, because I think that's what happened to a lot of people, unfortunately. We expect certain things, and by the time we hit 40, we realize, hey, it didn't happen. That's observation, just seeing people fail.
PW: How does it feel to have this big giant book out, finally?
GH: I think it's a little daunting for someone to pick up. But if my arms fell off tomorrow, I would be happy to have this body of work.