14.10.09

Human Diastrophism

Who is the better Hernandez? On the basis of this graphic novel, I'm going with Gilbert. Sure, the artwork isn't as sleek and sexy as Jamie's, but the cartoony imperfections work for the idiosyncratic characters of Palomar. And as for the storytelling, well...

What I like about Human Diastrophism is that it's a full blown graphic novel, with themes and everything, but through it all Beto prefers to stick with his characters, and tell their story, without trying to corral them into making some overall point. The interweaving soap opera involves an enormous cast, and it's to Beto's credit that we're not lost amidst the crowd. And we get some of the most engaging, affecting developments yet. Luba (perhaps Palomar's most intriguing and mysterious character) is here broken down to bare essentials. She has outwardly been cast as a semi-ridiculous male sexual fantasy, a stick-thin shaggy-haired babe with enormous breasts, and a nymphomaniac to boot. But in this tale we truly appreciate the human costs of her condition -- her disgust with her aging body, the resentment she feels towards her beautiful children, the unfulfilled life she lives in this dead-end village. So having her regain composure and grace at the end is a real winning moment. There are many more: Maricela and Riri pining for Tonantzin, Guadalupe discovering who her father is, and being accepted by the fierce Carmen, Humberto being shown the great masterpieces of western art. All wonderfully touching pieces of tragi-comic human drama.

This is all much more important to Beto than the thrust of a particular unifying idea that will wrap the whole thing together. Then again, this being an epic, a graphic novel no less, Beto inserts into his story some weighty and potent images and patterns, which remain deliciously equivocal. A building crew comes to Palomar. The village is being introduced to outside civilization. The invasion of chittering black demon chimps appear to be a comment on this. They steal books, trash and set fire to houses, spurring the villagers to retaliate with a brutality of their own. The 'civilization = evil' formula may also serve to enlighten one of the opening images of the story, of a half-submerged corpse in a lake, with the twinkling lights of a city seen above in the distance.

Then there's the significance of seeing the serial killer Tomaso walking past Geraldo Mejia in his cell, while he's praying. Both are religious men. Tomaso's murder spree seems motivated by a warped Christian belief. It seems like we can amend our formula to 'religion = civilization = evil'. But there's more, because before Mejia turned to God he was a socialist, and his letters ultimately lead to Tonantzin committing suicide for some hopeless good cause. Not just religion, but all ideologies, are presented as destructive. I think this is contrasted with the simple tales told in Palomar: of falling in love, having a family, children playing, petty jealousies, people falling out and getting back together. This is what's important, Beto appears to be saying. Humanity. And humanity gets deformed, dangerous, inhuman, when they get seduced by the 'ideology = civilization' axis.

The final image, of the ash of apocalypse descending on Palomar, is beautifully elusive. Was Tonantzin right all along? Shouldn't we have fought to avoid this from happening? Then again, Tonantzin's sacrifice was useless. Maybe it's better to stay in Palomar, where humanity remains undistorted, true. Maybe here the fires burning up the rest of the world won't be able to find quick purchase.

The scene right before that, where Howard Miller is comforting his girlfriend Cathy, may be expressing the artist's own thoughts on the story he tells. There's deep felt compassion for Tonantzin's sacrifice: 'it takes real love to want to go that far in hopes of making some kind of serious change for the better'. But while Cathy continues to feel horror and sadness, Howard quickly moves on to the everyday, the job, his life. Tonantzin isn't dismissed as foolish, in fact she ends up as the most inspiring character of all. But there's danger in her example. Maybe Howard's hardened, almost-but-no-quite callous reaction is the best way to deal with the story Beto presents to us.

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