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Peer into "Heartbreak Soup," a graphic novel by Gilbert Hernandez.
From The Book Cover/illustration

Apocalypse Then, Now and Always

Reviewed by Douglas Wolk
Sunday, March 18, 2007


Glacial Period | By Nicolas De Crecy | NBM/Comics | Lit. 80 pp. $14.95

Long after an ice age ends civilization as we know it, an archaeological expedition discovers an ancient building full of mysterious artifacts and tries to reconstruct from it what the inhabitants of "Euro" must have been like. The building is the Louvre Museum, and the squabbling scientists of French cartoonist Nicolas De Crécy's Glacial Period naturally interpret every relic inside it according to their own cultural biases -- which means they get everything wrong, from the presumption that the building's owner was named Delacroix to the inference, based on the many nudes they encounter, that ancient people had thick, cold-resistant skins. They're also baffled by the preponderance of "obese, flying children," but they're not far off the mark when they suggest that their ancestors, obsessed with images, became unable to "see and manage the reality of nature."

The book takes a peculiar turn in its final third, as the archaeologists' intelligent doglike assistant, Hulk, ventures down among the Louvre's antiquities, which turn out to have lives of their own. (They aren't too fond of the "fat, jolly" tourists who visited them at the dawn of the global-warming disaster, giving barely a glance or a thought to most of the museum's contents in their rush to behold the "three red dots" -- their nickname for the Mona Lisa.) De Crécy's own artwork, all twitchy pen lines and blotches of watercolor, contrasts neatly with the creamy smoothness of the Old Masters. And the bulk of his story is a clever upending of the resilient myth that masterworks of art preserve the history and spirit of their era; the meaning of art, De Crécy suggests, belongs to the people who experience it.

Heartbreak Soup | By Gilbert Hernandez | Fantagraphics | 287 pp. $14.95

When the Hernandez brothers launched their series "Love and Rockets" in the early '80s, comics had scarcely seen anything like it before: gorgeously original cartooning with the tone of eccentric literary fiction. Gilbert Hernandez hit his stride almost immediately, with a long-running series of half-fabulistic, half-soap-operatic tales about the tiny Central American town of Palomar. The first 20 Palomar stories have now been collected as Heartbreak Soup, with more volumes to follow. (Meanwhile, his brother Jaime's "Love and Rockets" work is getting the same treatment, beginning with Maggie the Mechanic.)

In the earliest stories, Hernandez's writing owes a distinct debt to Gabriel García Márquez -- he even names a character Soledad Marquez after the novelist and his book One Hundred Years of Solitude. Very quickly, though, he figures out his particular gift: a loose, loopy, telegraphic narrative style, built on broad caricatures, goofy dialogue ("By the big slippers of big slipperdom!" one character exclaims), acutely observed details of facial expressions and body language, and abrupt leaps between scenes that force readers to fill in the gaps on their own. After the title story (1983), Hernandez's stories flutter backward and forward across decades in his characters' lives.

We see children growing into adults, fortunes reversed and sexual longing destructively insinuating itself into everything. And biographical details start to accrue around a character Hernandez has followed beyond the Palomar cycle: Luba, a weary, aging beauty who's spent most of her life dealing with the consequences of being a fantasy object for other people.

The American Way | By John Ridley | WildStorm | 184 pp. $19.99

Superheroes are basically walking (or flying) metaphors, and John Ridley's The American Way uses them to construct a sly, pointed allegory for U.S. politics in the 1960s. The Civil Defense Corps is a clean-cut, JFK-era superhero team, whose members have all-American code names such as Amber Waves and the East Coast Intellectual -- and they're a government fraud. Their superpowers are real, but when they fight villains such as the Red Terror, it's a scripted propaganda act to keep TV viewers thinking patriotic thoughts. When the group's newest member, the New American, is unmasked and revealed to be black, the country is thrown into a tizzy: "Exactly how a Negro was able to infiltrate America's defenders has yet to be explained," a TV newscaster announces.

Ridley's densely packed action-thriller plot zooms along in tandem with his jabs at the racism and xenophobia that underscored the myth of Camelot. He literalizes the era's ideological conflicts as costumed brawls; the story culminates in a series of enormous fight scenes and a touch of nuclear terror, all set into motion when the New American goes after a serial killer who has attacked a bus full of Freedom Riders. Georges Jeanty and Karl Story's slick, bright artwork is mostly in generic superhero-comic mode, which allows Ridley to pile up his satirical double meanings with a straight face -- a Human Torch-style, flame-covered quasi-Klansman is called Southern Cross.

DMZ: Body of a Journalist | By Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli | Vertigo | 166 pp. $12.99

Another political allegory that takes advantage of comics' mixture of the real and unreal, DMZ: Body of a Journalist is blatantly about Iraq -- a word that appears nowhere in its pages. The premise of writer Brian Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ series is that a young photojournalist, Matty Roth, is stranded in a near-future Manhattan that's become the sealed-off no-man's-land in an American civil war and discovers that the conflict is at least as much about public perception as it is about territory. In this, the second volume of the series, his Geraldo-like former boss is kidnapped by "insurgents." Matty finds himself turned into a go-between in the two armies' propaganda games, then declared dead by the Fox-like government mouthpiece "Liberty News." Reporting the truth, he realizes, could be fatal, but it makes a pretty good bargaining chip.

This could be grim stuff, but Wood and Burchielli play up the undercurrents of black comedy in Manhattan as a grubby disaster area, dotted with bombed-out landmarks and sickly, scraggly people.

And they have some fun transplanting the tropes of war journalism, embedded and otherwise, to downtown New York. The highlight is the final section, drawn by Wood himself: a guide to the embattled borough that's somewhere between a Newsweek tour of a war zone and a Time Out survey of hip underground culture, featuring interviews with area celebs (an ad exec-turned-sniper, a 19-year-old deejay who calls himself Random Fire) and a look at local 'zines (such as Snoozer, by a woman "determined to sleep through the war or die trying"). Mortars may be flying on the Lower East Side, but its residents still know where to get a good dosa. ยท

Douglas Wolk writes about comic books for Publishers Weekly and Salon. He is the author of the forthcoming "Reading Comics."


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