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Book Review

Graphic novel offers lessons from a mythical Central American town

Gilbert Hernandez's 'Human Diastrophism' is the second book in the Love & Rockets series. Gilbert Hernandez's "Human Diastrophism" is the second book in the Love & Rockets series.

Human Diastrophism, By Gilbert Hernandez, Fantagraphics Books, 256 pp., $14.95

In the 1980s, the comics industry was stretching. The concept of the "graphic novel" was born a few years earlier, a story hoping to achieve the same literary import as a prose novel and completed between the front and back cover of a book. Cartoonists were experimenting with both the types of stories told in comics format and the ways these stories were presented. Cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez's venture into this emerging field was one half the Love & Rockets series -- exotic, sexy, and aimed at adult readers.

Placed in the mythical Central American hamlet of Palomar, a town untouched by time and peopled by strong women and men disinterested in the consequences of their actions, these were stories in which women ruled. Foremost among these were Chelo, a midwife turned sheriff, Luba, a terrifying beauty and mother of four daughters, who, by Luba's choice, do not know the names of their fathers, and Pipo, an athlete lusted after by Luba's partner. In "Human Diastrophism," the second in the Love & Rockets graphic novel series, readers are offered several stories that, in their entirety, paint a vivid portrait of life in Palomar, a community where it is illegal to wear skirts above the knee.

In the title story, we find Luba in her mid-30s mourning the loss of her youth. Although lover Archie wants to marry her, the thought of being tied down is too heavy for Luba, and she sets off on a series of adventures, attempting to relive her youth, while irresponsibly leaving her daughters to fend for themselves while a serial killer, who may be the father of one Luba's children, is loose. As the story concludes, Luba reluctantly accepts her age and agrees to an offer from Sheriff Chelo to help govern the changing town.

The remaining stories go back and forth in time, as we learn that Luba's children, now adults, have immigrated to the United States and have their own stories of success and heartbreak. When the children return to Palomar, they bring the future with them, but even the future is not strong enough to remain in Palomar long. Several of the stories focus on Luba's mother, Maria, who abandoned her before Luba was old enough to know Maria, partially explaining Luba's careless attitude toward family life. And we come to learn why a Frankenstein of an old man, Gorgo, watches out for Luba in ways that she doesn't always realize. Finally, through her daughters' experiences living in the United States while working with Pipo, Luba learns she has a family that she never knew existed. Through this kaleidoscopic lens, cartoonist Hernandez paints a full picture of Luba, her choices and burdens, and the town she governs.

One of the best of the early graphic novels, "Human Diastrophism" has been lauded by mainstream press such as The Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Hernandez ably portrays his women with wit, insight, and personality. Because of its varied presentation, this work demands the reader's full attention, but rewards that attention with discovery. While Hernandez's drawings don't always evoke what he's after, the atmosphere seeping out of these stories does. Although originally published almost 30 years ago, these stories speak to today's issues: approaching midlife isn't easy, answers to questions of personal identity aren't always satisfying, and people accept or don't accept responsibility for others and don't always know why.

Stephen Weiner's books include "Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel" and "The 101 Best Graphic Novels."

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