I enjoy comics, and in particular I enjoy comics as comics. That is to say, I don’t appreciate the idea of the graphic novel. Two problems with it: first, it reeks of classism. The formerly upwardly-mobile white hipsters who use it don’t want to admit they read comic books. They reference Melville or Pynchon (never Joyce, and never, ever Morrison) but don’t read them, at least not cover-to-cover.
My more substantive objection to the term is formal. Comics as a medium do not lend themselves to the novelistic linearity, nor to the type of verbal detail novels demand. What they do well–story that unfolds rather than begins, reference to other story, previously told or no, and multiplication of possible meaning through the combination of visual and textual means–they do better than novels. Add to that their lowbrow status and comics offer a type of expressive freedom commercial novel culture cannot.
No comic clarifies this better than Love and Rockets, and no narrative thread in Love and Rockets better than Gilbert‘s Palomar stories. Chelo’s Burden contains his first Palomar episode, and it starts well.
It was Chelo who talked Vicente’s mother Gabriela into not drowning him when he was but a few minutes into our grey world.
This is what using the medium is all about. The frame comes at the start of the piece, introducing on the one hand Chelo, but also Vicente, his mother, and the world. This, in one sentence. Novels need to follow each thread through its implications, and the good ones do so without wasting words. Comics, like poetry, send a reader out from the text into implications and imagination.
The image, too multiplies the effect. Vicente clearly has some serious health issues, so much that his mother was ready to drown him as a newborn. What’s he doing, though? He’s got a nice, semi-smile, at ease look. He looks like a fairly happy kid. The meaning of the image takes a contrary tack to the meaning of the text. This is not irony: there is no real meaning contrary to the explicit meaning. Both meanings, contrary, are simultaneously true. As a medium, comics put this mechanism into play as textual communication contradicts visual–as in drawing–communication. The two function through different parts of the brain, so to speak. Text cogitates, image experiences. The two, operating simultaneously, multiply the meaning of the work as it is experienced by a reader.
Love and Rockets is not just Gilbert, but brothers Jaime and Mario as well. Mario considers himself less talented a writer than his brothers, and his contribution to Chelo’s Burden bears this assessment out. There is general disagreement over the relative merits of Gilbert’s and Jaime’s work. Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey stories are the equivalent of Gilbert’s Palomar, his major contribution to the medium. In a nutshell for the uninitiated, Maggie and Hopey are two young Latinas whose friendship becomes, on and off, romantic. Over the long-term, there’s not a human relationship better-explored in the medium than that between the two. Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey stories here are evidence of this. Saying this, I’m a Gilbert man myself. For every explication of Maggie and Hopey’s relationship, Gilbert offers a fully-articulated implication, however paradoxical the notion, of Palomar, and that really sets me off in a good way.