A major plot point in Love from the Shadows—the latest in Love and Rockets co-creator Gilbert Hernandez’s ongoing series of stand-alone graphic novel “adaptations” of the exploitation movies in which his buxom, lisping character Fritz Martinez is supposed to have starred in the “real” world his comics usually chronicle—involves a mysterious cave, one so dark that Hernandez basically draws it like a hole in the page. One character promises that it contains the answers another character seeks; another character enters it and promptly goes insane. I’ve grown increasingly averse to this kind of neat symbolism in my dotage, but let’s face it, this cave may as well be a metaphor for Gilbert Hernandez’s comics at this point. Erotic, harrowing, graphically violent, and astonishingly grim, Love from the Shadows sees Hernandez plunging ever further into his own heart of darkness.
Sex and violence have always intertwined in Beto’s comics. It’s easy to forget, given how warm and humanistic most of the stories set in and centered around his fictional village of Palomar were for so long, but an ill-fated love triangle shattered by murder was the centerpiece of the second-ever Palomar yarn. But in the person of Fritz, and in the recent books that purport to recount her B-movies, this linkage has found its apotheosis. Fritz was long a figure of fun in Hernandez’s post-Palomar stories, her genius-level IQ and career as a psychotherapist cheekily contrasted with her preposterous sex-bomb physique, lisping Kewpie-doll voice, and (to quote Maude Lebowski) “zesty” sex scenes, of which there were plenty. Slowly, however, Hernandez began revealing Fritz’s painful history of exploitation and abuse, a history we gradually (and with great sadness and disgust, on my part at least) learned was continuing at the hands of the men and women she considered lovers and friends in the present day. The temptation to use her pliant sexuality and astonishing body for their own gratification simply proved too strong. Add to this the shocking revelation of just how far back her abuse began in one of the final stories she starred in as herself rather than as one of her movie characters, and Fritz was a creature of tragedy, not comedy. Of course, given how much fun it was (and remains!) for her readers to watch her romp around in the nude, fucking and sucking all comers—and, presumably, given how much fun it is for Hernandez to draw same—her fellow fictional characters aren’t the only people being implicated by her increasingly dire adventures.
I could go in-depth into the plot of Love from the Shadows to demonstrate all the ways lust kills in the world Hernandez has constructed for his leading lady over the past decade or so; it’s his most Lynchian plot to date, involving doppelgangers and mystery men and spectacularly intimate sex scenes and initially confusing narrative ruptures that are revealed to make a dreamlike sort of sense later on, so “in-depth” is practically the only way to do it. But frankly I think the case is best made before you’re even fifteen pages in. First of all there’s that cover, by pulp artist Steve Martinez. It’s an image that invites you to stare, almost magnetically so, but which is so confrontationally revealing that you’re all but compelled to look away before long—the kind of thing that has you making sure that if you leave the book lying around, you leave it lying face down. (This, too, makes a neat synecdoche for Hernandez’s whole career: Chances are you know at least one person who’s written him off for the size of his female characters’ breasts alone.) Then there’s the title page, featuring a bust-style portrait of Fritz’s character Dolores in which the straight line used to depict the cleft of her cleavage extends so far down the page it’s comical; the V of negative space used to suggest the plunging neckline of her dress only accentuates the freakishness of her physicality. The story itself begins with one of the loveliest and saddest visual sequences of Hernandez’s career: Dolores, her breasts drawn with minimalist grace and hanging nearly down to her waist, walks alone in an empty house, stands in front of a mirror while holding her breasts up, walks around alone some more, and cries. What the character does for the rest of this opening sequence is also fraught with meaning—she calls her estranged father and is rejected, she booty-calls a man “played” by the male model she married in “real life,” she’s poked and prodded and interrogated by a mysterious cult-like organization, she fucks the shit out of her lover only for him to split when she goes to the kitchen to cook him dinner. But it’s those panels of Fritz/Dolores wandering aimlessly around her house, confronting the blessing and curse of her own sexuality, that haunt me as I write this. Every line is heavy with sadness, with the desire of the character, and the character within the character, and the artist, and the audience, to escape. But if there’s one message you can draw from Gilbert Hernandez’s comics, it’s that once you enter that cave, there’s no going back. Christ, what a fucking book.