Gilbert Hernandez’s new long-story-in-hardcover is called Love from the Shadows, a suitably noirish if meaningless theater-marquee title for this latest “comics adaptation” of still another make-believe grindhouse movie featuring Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez, the lisping super-vixen and former psychotherapist who also does time as a supporting player in the Luba series (Fritz is Luba’s half-sister) over at Love & Rockets. Reading it left me annoyed, cranky, baffled, disappointed, and breast-fixated, as has most of Beto’s work in recent years. The marvelously imagined and textured world of the original Palomar saga seems far away. It is far away, and a long time ago, too. That world and those complex and transporting stories from the 1980s—“Heartbreak Soup”, “Duck Feet”, “An American in Palomar”, “Human Diastrophism”, to name just a few—are the creations of a charged-up young artist flaunting, proving his chops and riffing as well as building on his earliest influences (Magic Realism, Jesse Marsh, Kirby and Ditko at Marvel, D.I.Y. punk culture). That body of work is everlastingly re-readable, stuff that went straight into the canon of great American comics as soon as it appeared.
Much as I liked, and still like, the sheer smutty recklessness of Birdland, in retrospect Beto’s hardcore extravaganza for Fantagraphics’ Eros imprint marks the point in his career when something changed, drastically. After that, for me at least, his comics no longer seemed a coherent cycle of fiction about knowable, motivated characters written and drawn with formal aesthetics in mind, but a never-ending obsessive sketchbook inspired equally by Russ Meyers and David Lynch films. Indulging his mania for drawing large-bosomed, wasp-waisted women and tall naked men who stand around like statues when they’re not having sex has sapped his comics of narrative drive and turned his cartooning rigidly emblematic. You get the feeling that whatever happens in his stories now only does because it provides him with an opportunity to draw one more babe endowed with a pair of double-D’s or another dead-eyed Vanity Fair male model hung like a horse.
That seems the case with Love from the Shadows, which strings out three flimsy scenarios informed by a 1950s pulpy sci-fi sensibility as well as by the overheated melodrama of the same era’s crime pictures. The story opens with the lisping, dark-haired Fritz at home with her narcissistic boy-toy. Eventually she discovers and enters a cave in her basement, emerging from it into an alternative/cinema reality. No longer lisping, she is now a blonde named Delores, who quickly hooks up with her brother Sonny (he’s a nurse, we’re told, not that it matters) and together they plot to kill their abusive father, a once-famous novelist living a recluse’s life on a generic coastline somewhere.
But before they can murder him, their father has a stroke (or possibly a religious epiphany; at any rate, it’s something significant enough to rattle his mind) after wandering into a cavern—whereupon his grown children decide, against all logic and what’s gone before, to stick around and take care of the old man. Wait a second—what?
At that point, Delores goes for a swim in the ocean (or maybe it’s a river), then hitches a ride in a rowboat with a young boy at the oars (either he’s unimpressed or mesmerized by her voluptuousness, it’s hard to tell) and eventually ends up in another town, where she falls in with a gang of con men running a phony spiritualism racket reminiscent of the one perpetrated in Nightmare Alley. Love from the Shadows drifts, lurches and smash-cuts its way along for 120 novel-size pages, the plot—or rather, the picaresque sequences—trotting out everything from a lovelorn suicide and a sex-change operation that’s part of an insurance scam, to a bunch of mystery men called “monitors” who are either from another planet or the future, unless maybe they’re shadowy government agents. Who knows? They wear sunglasses and jump suits and ask a lot of questions. The narrative concludes with a protracted scene of genital mutilation-and-murder by bow-and-arrow. That’s what it’s about. That’s the best I can do.
Like Steve Ditko at his nuttiest and Chester Gould in his dotage, Hernandez can still pull off a brilliant scene or stage a moment with the sparest, most sublime graphic, but when the narrative is so negligible, an excuse for what reads overwhelmingly as automatic drawing, as self-indulgent dada, even the occasional masterful layout or brilliant continuity solution feels weightless, a frustrating glimpse of the better, much better, and shaped, and worried-over, comics that Gilbert Hernandez, I hope and suspect, is still capable of producing. I’d continue to rank him in a top ten list of the world’s greatest living cartoonists; I just don’t know for how much longer.