If Gilbert Hernandez is arguably at his finest while creating the magical realism of poverty-stricken Palomar, perhaps it’s only predictable that these US-based stories fall a bit flat. Luba’s half-sisters Fritz (psychiatrist and B-movie actress) and Petra (amateur body builder and mother to pre-teen Venus) simply aren’t suffering the hardships that have formed Luba’s character, and instead fill their lives with vacuous sex and meaningless relationships.
Meanwhile, Luba’s attention is focused on getting her husband past immigration despite his previous crimes, though this behind-the-scenes action is more about legal issues than breaking through borders, so doesn’t make it high up this book’s billing.
In Palmoar, every day is a struggle. Here Fritz and single-mum Petra have strings of boyfriends but their lives are hollow. Even seeing the world through Venus’s eyes loses its naive sparkle, as compared to the lives of her ancestors, her problems are childish and middle-class. There’s a scary moment where she takes a forbidden short-cut through a park and comes close to falling into the clutches of a potential paedophile, but while Hernandez would almost certainly have inflicted the assault on a character in Palomar, Venus escapes with a scary story to tell and a gentle scolding from her mother. This is one of the few Venus stories included here that isn’t a repeat from The Adventures of Venus.
The result is a relatively bland book when held up against the three masterpieces that proceed it (Human Diastrophism, Heartbreak Soup and Beyond Palomar), with a limited number of characters and no earth-shattering experiences to help us explore them. The most interesting thing is Luba’s devotion to her disfigured husband, but even this is left to the conversations of others and barely explored in enough detail.
So, if you’re expecting the next Poison River you won’t find it in these pages. However, Gilbert Hernandez fans will surely still want to keep up with the lives of these women, even when their comics aren’t at their peak.