Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories, from his Love and Rockets comics, feature a rich tapestry of characters. Perhaps best known is Luba, the giant-breasted matriarch that many of the stories circle around. However, Luba has a number of siblings, and High Soft Lisp focuses on one of these.
It’s tricky to introduce Fritz without mentioning her physique, since this book centres on the pleasure (and pain) of the flesh. Fritz has a similar build to Luba, with enormous breasts she loves to show off. However, her curvy hips are more appealing than Luba’s stick-thin chicken-legs.
In contrast to Luba’s village upbringing, Fritz spends her formative teenage years in a Californian town, establishing herself a reputation in high school society by providing blow jobs to any jock that crosses her path. These submissive and sometimes abusive sexual relationships continue throughout the book.
A significant portion of her life story is narrated by Mark Herrera, an ex-husband of Fritz’s who remains on good terms with her beyond the break-up of their marriage. He’s a motivational speaker whose professional popularity ebs and flows, as do his relationships with his six wives – Fritz being number four.
During one of his career highs, Herrera uses Fritz in some of his promotional videos, which gets her bountiful assets recognised by Hollywood B-movie producers. Thus Fritz gets a career as a movie star – albeit in cult movies – building herself quite a following of fans. Astute Hernandez scholars will appreciate that it’s these movies that Hernandez is recreating as graphic novel adaptations in his Fritz B-Movie Collection including Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers.
Hernandez uses Herrera as a third-person commentary on Fritz’s life, but can’t help further expanding his world too, building on the rises and falls of this intriguing man, both in terms of his career and his series of wives. At times, you can’t help but wonder if Hernandez prefers writing around this character more than he enjoys fleshing out Fritz.
If you’re expecting the magical realism of Palomar you might be disappointed. There’s little magic in Fritz’s life until she finds the thrill of acting and movie making. She has to remove herself from her own dark past to find much pleasure in her world. Instead we find a young Fritz finding solace but often further trouble in the bottom of a whiskey bottle, and a cycle of very unmagical rough sex with abusive strangers that, for a while at least, seems to be her only destiny.
Like much of Hernandez’s work, there’s light amongst all this darkness, particularly later in this section of Fritz’s story. But it remains a bleak book, with Fritz’s own cheerful optimism one of the few beacons of hope amongst a cast of incidental characters whose main purpose seems only to exploit her.
Hernandez rarely performs below his best and this is no exception, though the difficult subject matter make it best pitched at those familiar with Hernandez and his deeply compelling body of work. Newbies remain better off starting at the beginning, or perhaps sampling one of the adaptations of one of Fitz’s movies (The Troublemakers, perhaps) if you’re looking for a Gilbert Hernandez taster.