[Note: This is a blog interlude pending the publication of Matthias Wivel's discussion of Charles Hatfield's Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature]
Of the comics which emerged through the independant press during the 80s, few comics have acquired as high a reputation as Gilbert Hernandez’s Human Diastrophism. The recent roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature has provided me with an excuse to revisit this comic after a space of some 20 years. This was prompted by Noah’s disappreciation of the second last page from that story which is produced below with Noah’s commentary following:
“…the page reveals that the character Tonantzin has set herself on fire as an act of political protest. We learn about this essentially second hand, as Cathy and a white photographer, Howard Miller, see the act on TV. Cathy is really upset; Howard offers some off-the-cuff wisdom about the horribleness of the world before asking Cathy to look at his photographs.
As I said, Charles [Hatfield] really feels this page is insightful. I found it just unbelievably clumsy and trite; oppression porn executed in a shockingly half-assed manner. “The pain…is like that…are they all crazy, or..or what…?” And yes, alas, the ellipses aren’t mine. And then there’s the oh-so-clever moment when she name-drops The New Republic — ooooh, the irony! They’re liberal and engaged, yet, they don’t know what life really means!
Of course, to some extent they’re supposed to be spouting clichés; Miller’s “I truly believe that it takes real love to want to go that far in hopes of making some kind of serious change for the better — however modest the change” is supposed to reveal his callous idiocy, since he doesn’t mean anything he says. But the problem is, the revelation that he’s a callous idiot…is also a cliché. White Americans as inauthentic doofuses exist to demonstrate the authentic truth of the pain of the poor and marginalized. The entirely ritualized climax (down to the stereotypical expressions of horror on the faces of the bystanders) is built around the insistence that you, the reader, understand the ugly truth that the privileged idiots like Miller only think they know.
Miller’s a photojournalist, so Hernandez is also being self-reflexive here, calling into question his own artistic practice of packaging horror. But…that’s a cliché too! The marginal artist speaking for his community, torn between representing and exploitation — that’s a standard part of the standard package of these kinds of narratives. The pain of witnessing for a wider audience is part of the pain of the marginalized, the fascinating consumable wound.
When I see something like this pulled out of the book as an exemplary moment, it makes me feel strongly that I don’t want anything more to do with it. “When I saw some of the pictures you’ve taken of monks doing that in whatever country, I just sort of…I mean, it was terrible and everything, but…it was just this girl, Howard, just….” I’m sorry, but that is crap in the service of utterly bone-headed exploitation of one’s own ethnic identity. It’s tired, it’s poorly done, and it’s embarrassing for everybody associated with it.”
Noah has been accused of commenting on this page without reading the entirety of Human Diastrophism, but I prefer to examine the fruits of his critique rather than the methods by which it was achieved. In so doing, it must be said that his comments hold water. This is undoubtedly one of the weakest pages (if not the weakest) in Gilbert Hernandez’s story.
There is nothing new in this practice of commenting on the half-read. In his popular book on the sociology, art, and philosophy of reading (How to talk about books you haven’t read), Pierre Bayard gives us the example of Paul Valéry who, after having read only selected pages from À la recherche du temps perdu, managed an entire obituary for Proust and a critique of his book. Bayard explains:
Shrewdly, Valéry explains that the value of Proust’s work lies in its remarkable ability to be opened at random to any page: “The interest of the work lies in each fragment. We can open the book wherever we choose; its vitality does not depend on what went before, on a sort of acquired illusion; it depends on what might be called the active properties of the very tissue of the text.” Valéry’s stroke of genius lies in showing that his method of non-reading is actually necessitated by the author, and that abstaining from reading Proust’s work is the greatest compliment he can give him.
This was not an isolated case as far as Valéry was concerned. Such an approach to criticism is difficult, very specific in its intentions, open to its own set of problems but otherwise completely viable in the hands of a master. It is possible to see the virtues and faults in a single page of comic art without relating them to the whole.
Having said this, it should also be noted that the fullness of the observations derived from such an approach may be limited since Hernandez’s tale is filled with recurrent images reinforcing our sense of connection, deepening and enriching the text. The third page of Human Diastrophism is an example of this and perfectly reflects how a single page only tentatively reveals its secrets.
The image of a body floating in the river is one which is recapitulated at various points in Hernandez’s tale. Some of these bodies have long expired…
… while others lie at the edge of life.
[One of Tomaso's victims discovered by Khamo; a greeting from the river Styx and a premonition of his eventual fate]
The open mouthed grimace of the corpse reflects the howling monkeys of the title page…
…and their systematic pummeling throughout Hernandez’s tale…
…a reflection of the weathering down of the residents of Palomar and the benevolent god which wraps Guadalupe in his arms (see first image above). These monkeys reveal truth, forestall madness and are befriended by some of the most innocent inhabitants of Palomar (Luba’s daughters Doralis and Casimira).
Their destruction echoes the cloud of ash which envelops the final panel of Hernandez’s tale.
In the same way, what an isolated reading of the penultimate page from Human Diastrophism won’t tell the reader is how Gilbert Hernandez sets up his climax (one of the most moving for a generation of readers) with a flurry of misdirection. Chelo’s accidental shooting of Casimira, a moment of exceptional drama, is defused in short order by the depiction of her cheerful face just 3 pages after the fact.
The serial killer, Tomaso, who had appeared to be on the cusp of escape and more murders is apprehended and is now in jail. Luba seems to be returning to a kind of balance in her life and may soon be elected mayor (the trigger here being Chelo’s guilt at shooting her daughter). Even Tonantzin seems to have returned to a level of sanity and is leaving for the capital with her lover, Khamo. The only inkling of the tragedy that is to follow is her sudden change in expression as she travels away from Palomar just 5 pages before her death, a death which will leave her lover horrendously scarred in a testament to his love and hubris.
These are the fractures which give Hernandez’s story its title; the faults cracking and shifting before a kind of stability is achieved; a quiet which only precedes even more disruptions and tragedy. The moment which Noah has commented on above is not an ending but a continuation of this churning of human life.
Similarly, a bibliomanaical approach would lead one to reflect on the entire history of this story’s presentation: the spaces where the story was held on hold for months during serialization, the stories which were chosen to precede the main text which differ between the paperback compilations and the hardcover Palomar collection, and the history of the orientation of its pages (and the impact of this) which differs between publications.
Yet none of this serves to negate the accuracy of Noah’s critique.
Where Hatfield sees a stirring and “brutal coda” which resonates not only with “Humberto’s  earlier abdication of responsibility” but also Susan Sontag’s reference to photography as “a way of refusing as well as certifying experience”, Noah can see only “clumsiness” and “cliché”. Where Valéry once took “refuge in the favorable (and, more important, convergent) assesments of André Gide and Léon Daudet” (regarding Proust), Noah uses Hatfield’s close reading of the full text and the page in question to aid his analysis. It may be that it is Noah’s distance from the text, his failure in this respect to succumb to the power of Hernandez’s narrative staging which has allowed him to see quite clearly Hernandez’s indiscretions here.
The feelings expressed on the penultimate page of Human Diastrophism are earnest but clumsily delivered compared to almost everything that has preceded it. Apart from its tired ideology, it is clear where the central problem lies in this page: its narrative didacticism. This is a technique which Gilbert Hernandez opted for in his earliest stories (including the first story in Heartbreak Soup) and it is a type of storytelling that he has almost completely abandoned over the last decade. What this page displays is a ponderous attempt to press and direct an emotional response from his readers with a list of rhetorical question and their accompanying answers:
“Why does a person do something that extreme to herself…the pain…is life that…are they all crazy, or..or, what..?” and “Public suicide sounds pretty nuts to me!”
The half-engaged white liberal denies the madness of a such an act suggesting that it comes from a place of deep love emanating from pain, something which (judging from his final reaction) he has no hope ever experiencing. In a sense, this is where the artist makes his stand with his creation and, as Noah suggest, directs some guilt towards himself. It is notable that the artist has almost never returned to this style of narrative. It suggest a moment of weakness tied, perhaps, to a strong emotional connection to what he was depicting; a lapse in faith in his own abilities as a storyteller. Hernandez’s love for spaces in his narrative and spaces in meaning temporarily abandon him in the closing pages of this famous work.
The damage is considerable but not total. I am reminded of that incongruous moment towards the close of The 7th Victim where a sermon is delivered to a group of Satanists and the Lord’s Prayer recommended to them. Undoubtedly a nod to clarity and an affirmation of the superiority of the Christian faith (perhaps preempting the censors), this cringeworthy moment does not, thankfully, obscure everything which has gone on before. The same may be said of Hernandez’s story. A rejection of the whole because of a single page may be premature in this instance but a level headed and ultimately negative assessment of the inherent qualities of that page is not.
 An artist who upon witnessing one of Tomaso’s murders fails to come forward with his identity.
Update by Noah: The entire roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s book is here