The Problem of Comics Temporality, Part Two: Gilbert Hernandez

Here is a provocative question: is it possible to have an ellipse in comicbook storytelling?  On the one hand, every transition from one discrete or adjoining panel to another is potentially elliptical, leaving out an immeasurable amount of narrative time or information.  This is the problem again of defining or understanding the gutter.  But on the other hand, it seems natural, or at least conventional, for visual perception and individual logic to attempt to bridge these gaps — often using the simplest solution available.  This is true in everyday perception as it is in artistic consumption.  When we see a line broken, we assume that it continues in a straight path past our gaze; when we see a building from one side, we assume that shape concludes in a regular pattern in the side which we cannot see, etc.  The consequence is that while every transition in comic narration is potentially elliptical, only the more interesting artists exploit this inherent uncertainty of the page and its layout.

Certainly, if there is one comicbook that deserves to be called elliptical, then it would be Gilbert Hernandez’s masterpiece Poison River.  Midway through this often confusing book, the series protagonist, Luba, remarks to her friend, “the less people know about other people, the happier our lives will be” (87).  This logic infects the entire structure of the book as the reader is given brief fragments that flash between two generations and only eventual coalesce into a larger story — but not entirely so.

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Take an example from early in the first chapter of the story.  After a rather typical decoupage of images depicting Luba’s father bringing a fellow worker home for dinner, the pacing suddenly shifts in the penultimate panel (7).  With no indication of time or circumstance passed, the last panel depicts the the visitor abruptly leaving after what appears to have been an argument.  An elliptical hole is exposed at an odd place in the sequence — just before its end — and at a peculiar graphical place — near the end of the page itself.  Outside of what this jarring ellipse “says” about the narrative or characters (is it some reflection of the visitor’s reaction to Maria?), this moment is an indication of just the technique that will guide the narrative through the remainder of the story, and arguably through much of Hernandez’s work.

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On the subsequent page (8), Hernandez switches into the high density cutting, with little indication of relative time passed, that will dominate the book.  Here the author covers five distinct snippets of space-time over the course of only eight panels.

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(colors distinguish, a more or less strong temporal-spatial continuity)

And finally at the top of the next page, the author finds a way to diegetically explain his strategy, but spilling Maria’s memory book all over the floor (9).  The result is a collage of images (“photographs”) flattening out time across a single panel and superimposed over the story’s present tense.  This is how Hernandez will subsequently construct Luba’s and her mother Maria’s story: in brief and almost photographic bits, scattered with little care given to the traditional rules of chronology or cause-and-effect.

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Frankly, all of Hernandez’s stories, not just Poison River, are told in the manner.  They are all vectors that emanate to and from his characters’ mythical homeland, Palomar; but they are also spirals moving back and forth in time, filling in gaps and leaving even more unexplored.  Many comicbook narratives accumulate through time; this is the whole idea behind this sequential numbers registered on their front covers, but Hernandez’s stories accumulate in an entirely different way.  For example, Poison River’s narrative folds back on itself as nearly halfway through, as the story returns to the near beginning to re-tell Luba’s marriage to Peter, but on the second occurrence, explaining more about the motivations behind Peter’s devotion.  And as the narrative plays out events recur and repeat, indicating an eternal sameness and a more subtle eternal difference to events:  Peter steals Maria from his father – then he steals Isobel from this father; Luba’s aunt has a stroke and can’t talk – then Peter has a stroke and can’t talk; rival gangs slaughter each other in an violent shoot-out – then the hoods resort themselves under two new leaders poised to slaughter each other once again.  Things don’t progress; they fill in and repeat.

Inevitable recursion suits the peculiarities of Hernandez’s compulsive characters many of whom attempt to squash time to return to the source of their personal obsessions.  But there is a always a difference, always change.  For example, consider Peter’s sexual obsession with women’s stomachs, which complicates his relationship with his young bride Luba.  We see the genesis of this preoccupation with his attachment to Maria and her talent for crushing walnuts with her stomach.  But it goes even deeper.  Later we see another flashback of a child Peter’s sexual reaction to a carnival belly dancer, which serves as yet another instance and possible explanation.  However, this later memory is what Freud would call a screen memory – a place holder held up as a an origin, but really just another symptom of an absent clause.  It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to notice all the in uetro and infant imagery — at one point Peter imagines himself as a suckling baby attached to Maria — to derive Oedipal, but ultimately un-articulated motivations.  The larger point is that time is structured around fixation, fixations that attempt to squash time, but are always subject to something imperfect, something missing, something changed.  Moreover, the characters’ and Hernandez’s own fixations (which are mostly apparent!) inevitably neglect absent causes and even absent consequences.  Poison River itself begins decidedly after several important events, elliptically eliding Luba’s illegitimate conception and birth, and never returns to these moments despite the narrative’s flux back and forth through the past and present.  And the narrative never reveals several important later details, most prominently whether or not Joselito, Luba’s first child died in childbirth or was stolen (a story that, to my knowledge, has never been entirely addressed in Hernandez’s subsequent work with the character).

Ultimately, Hernandez’s thematic and textual use of compulsion helps to decode the author’s insistent use of the ellipse and elliptical decoupage.  The point of compulsion is to bring the past in accord with the present and the future – to make time a band of seamless-ness, but the ellipse, always lurking in-between panels, gives disruption.  The ellipse, largely disavowed in traditional comic narration, in Hernandez, underscores the gap, the interval, and change itself in events – not change in the simplistic narrative obstacle / overcoming obstacle stories typical to traditional comics, but change as frustration.

Even further, Hernandez’s preoccupation with the gap between images, the irreconcilable intervals between stories, and the work of readers to assemble these pieces puts the author in deep conversation with a modern philosopher with much to say about our sense of time and space.  Gilles Deleuze, in his work on cinema, called the brain itself nothing more than interval reconciling the past with the future on the fulcrum of perception.  In his theories, Deleuze was discounting previous notions of consciousness, which posited it as an internal image, and movement, which understood it simply as space traveled.  Both were what the philosopher called subtractive theories in that individual perception and notions of space, whittle the world and our experience of it in artificial ways.  Instead, Deleuze suggested that consciousness works more through what he called movement-images which relate to constant change and motion moving back and forth from the particular to the whole, from past to future.  Anecdotally, I think that best way to understand this is to come to terms with the fact that all life / existence is constantly changing — how can we be just ourselves if our cells are constantly changing and replenishing themselves — we are better understood as on-going process, intervals on the intersection of past and future, or action and reaction.

Deleuze found this exact same process going on in the cinema.  Think of seeing a movie: we don’t just see individual frames because it is built of of strings of sets and images, and we don’t experience images as a discrete space, because there is always the presence of offscreen space and time stretching out in all directions to infinity.  The philosopher uses the loaded term montage to refer to the act of putting these incremental image-bits together in a way that accentuates alternatively the a-centered and centered nature of the universe.

I believe that Hernandez’s unique use of the comic form that foregrounds the disavowed ellipse constitutes a particular consciousness machine that foregrounds the interval to elicit a transgenerational, transnational, and often transgender mentality.

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