I've been visiting Palomar all my adult life, and the town still holds secrets for me.
Gilbert Hernandez's "Palomar" stories are very much about family and community, connection and societal connection, but they're also freeflowing and unpredictable. You never quite know what to expect in a Gilbert Hernandez comic, but you generally know that if it's set in Palomar, you can expect to spend time with his characters that you know and love.
The Children of Palomar collects five stories created by Gilbert in 2006 and 2007. All the stories take place in Hernandez's emblematic small town and contain the same characters but all are set in different times. That's a favorite artistic method of Gilbert's and one that really rewards readers who know the series well.
This book fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge of the backstory of Palomar. In the first story, for instance, we first meet Tonatzin and Diana, young girls orphaned at the edge of the town and desperate for food. I've always wondered why Tonatzin seemed a bit different from all the other young characters in Palomar; this story provides a wonderful stage-setting for that, all presented in Gilbert's typically empathetic art style.
But Hernandez presents this story in a really fascinating way: he stages the tale like something out of a 1950s DC comics sci-fi comic with a healthy mix of family and community incorporated into the story.
I love how the center panel shows Tonatzin and Diana just as invisible streaks flying across the page, where the important thing isn't that they're mindbogglingly fast (I think realistically the kids aren't as fast as they appear on the page) but that they're seen as fast – and maybe more importantly, seen as different from the others who live in the small town. In the rest of the page, especially the expansive final panel, readers see all the people of Palomar gathered together to try to figure out what's going on.
Hernandez returns again and again to the style of panel he uses as the final scene here – a medium shot in which we see several citizens of Palomar standing around, being themselves in relation to their fellow townspeople. The strange is juxtaposed against the familiar.
That same trope is repeated several pages later. The whole town has turned out to see the girls, Sherriff Chelo symbolically at the center with her townsfolk all around her while Pipo walks back hand-in-hand with the impossibly weird children. The strange is rendered familiar because the family is all around.
Another story in this book revolves around the story of the children of Palomar discovering a very odd event on the other side of a giant ravine that appears to be a bottomless pit. The idea of a bottomless pit at the border of a very insular town has an obvious symbolic meaning, but it's rendered powerful through Hernandez's powerful and assured used of blacks and proportions to create mood.
The children in these pages are dwarfed by their environment, which seems vast and uncaring – but no less harsh than the bizarre encounter that they have in the subsequent few pages. Again Chelo is at the center of the story, this time as the woman strong enough to overcome the extremely harsh landscape in which she lives. The importance of the community is paramount with her. The children of Palomar must be saved, no matter the physical beating that she has to go through to save them. That's her job. She's the sheriff. She doesn't complain (much).
Another story in this book is very specifically tied to the idea of family and community, with a strange mystical side to it as well. Tonatzin, now a beautiful, curvaceous teenager, is haunted by a weird baby that taunts her for her lack of fertility.
Again the townspeople are all around Tonantzin as she has her peculiar encounter, and now a much older Chelo is there as the events happen. No matter how odd Palomar becomes, the familiar and safe is always nearby. Somebody always has an answer. Somebody can always help. somebody can always reassure you in Palomar no matter how strange the moment may be.
I love this sweet and emotionally haunting scene with Luba, Pipo and Chelo at a swimming hole – Tonatzin's ambiguous expression in the final panel is absolutely wonderful.
She's still an outsider compared with these adult women, but who knows how long she'll literally be on the outside looking in, before she becomes a respected adult in Palomar?
In the final story in this collection, the people of Palomar are much older, and we see the people of Palomar as time has moved on in their lives. Chelo is beaten badly by some strange creatures, but inevitably the people of Palomar are there to show their concern for her. Of course the townspeople all come out to help their beloved sheriff, but just as importantly, the people of Palomar simply come together – as they have all their lives – when things are good, things are bad or weird or even when it's just an ordinary day.
Palomar is a place where people are connected: connected to each other, connected to their environment, connected to their town. Palomar is a place of family – but not a clichéd idea of family in the sense of a basic American nuclear family. Instead, family is everywhere. The village dominates peoples' lives in The Children of Palomar, and that connection helps to manage all kinds of pain.
Though it's a slim book, The Children of Palomar is rich in ideas and smart storytelling. As usual, Gilbert Herandez delivers an outstanding collection of stories.