A Little Heartbreak Soup for the Soul: A story about a young man’s love affair with comic books

“Today, comics is one of the very few forms of mass communication in which individual voices still have a chance to be heard.”

Scott McCloud

I’m pretty sure I was about 13 years old, the day I stopped at a newsstand to purposely buy a comic book for the first time. I had read a comic or two before that, but they had always been just handed over to me. I would read them, think that the pictures were kinda cool, and then toss them in the garbage without giving it a second thought. Before that day, comic books just didn’t seem as interesting as the cartoons I watched, or the video games I played. And those things took up enough of my time as it was. Comic books were nothing more than a cool looking curiosity. Then one day I’m making my way towards the Q66 bus stop in Flushing Queens, when I saw a newsstand that had spinning rack full of brightly colored comic books. I don’t know what compelled me to stop and check out those comics. Perhaps it was the vibrantly kinetic illustrations that were plastered on the covers that lured me in like a kitten being drawn to a laser light. Whatever it was, it pulled me in and before I knew it I was turning the rack, and pulling out a handful of comics that caught my eye. I walked over to the attendant, handed to him 5 comics and a $10 bill. He placed the comics in a brown paper bag, handed the bag back to me, along with my change, and I set a course for home. Not yet realizing that I had just discovered what would be one of my great loves.

English: Young woman reading a comic book at A...
English: Young woman reading a comic book at Alternative Press Expo 2010, organized at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco, California, by Comic-Con International on Oct. 16-17, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t get a chance to read the comic books on the bus as I had intended. The Q66 was jam-packed with students from Flushing High School, and it was standing room only. It wasn’t until I got back to our apartment, and I got to throw my gear in my room, that I got a chance to look through the comics that I had purchased. I had picked up Uncanny X-Men #292, Classic X-Men # 77, Spawn # 4, and two other comic books that apparently left no lasting impression on me. I laid there on my bed and read through them all in a matter of a few short minutes. I had no idea what was going on. I had no discernible clue who these characters were, or what was their story, and why they all looked so angry the entire way through the book. But something about it called my attention. At that age, being on the cusp of manhood, but still attracted to childish things, I was drawn to it. The characters were larger than life, god like being. They lived in an angry, dark world, similar to the one I lived in. But unlike my world, these characters had powers that allowed them to fight the injustices that they witnessed. They suffered, and went through great loss, but they persevered and fought for noble causes. It didn’t seem childish to me. Even with all the spandex, and brightly colored costumes that look absolutely ridiculous in real life. Those costumes, for some strange reason that I quite couldn’t fathom, added to the mystic of it all. I wanted more.

I would pick up more comics in the coming months. The X-Men cartoon debuted shortly there after. And I found myself spending more and more of my time revisiting the world these characters lived in. Eventually it got to the point when every Tuesday I would spend every single cent I could get my grubby little hands on at the comic book shop on Main St., and walk out with a nice big stack of comics. It had become my favorite form of escape. As the world I lived in became more chaotic and irrational. I found great comfort immersing myself in a world that seem to have a very basic set of rules. There was evil in the world. There was also good. The evil would try to engulf it all. But good would stand its ground, and at some point, when everything seem to be at it’s darkest, good would find a way to prevail. Then the song and dance would begin anew. I could get that. I liked that. It was simple, and neat, and much more comprehensible that the shades of gray world that I lived in. Where there didn’t seem to be good or evil, just these meandering malaise of indifference. Those comic books kept me sane, as things at home got darker and and more uncertain.

But you can only keep darkness out of you heart for so long. Especially when you are being shrouded by it. As my teenage years wore on, and the scars started mounting, the simplistic, good vs evil, morality plays no longer could hold my interest. At the time I felt I understood the underlying truth to everything. That the darkness, always wins out. By the time I had reached my late teens I had all but stopped reading comic book. Part of it was that now they just seemed bloated and corny. Characters sacrificed themselves, only to return a few months down the line. Slightly altered, perhaps darker. It no longer spoke to me.

***********************

A few years passed. I met a girl. Moved to Chicago. Got my education on. I wasn’t feeling as hopeless as I had once felt. I started feeling a little nostalgic for the comic books I had read during my teen years. I was getting curious as to what fate had befallen on some of my favorite characters. So I would look them up from time to time. It seemed something horrible had happened to so many of the characters I admired. They were all battered and scarred, just like myself. I didn’t feel the need to look into the mirror every time I read a comic book, so I never would never get myself to pick them up permanently. Just once in a blue.  To satisfy my lingering curiosity. But the love for the medium was still there.

Maus
Maus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wanted to read comics, but my taste had matured, and the comic of my youth wouldn’t cut it. I needed something a bit more real. Something more sophisticated. It was then that I started discovering books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. These comics weren’t a simple morality play. These comics were making social commentary about the world that I lived in. These comics were set in a different universe, but somehow they were grounded in such a manner that they mirrored our world in ways that I hadn’t ever thought possible. The men who wrote these great books had something to say and they used the comic book medium to say it. It was a revelation.

Cover of "Blankets"
Cover of Blankets

I wanted to find more comic like these. So I found other books that had previously escaped my notice. Stuff like Will Eisner’s A Contract with God. Or Craig Thompson’s Blankets. These books spoke to me. It was around this time that I discovered the works of two brothers. Men who are pioneers of sorts. Two men that wrote and illustrated, some of the greatest works ever in the genera. Jaime and Gilberto Hernandez. Los Bros Hernandez.

The comic book industry has a very big elephant in the room, that is pointed out time and time again, but nobody ever really bothers to really address it in a serious way. That is the lack of female and minority representation in the medium. I’ve read thousands of comic books in my day, and yet there has been only a handful of times that I ever read about a character, or saw one, that looked like me. That it was someone of color. I can only name you one Puerto Rican character that I ever remember reading about. Her name was Dr. Cecilia Reyes. She was an X-men. A very reluctant one. And one that I only saw in maybe a handful of issues. I don’t recall ever reading about a Mexican character; and the few black characters that I saw had their origins in the blaxploitation period of the 1970’s. And females, well, females, where nothing more then half naked, roided freaks, who went into battle posing like coked out models on a Paris runway. As much as I loved comics, the industry itself it seemed didn’t really care much for me. Or anyone who wasn’t Caucasian and male. But Jaime’s and Gilberto’s works changed all that for me.

Love and Rockets #16 by Gilbert and Jaime Hern...
Love and Rockets #16 by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, 1985, Fantagraphics Books. Cover illustration by Gilbert Hernández depicting two of his major Palomar characters, Heraclio and Carmen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their comic book, Love and Rockets opened my eyes. Set in post punk L.A during the early 80’s, Love and Rockets featured Margarita Luisa “Maggie” Chascarrillo and Esperanza “Hopey” Leticia Glass. Two bad ass Chicanas, that worked on cars, played in punk bands, and who most of all tried to make sense of the brutal, and yet vibrant world that they lived in. A world very much like my own. There were black characters, brown characters, white characters, lesbian, straight, mentally ill, gang-bangers, rockers, lovers, haters, mad-men, and saints. Love and Rockets had all these diverse characters mingling, arguing, and living side by side, not in peaceful harmony, but with passion and tension, like people do in any urban sprawl. I knew this world. I lived in it. I thought it couldn’t get better than this. Thankfully I was wrong. Because it was then that I picked up Gilberto’s masterful collection of Palomar.

Set in a small, undisclosed Latin country, the town of Palomar, was a place that was neither here nor there. It existed almost in the ether. It was a town that somehow lived in both modern times yet was stuck in a much older one. The town of Palomar was populated by some of the most colorful and moving being that I have ever read about. And they all gravitated around the towns Matriarch, a big breasted, bow legged woman, that walked around with a hammer, by the name of Luba. Palomar was a place that would have been easily recognized by my parents, or my grandparents, or anyone that had ever spent time in a Latin American country, during simpler, less wired times. It was a place where the veil between the world of the living and the dead was at it’s thinnest. A land where death was permanent, but the ghost of the past visited frequently. It was both absurd and poignant. It was above all, a town where the broken hearted could find comfort. They even had a special soup for those that suffered from sickness of a broken heart. It was called “La Sopa de Gran Pena”, or Heartbreak Soup. The stories from Palomar were not simple comic stories. They were the greatest example of comic books unrealized potential. It was pure illustrated literature. And it is one of the finest examples of magical realism’s that you will ever encounter.

I am grateful to whatever it was that pushed me to pick up that small stack of comic books at the newsstand that day. It inspired my love of art. My appreciation for writing. It filled my head with big ideas, and transported me to some of the more magical places that anyone could have dreamed off. There is more to the medium than just super heroes. I just wish the industry as a whole could understand that. I don’t know if I will ever fulfill my once vibrant dreams of writing my own graphic novels. There is so much uncertainty about the future, and I’m not entirely sure in which direction my life will be taking over the course of the next few years. But if I ever do manage to come up with something, I hope that it will be something that will bring comfort to the restless souls who yearn for something that they can recognize themselves in. Just like some of these works did for me.

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