Luba, by Gilbert Hernandez
By Gilbert Hernandez
$39.99, 608 pp
It is the last day of May and I am so overwhelmed with self-imposed projects that instead of firing my synapses bounce violently about like exposed wires in an oil spill. Even now, I am trying to give myself time to relax my mind and body by just fucking reading in bed on a Sunday morning and the book I’m trying to finish is for an article that‘s due tomorrow.
I have been reading the immensely entertaining Luba all month, and I have no clue what to say about it.
How could I burden myself to the point that reading Hernandez comics in my boxer briefs could feel like a chore?
I can’t concentrate on sequential narrative. The explicit sex and casual nudity makes me think of my work and my own unfulfilled desires. The fascinating characters make me think of my unrealized fiction. Petra’s gym obsession makes me think about how I ought really to go for a run. The constant references to 90s alternative rock make me think about band practice and songwriting.
My best friend comes clamoring up our front steps and crawls into my bed.
“What are you reading? Ooohhhh!” She loves Palomar, the imaginary South American town in which most of Gilbert's stories about Luba take place.
I place the heavy tome and my glasses on the floor and melt into her nurturing arms.
“You’re like Luba,” I murmur, referring to the comforting chest upon which I rest my spinning head.
This is not entirely true. My best friend’s breasts, large and round and soft though they are, would be dwarfed by the enormous rack sported by the titular character of the book about which I am supposed to be writing.
I relate my despair.
She snorts. “Of course you‘re distracted. You’re reading pornography!”
“Sex isn’t a distraction for me anymore; it’s research. Anyway, Luba isn’t pornography. It’s… it’s a soap opera!”
My friend is confident, vindicated. “Exactly! That’s even hotter! And therefore more distracting!”
This is a girl whose masturbation preference is for softcore porn.
The truth is, you can look up biographical information about Gilbert, and there are reviewers who can tell you a hell of a lot more about his significance to Latino-American culture that I can. So I’m gonna write about what I know. I want to tell my friend that the erotic content of the book is not the point, but then I realize that CarnalNation is a website about sex and culture and if there’s one thing I’m obsessed with more than sex, it’s comics.
Alright, so Gilbert Hernandez’s artistic talent is overshadowed by the work of his brother Jamie, but his writing is considered to be among the greatest in the comic form. The sheer density of character development here is actually pretty damn overwhelming. There is no real dramatic thread to follow. The episodes are not, as Hitchcock said about movies, like life with the boring parts cut out. It is, in brief, a non-chronological gaze into Luba’s extended family, their friends and lovers.
But the sex. Jesus, the sex in this book is unrelenting. So much representation of sexuality in media takes the form of fantasy. The genre of sexual imagery that is intended to arouse exists almost exclusively in, as I recently heard my colleague Madison Young put it, surreal landscapes. In fact, I participate in the performance of that erotic imagination for a living, and I am both fulfilled by that process and believe strongly in the importance of raising fantasy consciousness.
For this reason, the sex in Luba is disorienting for me. It occurs as frequently and without fanfare as it does between humans in real life. People simply do it. Sometimes an encounter furthers relationships between characters or informs the drama, and sometimes it just doesn’t. The contrast between the cartoonish frivolity of the images and the down-to-Earth nature of the sexual content is extraordinary.
A trip to a fetish club is not an indication of depravity per se. A litany of characters of all ages are queer, and while there are some cultural anxieties about their identities, their gayness is not really an issue. Spouses, adulterers, teenagers, mothers and sons, queer couples, strangers fuck in every position under the sun and in every conceivable location. They suck cock, eat pussy, shower, grope, make-out, and lie in post-coital contemplation, sometimes for one jarring panel and sometimes for pages at a time. It’s worth noting that in Luba’s world female sexuality in particular is aggressive and complex.
Luba encompasses everything a turn-of-the-21st-century graphic novel should be: paraliterary or lowbrow tropes of comics, pornography, soap opera, blended seamlessly with a highbrow literary accomplishment of pathos and familial history. It is as profane as it is dense. Almost postmodern in its self-reference (the artistic validity of comic books themselves is called into question again and again, as many characters claimed to learn to read from them), and frequently silly in its blatant cartoonishness, Luba is surreal and bizarre and arousing and gut-wrenching and hilarious. It is as worthy of its hardcover-bound canonization here as it would be collected in a dog-eared newsprint serialized format.