July 3, 2015

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The Amusing Disturbance of Gilbert Hernandez's Blubber #1



Blubber #1
Written and Drawn by Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics

Ever since Gilbert Hernandez left Palomar (for the first time,) he’s been as scary of an artist as he is an exciting one. Blubber #1 is a prime example of both aspects of Hernandez. It’s as far away from Love and Rockets and Palomar as we can get as Hernandez is cartooning for the pure joy of cartooning. Free from any continuing any story or character development, his storytelling veers toward the nonsensical as most of this issue is concerned with the sexual and excremental habits of imaginary creatures.

Hernandez’s mark making has never been stronger as he tracks the lives of his made-up bestiary. A fictional Wild Kingdom, Hernandez allows his imagination to run wild. And if you ever imagined what that may look like, think of Jim Woodring’s Frank and Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit mashed together. And then you only get the briefest ideas of what Blubber #1 is like. This feels like primal Gilbert Hernandez, where his id is reflected in paper and ink. Five of the six stories are mini documentaries about these creatures, most involving how their phalluses are used to violate other animals. The imagery is often violent and shocking because, let’s be honest, sex can be violent and shocking.

But there’s a way that his depictions of these animals make it that much off-putting. The frankness which Hernandez draws all of these acts make us recoil from them even as we stifle a little laugh because we think of sex as such a human act that seeing seeing characters shitting and screwing just points out how physically silly these acts can be. That we can personalize all of these animals that way, seeing stories of violence and mortality in these nonexistent creatures speaks to the depth of Hernandez’s own imagination and drawing skills.

Viva, Las Vegas!
The one piece in this story that features actual characters and narrative development “Las Vegas Lace” feels like Hernandez’s attempt to do a Steven Soderbergh-like Ocean’s Eleven story filtered through Hernandez’s world view. Meaning it ends up being nothing like a Soderbergh film or any version of Ocean’s Eleven. Hernandez is channeling his underground comics soul here in a comic where things like plot and narrative are a distant second or third concern behind his cartooning.

Hernandez draws so much violence and bodily functions in this comic. Screwing and pooping. Pooping and screwing. It would almost be too much if his cartooning wasn’t so exquisite and his creature designs so delightful in their depravity. And almost none of the screwing or pooping is lewd or perverse. Under his pen, it’s all natural (even if it’s a completely imaginary nature.) Of course, a pipe isn’t always just a pipe and Hernandez is one of the modern cartoonists who is most interested in all kinds of sex. We’ve seen this is everything from Love and Rockets to Birdland. Ultimately, Blubber #1 is a funny animals comic where the final punchline is that animals have penises and will stick them almost anywhere.

Let’s focus on that repeated punchline for a moment. While it’s not sexual violence as we understand it in modern context, there is a lot of violence in this comic and it involves sexual organs. There’s penetration and violation, repeatedly. But Hernandez frames these stories as a nature documentary, as if we might stumble upon these creatures and images in the pages of National Geographic. His approach to most of the narrative is clinical and distant.  And maybe it’s because all of this is made up and not real that makes it a bit more acceptable and so much more disturbing. Hernandez gets to be so fascinating because he doesn’t shy away from this kind of stuff. On the one hand, the lines that he lays on each page look so simple but combine to make such wonderfully complex images. But how much do you really want to look at an image of a small creature sticking his penis into another creature’s eye socket. Yeah, it’s that kind of book.