Loverboys, by Gilbert Hernandez.
By Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez made his mark early in the alternative comics market of the 1980s with his stories centering around Palomar - a fictional village located somewhere in Latin America. For over a decade, he weaved a complex tapestry of melancholic tales about small town love and intrigue using Palomar’s unconventional inhabitants. Hernandez has more recently moved away from these longform stories to shorter, more self-contained comics. But Loverboys will feel familiar to fans of Palomar. There’s the small town setting. A varied ensemble of individuals linked to each other by who they slept with, or who they want to sleep with. Unspoken rivalries bubbling beneath the surface. Voluptuous feminine figures with a mysterious past. An enigmatic supernatural element haunting his cast and informing their actions. All this is drawn in his signature cartooning style. But at barely eighty pages, Hernandez has distilled these components down to their bare essentials. The result is a story that tamps down on its more flamboyant soap opera aspects to exhibit greater emotional restraint. Not that Hernandez isn’t already an intelligent storyteller, but this narrative seems slightly more calculated.

The restraint is somewhat surprising given that the book’s front cover captures two of its principal characters in an intimate moment. But much of the sexual activity takes place off panel. And there’s even less outright violence. So much of the storytelling in Loverboys is economical. Hernandez’s art is perhaps even more starkly minimalist, if that’s even possible. His traditional page layouts, simple perspective, and uncluttered panel compositions function as an simple stage for his cast, which are always designed to be visually eclectic. Actually, this is a huge cast for such a comparatively short comic, so not all of them can receive equal attention. But the reader can easily spot several of them in the background either casually observing or surreptitiously eavesdropping on the foregrounded characters. This all serves to reinforce the gossipy nature of a tiny community.

Loverboys, by Gilbert Hernandez.

The minimalist visuals are complemented by the book’s spare dialogue. With the exception of the establishing pages used to introduce the fictional setting of Lágrimas, there’s very little exposition to describe the actions of the cast. Almost nothing is revealed of the inner lives of the minor characters. But the observant reader will notice some of them going through their own individual arcs. Clues are found in their actions, facial expressions, and offhand remarks. Even information about the central characters is divulged gradually: one crucial detail which helps to illuminate their motivations is delivered in a casual aside sometime past the halfway point.

At the heart of the story is the May-December romance of young lothario Rocky and his former substitute teacher Mrs. Paz, and the effect this has on Rocky’s little sister Daniela, who happens to be Mrs. Paz’s current student. The relationship and its eventual dissolution isn’t in itself all that remarkable. What is compelling is how Hernandez is able to map how it creates ripples throughout Lágrimas. As the town’s resident pretty boy, Rocky’s romantic interest in the elderly Mrs. Paz sparks a considerable amount of interest. And as their relationship begins to flounder, Mrs. Paz is suddenly eyed by a random collection of singles - from the unlovable loser who’s never dated anyone, another would-be womanizer, a pair of creepy twins, to even a lonely schoolgirl. Through separate interactions with each of them, some of them sexual, Mrs. Paz in turn either embarrasses, humiliates, or enables them. Hernandez handles these scenes with his characteristic mix of empathy for his cast’s frailties while delighting (even sometimes indulging) in human sensual pleasures. Only this time his approach is a little more compressed.

Loverboys may not contain the narrative intricacy, sustained world building, or emotional highs of his earlier work. That’s not likely. But there’s something to be said when a talent like Gilbert Hernandez tackles new formats. If this is a lesser work, it’s still more accomplished than most  comics being currently published. Or to quote one of the characters in the book, “I think it’s beautiful.”

Loverboys, by Gilbert Hernandez.