The serial narratives by the duo known as “Los Bros,” Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, have a better claim to the status of “art” than most of the works that get labeled "art-comics." I have to specify, though, that this is the type of art I call “the art of thematic realism,” a.k.a “play for work’s sake.” In this argument I cited Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST as a narrative primarily defined by work, but with many imaginative elements of play that gave it depth and balance. Today I'd say that the elements of play supplied the story with an underthought that served as a counterpoint to Faulkner’s overthought; i.e. his “serious theme.”
Not all of Gilbert Hernandez’s stories about Palomar—a small Mexican town inhabited by a host of bizarre, often tragicomic characters—are equally meritorious. However, the two-part story “Duck Feet”—originally serialized in two issues of the LOVE AND ROCKETS magazine—was widely hailed as an exemplary work, even by critics who had never worked for Hernandez’s publisher Fantagraphics.
For a story whose title references supernatural folklore—the widely distributed idea that magical beings, particularly witches, have animal-feet instead of human appendages—“Duck Feet” begins in a thoroughly mundane manner. Chelo, sheriff of Palomar, rousts the local whorehouse in search of fugitive Roberto, who has recently killed his irritating grandfather. In three short pages Roberto clubs Chelo and flees to the rooftops of Palomar (a trope that seems borrowed from big-city chases, where it makes much more sense than in a small town). As a result of Chelo’s pursuit, Roberto falls to his death, but an odd detail intrudes: he dies with his head turned completely around.
Thus the story begins with violence perpetrated in defense of the community, and Roberto’s death has future consequences for Chelo and other characters, though it’s not the literal source of the ORESTES-like contagion that soon dominates Palomar. Though many of Hernandez’s regular characters make appearances in the story, the narrative revolves principally around three characters: Sheriff Chelo, local “loose girl” Tonantzin, and Guadalupe, the grade-school daughter of Luba. Luba herself, who's often a main character in the Palomar stories, is conspicuously sidelined in a sitcom-like situation worthy of Lucille Ball (I LOVE LUBA?). This places the narrative’s focus more upon Guadalupe as she tries to deal with situations brought on by irresponsible children and adults alike.
Shortly after the death of Roberto, a dark-clad woman enters Palomar. Some of the local kids believe that she’s a *bruja,* whose inhuman nature can be disclosed if one gets a look at her pedal extremities, her "duck feet." The unnamed woman’s feet are never seen, though when she has her feet washed by Chelo—who formerly held the occupation of a *banadora,* or professional body-washer—Chelo shows no unusual reaction to what she sees. The “duck feet” rumor, however, inspires one of the kids to steal a pouch set aside by the alleged bruja. The pouch contains a skull-- apparently that of a human baby, though one of the kids isn't entirely sure about that identification. The first chapter ends as the old woman misses her property and turns her evil eye upon Chelo.
At the beginning of Part Two, Chelo has fallen ill, as have various other citizens of Palomar, as the bruja—whose nature is no longer seriously in doubt—wanders the streets wailing for the skull of “mi hijo.” Thus does Hernandez creatively interbreed the widespread cultural trope of the contagion-bringer with that of the specifically Hispanic folktale of La Llorona, the Wailing Ghost. That said, the contagion is erratic in its effects. Guadalupe gets the sickness, even though she was only a witness when one of her play-mates stole the skull. The illness does not strike Tonantzin, and though she and Chelo have an adversarial relationship—the sheriff frequently chastising the young hottie for wearing revealing garments—Chelo deputizes the leggy beauty, which makes for some nice comic byplay.
I won’t detail all of the humorous and/ or horrific incidents that transpire while the bruja’s spectre haunts Palomar, but as noted before, Roberto’s death has consequences, inspiring his brother Gerlado to seek vengeance on Chelo. Guadalupe’s illness causes her to have weird fantasies about her mother, suggesting that Luba has something of a witchy aspect. Possibly Hernandez had this similarity in mind when he made Luba the inadvertent means by which the bruja gets back her prized skull.
If I should boil down the underthought of “Duck Feet” to an ersatz theme-statement, it might be to say that the community’s effort to remain cohesive by violence ends up bringing it close to total dissolution. Palomar is spared the abyss, though, because once the bruja gets back her baby's skull, the contagion simply disappears and she takes her leave. The only permanent result of the witch’s visit, oddly, is that happy-go-lucky Tonantzin loses an innocence not connected with her sexuality. Tonantzin becomes politically radicalized by her contact with the cop-hating revolutionary Geraldo—an event which plants the seed for a future plotline of a tragic nature.
If the process of contagion-by-violence is the story’s underthought, what is the overthought? “Duck Feet” is not a political story, but other stories by Hernandez focus explicitly on his characters’ political beliefs. Hernandez plays it for laughs when Tonantzin fantasizes about shooting down invading U.S. soldiers. Yet her later rant against having her destiny controlled by “Libya and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R” captures a strong sense as to how denizens of the Third World feel about the cold-blooded machinations of the Great Powers.
Gilbert Hernandez’s work as a whole may not be strongest in terms of its political commentary. However, I credit him with finding an artistically resonant way of seeing political belief within the spectrum of ordinary—and even extraordinary—life-events—which is a compliment I can’t pay the next target in my line of fire.