If the current series of stories surrounding Killer visiting Palomar in Love & Rockets is Gilbert Hernandez's way of looking at his most famous creation through a cracked lens, then the latest of his pulp novels starring his character Fritz, Maria M., is Poison River as viewed through a funhouse mirror. After wrapping up the saga of his signature character Luba in Palomar in the first volume of Love & Rockets, Hernandez has focused stories on Luba in America as well as stories surrounding Luba's half-sister, Fritz. Luba's stories in America finished up in volume two of L&R, as did the "true" stories surrounding Fritz. Since then, Hernandez has turned his attention to doing different kinds of lurid pulp fiction in the form of comics versions of fake grindhouse movies, all featuring Fritz from her sordid movie career. In an interview in the Love and Rockets Companion, Hernandez said that the reason he liked putting Fritz in these comics is that he found her to be an unknowable character, and so by putting her in these stories he gets to see what she's like in a number of different settings.
He didn't indicate as to why he thought she was unknowable, but the implication seemed clear. It's because Fritz is Luba's opposite in many ways in that she seems to have no agency of her own as a character. She's the reed that bends in the wind, attaching herself to different people and inevitably becoming a victim. Fritz is far from stupid (in fact, quite the opposite), but her lack of self-worth is directly tied into that lack of agency. She's always an object of desire, so she simply goes along with other people's desires and agencies because it's easier to do than try to figure out her own needs. Hernandez finds her unknowable because she doesn't seem to have any wants of her own, which is a key to an author "knowing" a character. What's interesting is that Hernandez still finds her interesting enough to make her the protagonist of so many of his stories, which allows him to bounce this sort of guileless, Candide sort of figure through horror, sci-fi, crime stories, suspense thrillers, serial killer stories, high school dramas and whatever else he can think of.
Maria M. adds an additional layer of metafiction by making it an adaptation of the story of Fritz's mother, Maria. Of course, Poison River is really about Luba's life up until she reaches Palomar, but Luba is entirely cut out of the book. Maria is subbed in for all kinds of craziness. First, she's cast as being too big to any modeling when she arrives in America. This leads to a series of lurid and frequently hilarious porno photos and a nude roles in a movie. A lot of these scenes are comedic, especially the ones where Fritz (in the role of Maria) keeps hooking up with married men who claim to love her. There's one hilarious page where in panel after panel, a man tells her that he loves her, only to immediately find out that he's married. In one panel, a man is having sex with her and says "I love you, Maria". Then the phone rings and he says, matter-of-factly, "That'll be me wife."
The second half of the book inexplicably sees Maria as the wife of a mobster who's trying to fend off a number of rivals. Gorgo is introduced as his son, who has an instant crush on Maria. Here, Gorgo and his dad are substituted for Peter and Fermin Rio, the musicians whose obsession with Maria and later Luba forms the backbone of Poison River. In Maria M, Gorgo is portrayed as a sort of invincible superhero type who is called upon to defend Maria and his dad's business in increasingly ridiculous scenarios. The best is when he goes off "on vacation" to participate in a brutal series of gladitorial games that he of course wins with ease. The book ends with Gorgo failing to protect Maria, her becoming pregnant after being raped, and her divorcing his father...but it's only the end of part one. Given that Luba is entirely excised from this book, I'll be curious to see if part two includes any part of her story, or if it will be more gangsters, exploitation, and over-the-top action silliness. I like the fact that it will be in two parts; the ambivalent ending begs for a sequel, and serializing the story only emphasizes its fictive qualities all the more.
While the book is effective on its own as an action romp, it's also a sly commentary on how Hollywood might have treated a film adaptation of Love & Rockets. Indeed, when Luba and other characters started talking about the film in L&R, they trash it. It's also perhaps a reaction by Hernandez with regard to the critical response his pulp comics have received, being derided by trash as some critics. They are trashy, to be sure, and actively resist depicting real characters and honest emotional responses in favor of forwarding plot and action. They are also a great deal of fun and are demented in frequently amazing ways, as Hernandez tries to come up with the most sordid, complicated and melodramatic scenarios possible for Fritz. That's the one thing the reader can never quite let go of: that these are works of fiction starring one of his "real" characters, and thus we as readers have it in the back of our minds that this was yet another vaguely humiliating thing that Fritz did in her pliable life. It also doesn't hurt that Hernandez is such a rock-solid storyteller. He mostly uses three or four panels per page, stacked on top of each other wide a wide horizontal base that mimics the effective of watching a film on the big screen. When there's action or motion, he switches to more traditional grids to emphasize that sense of movement and urgency before going back to that "widescreen" approach. There's a firm, steady hand on all of the mechanics and formal aspects of the story (including character design, which allows for a bit of the grotesque), allowing Hernandez to go nuts in terms of content without ever leaving the reader behind.