You would think I'd have more to say about teaching "Human Diastrophism," one of my favorite comics in the classroom, but this was my fourth pass at the story and most of the classroom surprises have been played out. The greatest remaining challenge is just the problem of extracting one storyline from Gilbert Hernandez's long-running Palomar setting and fitting it into a single week of class discussion.
My classes' reactions to "Human Diastrophism" have changed over the years, and mostly for the better. Seven or eight years ago a few of my students were awfully interested in branding the women of Palomar as "sluts." (Khamo, Borro, and the other men got a pass, of course; the monogamous Pipo and the celibate-but-naked Tonantzin did not.) I can't say I'm sorry to see that discussion fall by the wayside. I wonder if that's a benefit of the growing awareness of comics as a mature medium. Eight years ago my students had never read a graphic novel in the classroom before, had perhaps never read a graphic novel period, and certainly didn't see them as an adult mode of expression; the mere sight of naked cartoon women was enough to provoke a moral panic. None of those things seem to be true anymore--at least not among the self-selecting group who would sign up for an entire course on comics. (And after Watchmen and Fun Home, sex is no longer a novelty.)
This class did catch me by surprise with some initial hostility to Hernandez's elliptical structure. A few of the more vocal students were turned off enough by the abrupt transitions and the sprawling cast to proclaim their complete mystification, but that didn't last. After a couple of days sifting through the plot and looking at all the elements that link Hernandez's fragments--the encroaching outside forces, the conflicting reactions to modernity, the shifting drawing styles, even the accelerating pace of the transitions--the complaints disappeared and some of the most vocal critics become Hernandez's biggest fans. This pattern seems to play itself out every week as the class adjusts to the new artists, learning that what they see as flaws (Spiegelman's animal metaphors, Bechdel's erudition) can also be some of those artists' greatest assets.
I have some sympathy for the initial frustration, though. This was my first time teaching "Human Diastrophism" in the new paperback collection, a format that does not serve the Palomar story particularly well. The book collects all the post-HD Palomar stories (excepting Poison River) up to the end of the original Love and Rockets in 1996. "Human Diastrophism" reads pretty well in isolation in the old Blood of Palomar trade paperback; if nothing else, that ending retains its original horror when you don't know there's another Palomar story on the next page. (That said, I would kill for just one affordable collection that grouped it with "Duck Feet," its closest companion and most important precursor.)
Following it with the subsequent stories only reminds the novice reader how much they're missing, especially since a lot of them aren't really Palomar stories. Maria and her daughters muscle everyone else out of the spotlight, and that only draws attention to the gaping Poison River-sized hole in the center of the collection. Maria's a fascinating character, but she's a lot more fascinating when you know the history that Hernandez established for her in previous issues. I'm not sure that she works without Poison River; I'm not sure Fritz and Petra work at all until Hernandez starts fleshing them out in the second volume of Love and Rockets.
On the other hand, it was nice to wrap up the class discussion with "Chelo's Burden," to check in on the final evolution of Humberto's art and to see the completion of Palomar's development into a matriarchy. And it was gratifying to see that many of the students read the intervening stories after I'd made them optional. But if you're going to collect "Human Diastrophism" with other long-form Palomar stories, you could at least throw in "Duck Feet"! And "An American in Palomar." And maybe...
Maybe there is no ideal way to read the Palomar stories under the time and monetary constraints of the classroom, but it's a shame that the setup of the new collection makes "Human Diastrophism," a story I could teach in my sleep, a slightly worse fit than it was before. On its own, insofar as it can be read on its own, it's one of the great American graphic novels. With its companions it's still just as great but it's only one piece of a much longer story that's nearly impossible to excerpt.
A comic book, in other words. A wonderful format, but not one you can easily fit into a classroom.