Gilbert Hernandez is an unparalleled figure in American comics. Working tirelessly since 1979, “Beto” is one of the key artists in the first wave of alternative comics, creating with his brother Jaime, a significant cartoonist in his own right, the legendary magazine Love and Rockets, a pioneering work of comics-as-literature. Gilbert’s stories in Love and Rockets, the Palomar cycle, form perhaps the greatest work of magical realism in the comics form; challenging, moving storytelling. However, the reaches of Gilbert Hernandez do not end here. The man’s output is simply insane, ranging from quiet childhood memoirs to exploitation-style pulp, all executed to maddening perfection.
Recently, Beto has been experimenting with works of obscenity, taking the surrealist whispers that always lurked behind the edges of even his tamest work and amping up to eye-gouging extremity. Blubber, which now seems to be the flagship book for this side of Gilbert, was published with little fanfare but, for those who read it then, dropped like an atom bomb. That book’s endless barrage of cartoon critters with swollen genitalia, buggering and killing each other in seemingly endless permutations, consistently upends the reader’s desire to categorize the work, while its artistic mastery and impressive mark making forces the reader to take it seriously. Later issues further confounded by introducing human beings to the frenzy, behaving in more or less the same fashion as the creatures before. And now in Garden of the Flesh “Beto” puts the graphic in graphic novel by taking the id-drenched frolics of the Blubber kingdom to perhaps the most popular book of all time: the Bible.
Garden of the Flesh comes to you as a shrinkwrapped little black book, equally reminiscent of Moleskine notebooks, pocket bibles and Tijuana bibles, the short pornographic cartoon tracts from the Great Depression to which this book is clearly indebted. The very act of tearing off the shrink wrap feels illicit, and turning the pages in this dark tome becomes a subversive act. This ingenious design (credited in the backmatter to one “J. Feeli Pecker”) plunges the reader straight into the debauched fever dream of the Old Testament that ensues. It goes a little something like this:
The universe is born in an abstraction that would make Dr. Strange swoon. The first man, Adam, emerges boner-first from the ground, contemplating his idyllic surroundings and magnificent hard-on. Adam brings himself to orgasm, from which the first woman, a buxom blonde named Eve, is born, bearing a striking resemblance to the square-jawed pornstar Pupussi from the Blubber series. They have sex with each other, and then Eve meets the devil and has sex with him too. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve are cast out of earthly paradise and have some more sex, and make some kids, one of whom kills another and later has some sex. A while later, a man named Noah has a lot of sex with a large breasted, veiled woman referred to only as wife, then builds a boat to save his family and all the animals when divine wrath floods the world. The family have sex on the boat until they find land, a new earthly paradise. Adam and Eve return to have more sex. That’s basically the book.
Putting aside the visceral pleasure and artistic glory of the work (and, in brilliantly confident full color, this book is among Gilbert’s most aesthetically pleasing), one might be wondering what value there is in making an X-Rated Book of Genesis. It’s a cliché to make sexualized art out of the Bible, and the vanilla heterofantasy sex in Garden of the Flesh is hardly the stuff of revolution. If even R. Crumb played his take on Book of Genesis straight, what’s the point of Gilbert’s libidinous variant?
And yet there is more to the core juxtaposition of Garden of the Flesh than shock value — by slamming together the biblical and the pornographic, Hernandez explores the power fantasies which fuel both. After all, porn and religion both offer their own promises of otherworldly pleasure unattainable in life, be it paradise after death or an impossibly good roll in the hay, and in these promises instruct behavioral and societal norms. Both are like the subconscious of society, invisible to those who do not participate yet pervasive in the background of our culture. Garden of the Flesh is then a naked depiction of that underground fantasy, the contradictory rewards of both merged by our collective unconscious and unleashed by Beto’s penline. It is not with judgement that Beto pulls back the curtain on our id, but with the humor and delight you might find reading your roommate’s search history aloud. It’s great comics and delectable entertainment; it would be a sin for me not to recommend it.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.