The soap opera is a long established tradition both in writing, on the small screen and on radio. Its serialistic style and format give writers the opportunity to introduce characters that will take them from the cradle to the grave, put them through various trials and tribulations, play with topical situations and in some rare cases make the readers or viewers more aware of what is going on in the larger world around them and change it accordingly.
It can also be one of the worst and most lazy forms of writing.
Too many soap operas now rely on sensationalism and the comfort blanket of characters that should have been killed off a long time ago (and not resurrected for short term gain). As a Northerner I find Coronation Street staid and offensive, especially in its portrayal of some of the older cast. Its heyday was during the Seventies, should have been wound down during the Eighties and quietly ended. I’m very sure that a lot of Londoners feel the same about Eastenders. The ratings for both shows and its like are in the gutter and only the entrenched position of its makers (plus the tabloid papers need something to write about besides footballers wives) stop shows being quietly put down.
The soap opera format as described above though is not widely used in comics. It may seem like it is, with the super-hero comics having continuing stories and a large cast of characters, but the stories tend to revolve around one character who will never die or grow old (be sure that characters like Super-Man, Spider-Man or Bat-Man will be around for your grandchildren to read in whatever format). In fact it has been the comic-strip in newspapers that have supported the style with honourable titles like Little Orphan Annie, Lil’ Abner and most importantly Gasoline Alley, wherein a major character was born, grew old and died, all in real time.
A good soap opera should have no central character, a major focal point, a large cast of characters with interesting situations and know when to end. The Heartbreak Soup stories from Gilbert Hernandez do this brilliantly.
Heartbreak Soup is the story of the small town of Palomar, somewhere in Mexico/South America and its inhabitants. It first appeared in the Love and Rockets comic along with Los Locas, which is written and drawn by Gilberts’ brother Jamie. It started small, as Los Locas seemed to have more relevance at the time, but with its minimalist and clean line style, characters that by the end of the tale you wanted to know more about, its strange mystic events and surroundings, it had all the ingredients of a spell-binding tale.
The tale is linear; all the characters start as young people. But as it progressed it frequently would jump backwards and forwards in time as people remember something that happened to them. Characters were introduced who would only get a panel or a passing mention but then become important later on (and because Love and Rockets was a quarterly this could take years). The whole human condition is laid bare as subjects such as love, poverty, murder, death, comedy, sadness, betrayal, homosexuality, bi-sexuality, prison life, friendship, politics, war, natural disasters, drugs, sex and rock and roll are all put on show.
All the Heartbreak Soup graphics are available singularly but Fantagraphics have now released them all into one volume called Palomar. The only one not to be included in the collection is Luba’s Tale, which tells the origin of one of Soup’s major characters and how she arrived at Palomar. Hopefully this will one day be rectified when Fantagraphics do a Luba collection. All of the tales are wonderful but the best is definitely Human Diastrophism wherein an old face returns to Palomar only to be revealed (straight away interestingly) as a serial killer. His arrival though only serves to bring out the changes that are already happening to everyone in Palomar and his story starts to take second place to all the vignettes and composite violence that the town has to suffer. By the end no one is left as they were.
If there is one comic-book series that I would wish to see on the small screen, and done well, it would be this. I’m afraid though that too much of its subject matter would be considered extreme and distasteful for prime-time viewing, but if you want to see what soap opera can do if done correctly pick up Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics priced £27.99.
Gilbert has now finished the Heartbreak Soup stories (Palomar was destroyed in an earthquake, but the inhabitants just got on with re-building) and is now concentrating on Luba and her on-going tale. Both this and Palomar are highly recommended.