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Gilbert Hernandez’s ‘Birdland’ Offers Alliteration, Transfiguration, Penetration [Sex]

Gilbert Hernandez‘s comics, from his work in Love and Rockets to standalone volumes like last year’s Love from the Shadows, have often included some pretty intense sexual content. But he’s only ever released one project that qualifies as full-on pornography: Birdland, a three-issue miniseries from 1990-1991 and a one-shot sequel from 1994, later collected as a single volume. Birdland has been out of print for a while, which is a pity. It’s witty, eccentric, bursting with joy, and utterly, cheerfully smutty.

As often happens in Hernandez’s stories, the basic setup is a complicated chain of frustrated and sublimated desires, although in this one everyone’s sublimating them by getting it on. The stripping team of Bang Bang and Inez (who’d previously appeared briefly in early issues of Love and Rockets) are both carrying on secret affairs with sexually inexhaustible lawyer Mark Herrera.

Every woman seems to desire Mark, except for his wife, Fritz, a psychotherapist who has sex with her patients while they’re under her hypnotic spell. Fritz’s sister Petra unrequitedly lusts after Mark, too, but she’s been carrying on a years-long affair with Mark’s brother Simon, who in turn is erotically fixated on Fritz and, specifically, her lisp, although he’s also sleeping with Inez. And so on. Eventually, the aliens who abducted Bang Bang as a child get involved, and transport the whole cast up to their ship for a pansexual orgy.

Then things get weird, or weirder.Almost the entire cast undergoes a gender reversal, and Fritz breaks the fourth wall to attempt to hypnotize the reader. That’s followed by a handful of wordless dream sequences involving versions of the cast members in X-rated prehistoric, Western and sci-fi scenarios (the first includes some hot dinosaur love) before we get to the comedy-of-remarriage denouement. And the whole thing is drawn in a style that’s the erotic equivalent of Jack Kirby’s fight scenes: grounded in the way actual bodies interact, but pumped up to an imaginative intensity way beyond anything the naked eye has ever seen.

On top of that, Birdland is funny–not corny-funny or nudge/wink-funny, but absurd and sly, with a terrific sense for what can make the overfamiliar language of pornography fresh again. In one soap-operatic scene, Petra’s saying “B-but I can give you all the love you need, Mark; you’re wasting your time waiting for Fritz to come around,” and thinking “Oh, shut up and ransack my rapacious rectum with your reputedly tireless tongue, you gorgeous geek!” Dialogue in another panel: “Ah-ah-acmesthesia!” “Oh-oh-ontogeny!”

Yes, this is the kind of porn that requires a dictionary to catch everything that’s going on. A few years ago, Marc Sobel convincingly argued in a multi-part essay that Birdland is a satire of Wilhelm Reich and his theories about sexuality and “orgone energy,” by way of Patti Smith’s song “Birdland” — the story never mentions Reich outright, but the connections are everywhere — and that it’s full of other subtleties for the careful reader. (The bodily-fluid sound effects in one of the final scenes, Sobel points out, are all Spanish words relating to the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.) It’s not often that a story pretends to be nothing but stroke material but is actually a bit deeper than that.

Hernandez has returned to a lot of Birdland‘s characters over the years, in very different contexts. Buff, tireless Mark Herrera eventually becomes a failed motivational speaker with an awful ponytail and a string of ex-wives. Petra’s gotten older and had a daughter, whose G-rated exploits will be collected in The Adventures of Venus later this year. Fritz has become the central figure in a lot of Hernandez’s more recent work, especially High Soft Lisp, in which the ways she appeases her sexual drives are much grimmer.

Another suggestion of Birdland‘s title, though, is that it happens in a kind of protected utopian zone, where everyone’s youthful and beautiful and up for more, and sex is always a source of happiness for everyone involved, even when it’s psychologically fraught for one reason or another. Every character in it ultimately gets a happy ending, both euphemistic and literal.

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