“Birdland Reconsidered”: Part Five (of Five)

Posted by on December 7th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Previously:  Part Four

PART 5

Conclusion

After deciphering the various code words, the final section of Birdland appears to be a puzzling dismissal of the major social philosophies of life.  But if science, religion and mythology are not “the answers,” then what does Gilbert propose is “the answer”?

In each of the three dreams, no matter how bizarre and extreme the sexual situations, each ultimately concludes with the two lovers – Mark and Fritz — whose relationship seemed headed toward divorce in the first section of the book, discovering each other anew.  Although their genders have been inverted, indicating how backwards everything is in the world according to Reich (see end note), destiny has intervened to bring the two together, implying that their attraction is itself fated, and that love is a far greater power than the sexual energy swirling around them.

In the final scene on the alien ship, the reunion of Mark and Fritz proves to be the revelatory moment that restores normalcy. The realization of their love sets everything right in the universe.  All of the characters are transformed back into their true genders and the alien world dissolves away as the characters find themselves returned to reality.

BirdlandPage94

Similar to Fritz’s revelation at the end of the first section, Gilbert’s underlying point in this final section is that, while the characters all seem stuck in a fruitless search for “the answer” – the answers they find are all wrong.  According to Reich, sexual liberation was supposed to help them gain clarity and understanding, as well as a sense of inner peace; however, throughout Birdland, the answers they find are fleeting and incomprehensible.  Despite their actualization of Reich’s theories, they are no happier or more fulfilled than anybody else.

But Birdland is far more than just a satire about Wilhelm Reich.  The graphic novel is Hernandez’s response, albeit in a very convoluted manner, to the deep philosophical questions posed by Reich’s theories.  In particular, the notion that a “life energy” exists, as Reich claimed, is something that Gilbert fundamentally disagrees with.  He doesn’t accept the notion that life is based on some mystical energy which must be regulated by the hedonistic pursuit of sexual pleasure.  Rather, Gilbert argues that the exact nature of life’s origins is unimportant and unknowable.  Perhaps the big bang theory is correct, perhaps not.  Perhaps the stories in the bible are true, perhaps not.  Perhaps we are all subject to the fickle hands of imperfect gods, perhaps not.  Regardless, according to Gilbert, love is the only answer that matters.  Birdland‘s ultimate message is that the pursuit of true love is the ultimate meaning and true “energy” of life.

The book’s final page, exceptionally subtle compared to the outrageous sexual exploits that preceded it, confirms Gilbert’s point.  Not only do Mark and Fritz decide to recommit to each other, avoiding divorce, but Fritz is once again reunited with her golden heart pendant, a clear symbol that she has regained her emotional capacity to love and is free of the aliens’ toxic influence.

In the end, like Peter Reich’s memoir, Birdland is essentially “a book of dreams,” and the fact that Fritz and Mark finally wake up and realize that their marriage is worth saving after all is an uplifting, life-affirming ending.  In fact, in many ways, this is Gilbert’s most personal statement, more overtly philosophical than anything in Love & Rockets.

Unfortunately, Birdland ultimately fails as a story because its literary and sociological references are simply too obscure and convoluted for even the most sophisticated reader, and because the sexually explicit illustrations overwhelm the book’s underlying themes.  Gilbert’s asking too much of his readers to expect them to see through all of the surface sexuality and make all of the connections that are hidden within the book’s graphic panels.

Still, for too long the book has been dismissed as a self-indulgent side project, a juvenile embarrassment when compared to Hernandez’s more celebrated works from the same time period (specifically “Poison River”). This is clearly not the case.  Birdland is an enigma; like everything else Gilbert has created, it is an intelligent, layered work that demands multiple readings and a fair amount of research to decipher.  Unfortunately, most readers are not likely to invest that much time and energy into what appears to be little more than a pornographic fantasy, but for those few who take the plunge, Birdland is as rewarding as anything Hernandez has created in his long and illustrious career.

  1. Gender inversion – Gender inversion is an important element of the final section of the book.  Since all three dream scenes takes place under a presumed hypnotic trance, it is implied that readers are seeing an alternate vision of the world in which everything Reich had theorized were truth.  In this alternate world, everything is backward.  Love doesn’t exist, all relationships are based purely on sex, and all of the main characters (except Bang) have switched genders.  For example, in the first dream, Mark is the woman with the flower in her hair while Fritz is the man who wanders into the scene in the final panel.  Similarly, in the second dream, Fritz is depicted as the man with the mustache, while Mark bursts into the room in the final panel.  All of this is incredibly subtle, relying solely on Gilbert’s ability to transport defining character traits (such as Fritz’s prominent eyebrows) from one gender to the other.

Images [©1994 Gilbert Hernandez]

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2 Responses to ““Birdland Reconsidered”: Part Five (of Five)”

  1. Rippke says:

    Thank you for this detailed review. I wonder if Birdland would be better remembered if Gilbert had given some interviews and included some high-minded rhetoric about turning porn into “something liberating and socially useful,” like Alan Moore did with Lost Girls.

    Was this book created for the Eros line, or just reprinted under it?

  2. Kim Thompson says:

    Gilbert created BIRDLAND specifically for the EROS line, yes (as Bill Willingham did IRONWOOD and Ho Che Anderson did I WANT TO BE YOUR DOG, just to cite two of the other earlier, “classier” EROS titles).

    There has never been much if any interest in interviewing any of the EROS creators, or interviewing cartoonists who created EROS material, so the point while well taken is moot — and Gilbert isn’t one to toot his own horn by making that kind of hifalutin’ claims for his own work even if he was asked.

    I always thought the first couple of years of EROS at least comprised some pretty stunning work that made EROS one of the better comics publishers of its time, period (Thorne’s and Schultheiss’s work was stellar too). But most people shy away from the porn, although I’m not sure making someone laugh is inherently more noble than giving someone a boner. (Although the best of the EROS books did both.)