Back in 1982, in the independent comic ''Love & Rockets,'' artist-writer Gilbert Hernandez created a two-part story called ''Heartbreak Soup.'' It introduced the inhabitants of a make-believe Latin American village called Palomar -- a dusty little town, ''population 386,'' whose name, Hernandez informed us in a handy footnote, translates as ''pigeon coop.'' In the new 522-page, six-pound, gorgeously produced collection of Hernandez's 20-year project -- ''Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories'' -- we realize that many of the central characters in this town try to either fly that pigeon coop for new, better lives, or resign themselves to being cooped up there forever and make the best of it. In the process of filling up Palomar, Hernandez's black-and-white drawings cohered to form an epic, sprawling tale of yearning, lust, betrayal, and commitment.
Over the years, Hernandez deepened and enriched the Palomar stories in the sporadically published ''Love & Rockets'' (his brother Jaime contributed separate, non-''Palomar'' stories). Gilbert jumped around in the chronology of his novelistic story; one service of this book is that it arranges the storytelling in proper sequence. The result is a revelation: Gilbert Hernandez has written a great piece of Latin American fiction -- and drawn cool, sexy illustrations for it to boot.