NOTE: Nearly six years ago, I panned Jaime Hernandez’s life’s work in The Comics Journal. Though this is probably the Comics Journal-est thing I’ve ever done, for the Journal or anywhere else, it’s not one of my prouder moments as a critic. At the time I was coming down from the high of brother Gilbert’s epic Palomar hardcover and his two stand-alone masterpieces Poison River and Love and Rockets X. By comparison, Jaime’s stuff, though prettier on the outside, was basically about the female Latina punk versions of Beavis and Butt-Head. Unable to see past the fact that Maggie and Hopey were annoying and did stupid shit a lot of the time, I gave Locas, which collected all their stories from Love and Rockets v1, a bad review.
Here’s where I make up for it.
I happy to announce the start of LOVE AND ROCKTOBER here at Attentiondeficitdisorderly. For the next month, I’ll be devoting my regularly scheduled Comics Time reviews to as much of Los Bros Hernandez’ work as I can get through, starting with the Jaime material I misguidedly maligned. I believe that Love and Rockets is all but unique in comics in the way it has taken advantage of serialization to slowly create a rich and enveloping world peopled with multifaceted characters who seem to be living lives on and off the page. And it did this twice, simultaneously! With this in mind I think it’s a book that’s best consumed the way great TV shows are best consumed: In huge, weeks-long binges. It may be Fantagraphics’ wonderful Love and Rockets digests facilitating this rather than Netflix, but the principle is the same.
So, first up, Jaime and the Locas stories. After that? I might continue forward with Xaime till I’m caught up. I might switch over to Beto’s stuff. (And Mario’s too!) I might do both (which I imagine would necessitate LOVEMBER AND ROCKETS). I might do neither. But whatever I do, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it, and I hope you do too.
First, let’s start by revisiting sins past: My Comics Journal review of Locas, which I’d avoided re-posting here on the blog for years, waiting for precisely this sort of opportunity to serve as a corrective. Please take everything you are about to read with a grain of salt, as much of what I once saw to be weaknesses I now recognize as strengths. And Jaime, if you’re out there: Sorry, man!
Jaime Hernandez, writer/artist
Fantagraphics Books, October 2004
712 pages, hardcover
The first collection to span one of Los Bros Hernandez’ major output during the first 20-year run of their umbrella title Love and Rockets was Palomar, an anthology of brother Gilbert’s chronicles of the titular Mexican town. Aside from a few frustrating attempts to muddle through the multi-genre mishmash of Music for Mechanics, L&R‘s first softcover volume, Palomar was my first real exposure to Los Bros’ series. To say “it’s a tough act to follow” would be to imply that one of maybe the three or four greatest achievements in comics history could be followed at all, so instead I’ll say that I was almost totally unprepared for how thoroughly the book would floor me. Gilbert’s uncanny grasp of the totality of each of his characters allowed him to jump back and forth in time with ease, showing us different periods in their lives that for all their temporal disconnect never made anything but perfect sense for each indelible creation. His senses of humor, horror, and eroticism would each be enough to sustain the career of a lesser cartoonist for years at a stretch. The book succeeded as maybe the great long-form narrative in comics, even (as I learned later) despite the fact that it for some reason omitted major related works like Love and Rockets X and especially Poison River, without which much of the book’s concluding section was difficult to follow. Perhaps most impressively, Gilbert’s mastery of the formal stuff of cartooning — of line, design, characterization, caricature, panel transitions, the whole shmear — was so complete that I had to wonder (partially in skepticism, partially in giddy anticipation of fresh discoveries), “The other brother’s supposed to be the better artist?”
Locas, Love and Rockets‘ second definitive hardcover collection, focuses on the work of that other brother, the “better artist,” Jaime — and I’m not sure if I can remember a more awkward comics-reading experience than my recent sojourn through its 700-plus pages. I say this not because of the book’s unwieldy length. I say it rather because of the dual irony that this massive collection could consist of material that feels so slight, and that after reading the single longest comic book I’ve ever come across I should find myself with so little to say.
One thing I will say, since it’s unavoidable, is that the book is nowhere near the masterpiece that Palomar is. It could be argued that it’s unfair to compare the two works simply because their authors are brothers. Now, I don’t think it could be argued persuasively — when one spends years and years sharing funnybook real estate with one’s sibling and indeed adopts a collective moniker, one invites such comparisons — but that’s not even the point. Locas suffers in comparison to Palomar, but so do most comics. The point is that it suffers from much more than that as well.
Things get off to a rough start with the uneasy blend of sci-fi, soap opera and cheeky revolutionary politics found in “Mechanix” and “Las Mujeres Perdidas,” the two big storylines that begin the collection. This is not to say that even these unrepresentative, shaky stories do not have much to recommend them. Here Jaime’s art most clearly displays his classic influences, imbuing the dinosaur-fighting and rocket-flying action with beauty and dynamism. “Mechanix”‘ unusual structure — a series of letters from traveling mechanic Maggie to her best friend and fellow punk Hopey, punctuated with predominantly stand-alone panels which illustrate the text — serves as an early indication of Jaime’s great strength, that of graphic design. The title panels/pages Jaime constructs are inevitably the best looking part of any of his stories, as they allow his gifted use of high contrast and his inventive and iconic lettering and portraiture to shine; since “Mechanix” is essentially a series of such images, it’s awfully nice to look at.
Yet already the flippant tone Jaime adopts for writing his characters, one he will be unable to shake off throughout the book, works to his detriment. Maggie essentially has two settings for looking at the world: Everything’s either a goof or a tragedy. This gives these early stories, in which the lives of thousands of people, including our heroine and her friends, are often at stake in power struggles between crazed plutocrats, an air of frantic, bipolar absurdity that does not at all suit them. Perhaps the intention was a sort of Duck Soup-style lampooning of love and life in the nuclear age, but the stories come off as inconsistent and unsure of what they want to be and how they want to be it.
Before long the sci-fi trappings are shed entirely, seemingly more out of embarrassment than aesthetic evolution. The high-decibel hijinx, however, remain. Maggie and her sometime-girlfriend, sometime-best friend Hopey spend the bulk of the book fuming, with exclamation points and distorted kabuki-mask faces abounding. Listen, I’ve certainly known people who’ve spent years and years dancing around their true feelings for each other, but never so loudly! It’s like a soap opera scripted by Fourth World-era Jack Kirby! When quieter characters like Hopey’s ex-girlfriend and current bandmate Terry or witchy, death-haunted Izzy appear, I swear I can hear my ears ringing in the relative silence.
If Jaime has a claim to greatness in these pages, it’s in his creation of those two comparatively minor characters. Terry Downe looks so much like The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Mary Jane Watson that she might as well be a fanfic version of her: “What if Gwen Stacy had lived, and M.J. moved to California, got into punk rock, and became a lesbian?” But behind her resolute, John Romita-derived wall of punk cool, there’s just oceans of pain, observable both in her relentless quest for musical success (given what we know of her, this may well be possible) and for Hopey (given what we know of Hopey, this isn’t). She’s easily the book’s most compelling character, and the story in which she stars, “Tear It Up, Terry Downe,” is easily its most compelling sequence. With alarming proficiency not in evidence elsewhere in the book, Jaime constructs a riveting story out of disjointed panels, each depicting a scene from different stages in Terry’s life or a comment from someone who knows or knew her, each offering a vital glimpse of the origins of her reserved persona. Clearly, it’s one born out of trauma rather than pretension. (Would that this could be said for the object of her unrequited love: Hopey’s early relationship with Terry is undoubtedly tumultuous, but it feels as though this simply brought out obnoxious qualities in the character that were already extant.)
Black-clad psychic Izzy is also a revelation. Her premonition of disaster in “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” is the truly haunting moment in a story I found to be otherwise quite oversold by its admirers (who are many, and vocal); her fascination with the missing-persons ad Hopey eventually finds herself on is equally memorable, as is her quietly built-up battle with cancer, and indeed the simple presence of her stoic countenance in a book that’s full to bursting with mugging. But Izzy’s great shining moment, “Flies on the Ceiling,” isn’t even included in the collection. Meanwhile, a zany, Warner Bros.-style Maggie’n'Hopey romp redrawn from a comic made when the brothers were little kids is included, proving that the parameters of the collection — “The Maggie and Hopey Stories” — may have been more than a little short-sighted.
Jaime’s technical skills as an artist are not to be scoffed at, obviously. This is a beautiful book. Each of his characters is a wonder in design, and even as Jaime’s style shifts from the rendered EC-isms of the early stories into a sort of graphic-design shorthand by book’s end, you simply have to marvel at his skill in creating recognizable characters who maintain their essence through over a decade of hairstyle and hair-color changes, weight gain and loss, and radically shifting stations in life. (This last, too, is a strength of the book: Locas is one of comics’ more interesting explorations of the simultaneous fluidity and rigidity of America’s class-and-race caste system, all the more so since the topic seems to get explored almost incidentally.) The art’s strongest moments come during several pin-up style panels depicting Hopey and Terry’s band on stage during their ill-fated tour. Simply put: If there are better depictions in this medium of the allure of punk rock than the page-spanning panels in “Jerusalem Crickets 1987,” I’d like to see ‘em. Too bad that so few of the characters seem to have gotten much more out of punk than an excuse to act like jerks and push their loved ones away — and too bad we’re supposed to think that the band’s drummer is an idiot for wanting to play like John Bonham. Odd that an artist’s love of technical proficiency would be mocked in a Jaime Hernandez comic!
Meanwhile, Jaime’s temporal jump-cuts demonstrate a wonderful faith in the intelligence of the reader to follow the increasingly complex lives of the characters. The problem here, though, is that the characters lack the strength of characterization to back these jumps up. As presented within Locas, too many characters suddenly appear from nowhere and are given prominence that their development itself won’t bear. The character of Tex, for example, emerges suddenly to become a pivotal player during some of the book’s central stories: He helps Hopey escape from her band’s rapidly imploding tour, then ends up impregnating both Hopey and her larger-than-life trophy-wife friend Penny Century before just kind of petering out of the storyline. Now, I can already hear people say “but this is how life works,” and indeed I’ve got a roster of ex-friends as long as your arm to prove it, but life also includes two hour visits to the DMV. Trueness to life is a potential means to the end of great art, not a guarantor of it. (At any rate, few people’s true-life trajectory involves knocking up two lipstick lesbians in one of said lipstick lesbians’ so-big-there-are-whole-wings-no-one-sets-foot-in mansion, owned by said lipstick lesbian’s horned husband.) A natural-feeling rapport between familiar and out-of-nowhere characters can be established — see Ralph Cifaretto’s introduction in The Sopranos, Wolverine’s conversation with Doop in Milligan and Allred’s X-Force (I shit you not), or really any such incident in Palomar — but in Locas the continuous accrual of sisters, cousins, roommates, co-workers, ex-girlfriends, bandmates, tag-team partners and so on feels forced and arbitrary, and at its worst like a convenient distraction from the voids at the centers of the two main characters.
That, too, is the problem. Yes, I’m sure we all know basket cases like Maggie and angry youth like Hopey, but so what? I also know several people (say) with masters degrees in engineering, and if they weren’t also interesting people, no degree of accuracy in the depiction of their lives would save a comic I might make about them from being rather pointless. Near as I can tell, there’s simply not much to Maggie and Hopey. The funny thing is they are so very often held up to be the pinnacle of multi-dimensional female characters in the male-dominated world of comics. Now, I’m not sure I see the feminist victory present in the ongoing chronicles of beautiful, bed-hopping, punked-out teenage lesbians; otherwise I guess we could all trade in our P.J. Harvey records for those Tatu girls. (And let’s not even get started on Penny Century, a character whose sole purpose seems to be to conveniently deploy her tits, mansions, or both, depending on the needs of a given story.) But even putting all that aside, what is so wonderfully multi-dimensional about a girl who is continuously pining, fuming, or (to steal a line from Tina Fey’s Mean Girls) eating her feelings, or a girl whose sole, and I do mean sole, means of interacting with the world is to embrace terrible behavior on the part of herself and those around her toward anyone she might be tempted to care about? The torpedoing of one’s own chances at happiness is often a fascinating topic for comics, yet only if the character doing the torpedoing seems to have some inner life worth preserving does that fascination arise. Hopey, a character who among other things bounces back from a miscarriage like it was the common cold, ostentatiously applauds the sexual depravity of a group of wealthy acquaintances until it inevitably erupts into violence, kicks the snot out of her ex-best friend for no good reason, and (during a flashback) delivers her new friend Daffy into a terrifying encounter with an unhinged, nymphomaniacal pro-wrestler just for gits and shiggles, does not have such an inner life. Hopey is at her most interesting in the story “A Date with Hopey.” Told from the point of view of a character that we never see before or again, it describes the instant rapport like-minded, alienated youth feel for one another, and the mysterious way in which such instant closeness evaporates. With Hopey, evaporate is all it can do. (Maggie, saddled as she is with years spent in love with this woman, is rendered uninteresting by osmosis.) Like Daffy after that pro-wrestler flashback, we’re left wondering: Is the woman we’ve spent years (or the page-count equivalent thereof) questing after like some combination of Dulcinea and Moby Dick really just kind of a boring asshole? And has punk — along with Latino culture and professional woman’s wrestling, milieus Jaime chronicles with a great deal of self-evident passion and love — taught her anything aside from how to be professionally unpleasant, to the detriment of herself, her friends, and us readers?
A little over a year ago, before the release of Palomar and Locas rendered such questions irrelevant, I wondered where was the best place for a Love and Rockets neophyte to start reading the series. As a result I posted a thread to this publication’s Internet message board, entitled “Help me learn to like Love and Rockets.” The gist of the post was this: As a stickler for reading any given series in the chronological order of its release, I’d found myself stymied at the logical starting place, Music for Mechanics, which I’d tried and failed to get through three or four times now. My hope was that an alternate option would be proposed. Little did I expect the combination of bafflement, indignation and fury that would be aimed in the post’s direction. Though I did receive a number of considered and considerate recommendations, the general attitude displayed by the board toward those who had not already pledged allegiance to Los Bros could be likened to those T-shirts you sometimes see straightedge hardcore kids wearing, the ones that say “If you’re not now, you never were!” If I didn’t already love Love and Rockets, if I didn’t already see why it deserved its two decades of plaudits, it’s probably best if I just shut the fuck up about it. In other words, “If you’re not now, you never will be!”
I wanted to like the Maggie and Hopey stories as much as I was supposed to. I wanted to let the strength of “Tear It Up, Terry Downe” and “A Date with Hopey” and parts of “Chester Square,” “Wigwam Bam” and “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” convince me of the near-messianic value of the volume’s remaining 650 pages. But in the end, maybe Maggie, Hopey, and Jaime’s whole half of L&R are like the early gigs of the band Ape Sex that the pair reminisce over, heaping scorn on those who weren’t in attendance. Maybe you had to be there.