Maggie the Mechanic
(Love and Rockets Libary: Locas, Book One)
Jaime Hernandez, writer/artist
If it weren’t for Jacob Covey and Bryan Lee O’Malley, I don’t think you’d be reading this post. Aside from Jaime Hernandez himself, they’re the two men most responsible for persuading me to pick up the digest editions of Love and Rockets that Fantagraphics began releasing a few years back, and for how hard those digests clicked with me when I did. Covey’s attractive design of the digests made the most of the power of Jaime’s art, individual panels of which work as stand-alone images as strongly as those of any cartoonist ever to put pen to paper. (I recognized that even as a Jaime skeptic.) Combine that with bright colors and the digest format itself–chunky enough to feel substantial, light enough to fit in a backpack and be read comfortably on the train or the beach, tailor-made to be lined up on a bookshelf–and you’ve got a series of books that are compulsively collectable and readable. O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series served a prophetic role in this regard: A format that’s similar (though not identical) and similarly delectable; crisp, stylish black-and-white art incorporating a variety of traditions and influences into the basic alternative-comics tradition; a fast and loose approach to genre fiction that uses it as a spice rather than the main ingredient; compelling portraits of an incestuous social circle of music-interested, kind of feckless young people with disastrous love lives…reading Scott Pilgrim primed me for revisiting Jaime’s “Locas” material, ready to accept it for what it is (“Locas”!) rather than what it isn’t (“Palomar”). No, I could never go back and recreate the experiences of the long-time die-hards who grew up with Maggie and Hopey in every individual issue; but barring that, I’d found the ideal combination of content and format. Putting it all in fun little digests rather than a big portentous hardcover somehow made it all click.
And so, instead of being put off by Maggie’s borderline-bipolar hysterics, Hopey’s surliness and occasional cruelty, and Penny’s bombshell ridiculousness…well, that’s who they are, isn’t it? I feel like it’s somehow an insult to the whole critical project if I say “I used to find them all pretty annoying, but then I learned to accept it and move on”–like, c’mon, was it really that simple? And the answer is yes! Instead of bashing my head against the fact that they weren’t more together, or that they weren’t falling apart in the way my personally preferred alternative-comics protagonists tend to fall apart, I suddenly found myself digging it. For example, it’s funny and endearing watching Maggie fall all over herself around the alpha males she’s attracted to, and to contrast this with the alpha females with whom she surrounds herself as friends. Izzy Ruebens, Penny Century, and Hopey Glass are all a bit whacked-out in their own ways, but the personas they’ve constructed for themselves as a way of dealing with their problems are rock-solid, even overwhelming to newcomers. Maggie Chascarillo, by contrast, is an open book–even her attempts to cloak her true feelings send an equally true message in block letters five feet tall. Her inability to repress herself is her charm, and it’s reflected by the physical business Jaime is constantly involving her in–crashing hoverbikes, breaking machinery, ripping her pants, getting tossed around by wrestlers and thugs and explosions. She’s sort of an explosion herself!
(On a related note, I almost threw Terry Downe on my list of the alpha-Locas, but I can’t get around that one heartbreaking panel in this collection where her glacial hardass facade crumbles and she begs Hopey to tell her what Maggie has that she doesn’t. Hopey’s hold over Terry is that she brings out the Maggie in her.)
Making his protagonist a basketcase (albeit a sexy one–let’s be honest, that’s a big part of the appeal of this material too) is just one part of what impresses me so much any time I revisit this material: I’m struck by just how confident it is in itself. What I really mean by that, of course, is LOOK AT THIS FUCKING COMIC. Can you imagine what the reaction would be if a cartoonist today came out with a debut with the chops Jaime’s displaying in the very first issue? Keep in mind I’m not just talking about the crosshatchy prosolar-mechanic sci-fi stuff: The second story is “How to Kill a…,” a wordless, increasingly abstracted portrait of Izzy as a young writer, hinting not only at the formal mastery Jaime would later display (it’s all jumpcuts and comics-as-design), but at the psychological (and supernatural!) depths Izzy’s gothy exterior would be revealed to contain years later.
And on a narrative level, Jaime spends no time at all explaining his world, why it bounces back and forth between a realistic portrait of young poor Latina punks and a light-hearted science-fiction satire of Reagan-era Latin-American political upheavals. Like magic realism gone Marvel Comics, it just throws you right into the deep end and expects you to swim. This is true even if you’re just talking about the realistic stuff, the person-to-person relationships, and it’s established right in the fourth panel, where Maggie complains about having had too much to drink last night: These comics predicate themselves on things that already happened. Nearly any time a new character is introduced, they’re after money someone owes them, or getting teased for the crush they’ve been nurturing on another character for years. It’s an in medias res world.
Okay, so a lot of it will be filled in with flashbacks eventually. We get a glimpse of this in “A Date with Hopey,” the story that concludes this volume and is its strongest single strip. Our hapless hero Henry’s one and only appearance relates how his sporadic, intense friendship with Hopey evolved into unrequited love, ended in rejection, and now exists as a bittersweet memory; the laserlike precision with which the story pinpoints powerful emotions nearly everyone has experienced serves as a model for the future of the Locas stories. (And, contra what I used to think, it’s proof positive that Jaime is fully aware of the damage Hopey can carelessly inflict, even as its her carelessness itself that makes her so irresistible.) But the way you’re just dropped into Maggie & Hopey, Already In Progress, is pretty much why I continue to recommend this volume, rather than its relatively sci-fi-free successors, as the place to start if you’re interested in Jaime’s work. I understand why that doesn’t work for everyone–and it’s true, the earliest comics are relatively talky and old-fashioned-looking as befits their influences. But if you start late in the game, you’re not just missing dinosaurs and rocketships and robots and superheroes and such–you’re missing what really feels like a couple years in the life. Even by page one, we’ve already missed so much!