This week when I saw the cover to Love and Rockets, vol. 2, #6 (Fantagraphics) on the racks of our local comics shoppe I immediately felt a fannish glow. Most of us have artists or musicians who do this to us: just the sight of fresh work by ’em lifts our spirits, makes us feel better about the world. (Hey, life can’t be that bad if a new Love and Rockets is in it!) Los Bros Hernandez do it for me.
L&R number six delivers the goods: superb black-&-white art, stories that range from urban real to sci-fi surreal, heroines who pointedly defy the pin-up conventions of mainstream comic art, an unvarnished overlay of Hispanic culture as well as the periodic head-scratching moment. Over the years Gilbert & Jaime (w./ an occasional assist from brother Mario) have created a comic book universe that’s unsurpassed in its inventiveness & breadth of emotional experience. The newest issue is a blend of serial stories plus stand-alone tales – though with the exception of the latest chapter of an extended South American adventure written by Mario and illustrated by Gilbert, you can read each entry by themselves. Three pieces, in particular, stand out.
“Toco,” the four-page opener, is a Beto work: a disquieting slice-of-Southern-Cal-street-life whose hero – a bald-headed kid in an oversized sweatshirt – has appeared on the sidelines in a lot of Gilbert’s stories. In this solo outing, Toco encounters a stranger on the beachside streets, is taken to a slasher flick where the stranger fondles him in the darkness. Though the boy appears unfazed by the experience, the stranger is afterwards attacked by a group of outraged adults.
As for Toco, we’re unsure if he even knows what’s been done to him. He watches his perpetrator get beaten without saying a word; only thing he says about his experience is he wishes he could go to the movies every day. Is he too young or developmentally delayed to comprehend? The cartoonist lets us draw our own conclusions.
Gilbert’s other four-page opus is even less clear-cut: an improv piece featuring Roy, a fat security guard with a bowl haircut that’s meant to recall sixties cult comic book hero Herbie Popnecker. Built on a series of tiny panels (fifty-five to a page) that admittedly were a strain for this bifocal-wearing reader, “30,000 Hours to Kill” follows Roy’s misadventures as he is unjustly jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Packed with fantastic details – a bear-like monster with a large snout, a mysterious experiment in the bowels of the earth, and (most improbable of all) a guy who becomes a millionaire selling alternative comics – it has the to-hell-with-plot energy of early undergrounders at their loosest.
As a character, Roy tends to react more than initiate – in this sense he’s much like the aforementioned Herbie (though Roy typically has a more avuncular affect than the expressionless fat boy). “There’s a lot negativity in the world,” he tells the man who’ll steal his girlfriend while he’s imprisoned, “but honesty and integrity aren’t dead.” With his naiveté & capacity for animalistic violence, Roy is basically a roly-poly man-child. But, as in the Toco tale, Gilbert is unsparingly unsentimental about what this can entail.
The issue’s longest entry is a thirteen-pager by Jaime starring Maggie, the full-figured mechanic from East L.A. who’s stuck in a dead-end life and has seemingly even lost the ability to dream her way out of it. Back when the first series of Love and Rockets began, Maggie’s sci-fi daydreams were presented full-tilt, with very little undermining ’em. As the series progressed and we got to see the world she was really inhabiting, Jaime began to deliberately undercut our suspension of disbelief. All those early stories that we took at face value turned out to be the imaginings of a pudgy punk grrl. This ploy may’ve cost the artist some readers, but it also made his comics world richer for the rest of us. In the years since, Maggie & friends have evolved into models of naturalistic characterization that have been studied (and, in some cases, just plain swiped) by savvy comics scripters.
The Bros put L&R on hiatus for a few years. But when it returned, the quality of Maggie’s fantasies seemed to’ve taken a turn toward the gothic: closer to the nightmarish realm of a schizophrenic writer than the glistening space age dreams of before. This grim trend continues in the most recent chapter. Maggie, working as an apartment manager, is forced to clean-up following an earthquake, picking up the shattered artifacts of their lives. Still separated from her former constant companion, Hopey, she fruitlessly yearns for a seemingly unattainable towering tenant and indulges in unresolved flirting with another. (Jaime’s a master at illustrating unspoken sexual tension.) The dream that follows is of a menacing costumed figure (the tall lady tenant), a headless crucifix & a mutilated cat – no love or rockets here.
Whether Maggie’s dream is a portent or merely a reflection of her own dissatisfaction is not resolved. Neither Jaime nor Gilbert are interested in too-neat explanations for either their characters’ actions or their imaginings. Which is as it should be. Love and Rockets is more about character, mood & moments than it is about long-winded exposition. It’s about comics in a world where scrabbling for joy is a daily chore.
Ain’t a lot of graphic artists that are comfortable in this gray world – and even fewer suffused with the sheer love of comics storytelling that radiates from the Bros Hernandez. For fans of unadulterated grown-up comics, Love and Rockets continues to be as good as it gets. Powered by Sidelines