1. Gilbert's "King Vampire" is another in his line of Fritz-related grindhouse movie adaptations. It's also a brutal takedown of the current cultural obsession over vampires. Vampire fiction eroticizes the monsters at the core of their stories, equating bloodlust with simple lust and essentially glorifying rape fantasies. In one shockingly disgusting scene, the sexy vampire in the story squashes a guy's head against a wall in the most visceral manner possible so as to make it easy for his new prey to drink his blood, but also provide an object lesson. For a predator, its prey is little more than an object at hand. That scene bluntly drains all of the eroticism out of the story and rightly smashes the whole vampire erotica genre to bits.
2. Gilbert's "And Then Reality Kicks In" is a sober, complex and layered conversation between Fritz and an old boyfriend. Like a lot of things in this issue, this story has an air of finality to it, a capstone of sorts. I haven't figured out which old lover of Fritz's this is (I need to go back and reread), but there was something satisfying about seeing her in possession of hard-won wisdom.
3. Speaking of an air of finality, Jaime's follow-up to last issue's "Browntown" and "The Love Bunglers" is what pushes this issue into the stratosphere. I literally have no idea where he goes from here with his Locas characters.
4. It is cliche' to talk about one's favorite characters as though they really exist and feel like friends. It is certainly not a very sophisticated way to read a story. That said, if any cartoonist has created work that's earned this mark, it's Jaime. When Ray Dominguez was getting his head bashed in by Calvin (truly the most tragic character in Jaime's cast), my gut reaction was "No!" Ray is Jaime's Everyman character--a decent if slightly underachieving guy who never had the cool of someone like Speedy or Hopey (especially in his own eyes) and so always feels like an underdog in earning Maggie's affections.
5. The theme of the past two issues has been emotional steadfastness and patience. Characters are forced to put their cards on the table about their feelings. For some, like Ray, it was a move of maturity, of realizing what he wanted as a middle-aged man and that he had no more time to waste. For some, like Reno, it was trying to act on long-supressed crushes but not understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. For Vivian "the Frogmouth", it was an expose' of her essential vapidness, a lesson learned too late. For Maggie, it was a lesson learned almost too late that one must jump on opportunities when they arise, that putting aside one's own baggage is the key to moving on. Maggie could simply never get out of her own way. Calvin's story was one of devotion never being rewarded and becoming warped as a result. Intimacy was conflated with assault in his mind as he tried to "protect" his sister.
6. Those themes are tied up in "Return To Me", which is a sequel to both "Browntown" and "Wigwam Bam". The latter, in my opinion, was the high point of Jaime's work in Love & Rockets Volume I. The flashback stories in the past two issues have served the purpose of filling in a couple of crucial emotional blanks in Maggie's backstory. "Browntown" established how her parents' divorce cut her off emotionally from her family on a permanent basis, but also how her relationship to her best friend Letty started to fracture a bit. "Wigwam Bam" was Letty's story from Maggie's point of view, a crucial entry in that it revealed where Maggie was emotionally right before she met Hopey. Letty was of course killed in a car accident, but the heartbreaking "Return To Me" documents her friendship with Maggie from her point of view. Maggie always feared that Letty was too cool for her, but Letty never let Maggie out of her heart. This story was all the more tragic because Letty felt so awful for Maggie that her mother left her behind in Hoppers and was prepared to take her in and really nurture her. Instead, she was cruelly cut down, and Maggie never quite knew how her friend felt about her.
7. The last chapter of "The Love Bunglers" was a tour-de-force, a walk-off grand slam of a story that was thirty years in the making. I doubt there were any dry eyes on the part of long-time fans of the series while reading this, yet every single moment was completely earned organically. There was no easy sentiment on display, but rather thirty years' worth of hard-won lessons and building emotion. What was especially powerful about the last chapter is how slow and easy the pace of the prior chapters was. In retrospect, one can see how Jaime was building up to this in the earlier chapters (just as the flashback stories enhance and comment on the present-day story), but the scene where Calvin has a psychotic breakdown (after once again seeing the blue sun, a metaphor for the way Calvin sees real things that others don't and ignore) and thinks that Ray has done something bad to Maggie was heartbreaking. Ray was typical Ray in that scene--slightly exasperated, more than a little patient and trying to do the right thing--and got his head bashed in for his troubles.
8. Considering the tragic circumstances of Calvin and Ray's own hard-luck life, I honestly thought that's where the story was going to end. Jaime's narrative equivocation about Ray's fate didn't feel manipulative to me; instead, he effectively inserts us into Maggie's perspective while giving the reader enough extra information to make the scene where she's talking to the guy in the record shop about Ray all the more heartbreaking. Jaime also inserts a bit of humor when she visits a brain-damaged Ray at his parents' house when his mother notes that all he says is "Maggie", "fuck" and "shit". Jaime is a master of body language and gesture, and the panel where Maggie curls into a ball was devastating.
9. That set up the two-pages with a nine-panel grid on each. The Maggie page is something we've seen before with her, and this page took us from her time as a baby to now. Seeing that the next page not only did the same with Ray, but when I realized as a reader that each corresponding panel on Ray's page commented on Maggie (and in most of them, because they were eyeing one another), it was a stunning gut punch. This was Jaime at his finest, "sampling" old stories, telling a story without a true narrative and using his command of gesture to recapitulate a thirty-year story.
10. The final scene with Maggie (now a mechanic once again) taking Hopey's son back to her was pitch-perfect. There's hasn't been much interaction between the two characters in a number of years, yet Jaime still has a way of conveying an astonishing amount of meaning in a very short number of panels. As always, there is both ease and tension between the two women, even as they have their own very different lives. Hopey inviting Maggie in several times and Maggie demurring was a crucial narrative point, though that's not clear until we see Ray. In other words, Ray is now Maggie's top priority.
11. Finally, the last scene with Ray was simple, powerful, emotional--again, all of that feeling felt earned, with Maggie's saying "Of course I waited for you, I love you" succinctly summing up this complex, messy, beautiful relationship. That scene was also a connector to the opening sequence of Jaime's stories in this issue, as we meet a long-time couple and see them go about their daily routine; it's decidedly unsexy and is all about devotion. The man is Yax, Maggie's new business partner, but that relationship is a referent to Maggie and Ray growing old together.
12. Again, where does Jaime go from here? Does he continue to examine Maggie & Ray's relationship as they grow older? Does he turn his eye back to Hopey as she raises a son? Is Calvin's story over? Will we see more from Penny or Izzy? Or does he turn back to depicting youth as Angel goes off to college? Perhaps at this point Maggie will be more of a background character for a few years. Perhaps he'll start over with something completely different. Certainly, his "Locas" universe feels as finished as it ever will. Whatever he decides, Jaime certainly stuck the landing on his life's work to date.