Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Tribute To Jaime Hernandez

 This weekend, I'm paying tribute to the 30th anniversary of Love & Rockets by publishing several long out-of-print reviews I did a few years back, in anticipation of my review of L&R New Stories #5. We conclude today with Jaime Hernandez.

Maggie The Mechanic is Jaime Hernandez's first volume of the new Fantagraphics Love and Rockets collection, gathering all of the stories roughly before "The Death of Speedy Ortiz" storyline. Jaime wastes no time introducing us to Maggie & Hopey and immediately brings in a certain ambiguity as to their relationship: are they friends or lovers? That central tension would go on to inform the rest of the series; how Maggie and Hopey related to each other often drove entire storylines. Of course, Jaime told stories that mixed the punk rock scene with dinosaurs, futuristic technology, eccentric billionaires, international intrigue, jungle adventures and all sorts of other wackiness. It was a comics version of magical realism, one that he would tone down greatly as the series evolved. Eventually, such trappings disappeared almost entirely and Jaime's stories revolved around the incredibly rich characters he created.

I always hesitate in recommending Jaime's earliest stories to new readers. His learning curve was a lot steeper than his brother Beto's, though it is fascinating to see how quickly he evolved in just a couple of years. Even as Jaime puts Maggie through all sorts of adventures, he still takes the time to slowly develop the supporting cast: superhero wannabee and all-around knockout Penny Century, Maggie's long-time friend Izzy Ortiz, Izzy's brother and object of Maggie's affection Speedy, the "prosolar mech" crew of Race & Duke, devilish-looking billionaire H.R. Costigan, and of course Hopey Glass. Maggie is all self-doubt and awkwardness, yet radiates such a powerful sense of self that everyone's drawn to her. She possesses a benevolence that attracts both the right and wrong kind of people to her. Chief among them is Hopey, who's all aggression and acting out. The chip on her shoulder protects her against the world, as we are very slowly introduced to her complexities as a character as the series progresses.

After those earlier stories involving assorted Maggie-centered shenanigans, Jaime turns a corner with "100 Rooms". It's about Maggie, Hopey and Izzy staying at the estate of Costigan at Penny's invitation. Though there's plenty of weirdness (and even super-heroes, something Jaime lovingly pokes fun at throughout the series), the story really turns on the relationship between Maggie & Hopey. One could cut away virtually every other story in this volume, but if you read "100 Rooms", one could easily follow the rest of the series. This story also gives some more time to Izzy, who may be the most interesting of Jaime's characters. We only get hints of her backstory in this volume, but we know that something turned her from a happily married woman to someone into "punker voodoo shit", who started to lose touch with reality. While Maggie started to occupy a perfectly normal universe, things always remained strange for haunted, tortured Izzy.

It's interesting to watch Jaime grow as an artist. He starts off by making all the usual mistakes: cramming too much information on a page, over-rendering his figures, and making some pages difficult to read. This was especially true in his first big storyline, "Mechanics". By the time "100 Rooms" rolls around, he's much closer to reaching his current (and flawless) style: a thinner line, an astonishing level of expressiveness with his characters, an assured use of negative space, and a much clearer sense of both page and panel composition. Above all else, Jaime became the master of gesture and body language. There's one page from "Locas Starring Hopey" where Hopey is confronted with a cop who catches her about to spraypaint graffiti on a wall. As the cop taunts her, her older, wilder self screams out insults as her "inner voice", while Hopey herself remains seemingly-calm as Izzy begs her not to snap. Finally, her inner voice becomes her real voice as she screams out obscenities. The cop is entirely in shadow on the left side of each panel, the increasingly agitated Izzy acts as each panel's anchor, Hopey herself remains impassive, and her younger/thought self becomes the raging object of the reader's eye. It's a brilliant page that perfectly serves this bit of slice-of-life that Jaime would become so good at later in his career.

"Las Mujeres Perdidas" ("The Lost Women") is the last full-length story in this collection. Jaime clearly learned from his earlier mistakes to create a breezy, snappy adventure story starring Maggie and Rena Titanion, the wrestling champ-turned-revolutionary. More intriguing are the brief vignettes he offers up at the end, detailing Hopey's stint in a punk band and more details of her life. As fun as the longer storyline was (with an earnest girl reporter, deadly twin midgets, robots, revolutionaries, etc.), Hopey's story was far more compelling. The best was certainly yet to come for Jaime.

The old saw on Jaime & Gilbert was that Jaime was the better artist and Gilbert the better writer. That was really only true in the very beginning of the series, and the real differences between them have a lot more to do with their choices as storytellers than judgment as to the worth of their comics. The two brothers have always dealt with a lot of similar issues and scenarios. The most obvious is that they were totally unique in the level of detail devoted to depicting two very different Latino cultures, one in California, one "somewhere to the south of the US border". The new Jaime volume, The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S., is especially vivid in its establishment of time and place. From gang tensions in the barrios to an electrifying snapshot of punk culture to the ennui surrounding slacker culture, there's an aching familiarity to the settings his characters find themselves in. Jaime almost totally junks the fantasy element that dominated his early stories, only retaining the wacky wrestling storyline and the adventures of Rena Titanion.

The story that was the obvious wake-up call for his new direction was "The Death of Speedy Ortiz", a masterwork of pain, tension and longing. I'm not sure if it was coincidence or not, but he wrote this story not too long after he had started drawing in his current, mature style. If there was a flaw in his early work, it was his kitchen sink approach to creating comics, stuffing every page and panel. Once he started to simplify, he was able to write extended narratives that slowly unveiled fascinating truths about the characters. With characterization as his main focus, the stories flowed out of their interactions, especially as he started adding new characters to the mix and expanded on old ones. In addition to our flawed young heroes Maggie & Hopey, mentor Izzy (Speedy's sister), and wacky pal Penny Century, we also meet Ray (a former crush of Maggie who returns to Hoppers) and see more of Doyle (Ray's best friend and a hard-living man who just got out of jail), along with many others.

Starting with "The Death of Speedy Ortiz", there's also a tonal shift. Jaime went from the breezy feel of his early stories to adding a bittersweet layer in every subsequent narrative. Even in the funnier stories and brief anecdotes, there's a tinge of sadness to every situation, with so much that's left unsaid but that is desperate to be spoken aloud. As we learn more of the characters' backstories, it becomes apparent that everyone's youth is quickly slipping away, a fact that no one wants to address but everyone understands. Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, Ray, Doyle and even ditzy Penny all experience loss, trauma and tragedy, but the most desperate battle is the fight to connect with others.

Maggie and Hopey are of course the central figures in this battle, as their literal separation only mirrored the simultaneous ambivalence and desperate connection they felt for each other. Izzy is the tragic figure in all this, a broken woman who alternately is loving and protective and but completely alienated from her environment. Ray has an enormous amount of love to give and proves to be vulnerable, while Doyle's been burned so many times that he also tends to close up or run away. While there are many moments of brief happiness, especially with Ray and Maggie, we leave this collection with Maggie leaving him in order to find Hopey.
If forced to pick a couple of stories that were favorites, I'd take "Tear It Up, Terry Downe" as my first. A side character who was involved with Hopey and resents Maggie, this story uses a 9-panel grid with "interview"-style techniques where different people give their opinion of the prickly Terry and then flashes back to her relationship with Hopey. Jaime's ability to get the audience to understand and sympathize with such an unpleasant character is what makes this story stand out, as we see her go from victim to victimizer to victim once again. The crown jewel in this book may be "Flies On The Ceiling", the harrowing account of Izzy's sojourn in Mexico. Izzy is the one character who retained the magical realist trappings of the series, as her battle with the devil here is both symbolic and quite real. There's a different feeling in this story than in most of Jaime's material from this time, one of dread, a sense that nothing is going to be all right ever again. What's interesting is that this is the feeling often evoked in Gilbert's stories.

Comparing Gilbert and Jaime further, let's look at their similarities. Both freely jump back and forth in time; while there is a central narrative to follow, both artists will jump forward months or years as they see fit. Both love writing and drawing about children; the multi-generational sweep of Love and Rockets is one of its biggest calling cards. Of course, women are the central characters of both artists. Gilbert works with a wider swath of time and so has characters that we first met as infants becoming mothers and even grandmothers. Giving life and raising children, while frequently portrayed as an ordeal, is also what forestalls the sense of doom that's so prevalent in Gilbert's stories. Interestingly, few of the regulars in Jaime's stories have children of their own.

Looking at Love and Rockets V2 #20, Jaime recapitulates Maggie's life with two different strips running in parallel to each other. "La Maggie La Loca" (in color) runs at the top of the page, and "Gold Diggers of 1969" (in black & white) is printed at the bottom. The first story, which originally ran in the New York Times, sees Maggie visiting Queen Rena. Designed as a self-contained story for newcomers, there are plenty of references to Mechanics as well. It's a throwback in that there's a little adventure in there, but there's a slight weariness in Maggie's tone as well. We learn at the end that Maggie turned 40 years old on this trip, and it's clear that while she's gained some perspective in life and even some contentment, there's still a sense of something missing. Having another adventure on her birthday was a bit of a restorative for her, something that she needed to do, and there's a sense that she's going to return to her old life with a slightly different perspective.

"Gold Diggers" is about Maggie as a toddler, drawn in Jaime's Hank Ketcham style. The characters are cuter, simplified and more iconic, but the emotions felt and portrayed are no less complex. Though his figure work is completely different, his mastery of gesture and expressiveness is exactly the same. What's amazing is seeing an artist known for his lush, flowing lines using minimalist techniques with such verve and cleverness. Thematically, it's a delight to read because this style represents the way a child sees the world: simplistic and dramatic, with hidden meanings everywhere.


As I've written in my past two reviews of the excellent new Love & Rockets collections from Fantagraphics, this new format has almost reinvented the careers of Los Bros. Hernandez. Having the complete Locas stories in three affordable ($16.95 each), portable volumes ends the problem of trying to figure out where to start in the old, 20+ volume collections and also gives a reader a more casual copy rather than buying the Locas coffee table book. That Jacob Covey's design for the books is enormously attractive and does a superb job in getting across the emotional tenor of each book is an added bonus. Perla La Loca contains the latter half of his Love & Rockets Volume I, with his seminal "Wigwam Bam" and "Chester Square" storylines. Those are the storylines that put him on an equal plane with his brother Gilbert. It's sort of Jaime's PhD dissertation as an artist, incorporating all of his old themes and interests while skillfully finding new ways to examine his characters and move them beyond the heady bloom of youth.

These stories are about how someone's absence can be every bit as affecting as someone's presence. Jaime had split up Maggie and Hopey before, but that was usually in the context of some sort of Mechanics adventure of Maggie's. This time around, the reason why they part company and what actually happened to Maggie, is the fuel for "Wigwam Bam's" narrative. As the story opens, the duo is on the east coast, hopping from house party to house party. If Jaime captured the feel of late teenhood and early adulthood in the first two volumes, he's even more evocative in his depiction of the sort of alternating malaise and excitement that 20-somethings feel in that period where they're still allowed to be somewhat aimless and in full possession of their youthful energy. This story starts at the end of that particular road, as both Maggie and Hopey start to unconsciously fear the future. After an argument, Maggie suddenly disappears from the story, and her absence affects every single character in the book.

Danita, now with Ray, is worried when she hears that Maggie has been seen in Hoppers. Ray, jilted by Maggie, is intrigued by this. Maggie's friend Daffy is hurt that Maggie might be back in town and hasn't contacted her. Izzy is haunted by the presence of Maggie and Hopey in her life. That's one of the story's central mysteries--where's Maggie? The other is, who put Hopey's picture on a "have you seen me?" milk carton? Those two simple plot points stir up a complex series of interactions, many of which have been brewing over time. In this volume, Jaime gets a great deal of emotional power from what is not said, not seen and not done, but rather suggested. The first mystery is not resolved in this story, but that lack of resolution in itself is a kind of closure for the denizens of Hoppers. The second mystery proves to be a kind of shaggy dog story, where the actual answer is a goof on everyone trying to solve the mystery--including the reader.

What sets this story apart from past Jaime efforts is the sense the reader gets that he's finally in total command as a storyteller. He effortlessly uses jump cuts and flashbacks while moving the whole story ahead in time. His realistic but supple line often switches styles in mid-panel, using Peter Bagge-style exaggeration and Hank Ketcham-style minimalist cartooning when depicting young children. He manages to imbue every character, no matter how small their role, with a strong inner life and compelling story. A running theme throughout the book is people vainly trying to recapture experiences--a time, a place, a set of people, a set of events. While many of the flashbacks are outrageous and hilarious, there's a certain sadness in many of the characters as they realize that a certain magic has slipped through their hands. Jaime never lets things get too maudlin, and cleverly puts Izzy through an improbable comedic escapade that winds up with her seeing Hopey again--but finding that nothing's the same (and everything's the same).

Doyle proves to be one of the more compelling characters in the story. Always a likable sort of neer-do-well, there's a certain pathos to his story here. We learn about his past and current dead-end future, made all the more grim when he feels desperately cut off from real human contact. There's an amazing depiction of camaraderie between him and Ray, but that's a fleeting feeling because Doyle knows that Ray has real connections that he can't leave behind. His desperate attempt at trying to regain his virility (and a connection to humanity) with Daffy's younger sister is devastating.

The story has two emotional climaxes, one uplifting and the other devastating. The former is a flashback as Izzy reads an old journal of Maggie detailing her friendship with Letty, who died before her 16th birthday. Izzy, always Maggie's protector, introduced her to Hopey in order to help Maggie get over Letty. The story overwhelms Izzy and indirectly reestablishes her emotional connection to Maggie. The latter ending involves Hopey. She had wound up staying in a mansion (in a story that's a sort of twisted parody of "100 Rooms") with a Lucille Ball-like former TV star who has some very unusual fetishes. Hopey inadvertently gets her friend Tex beaten up and almost killed, and she simply walks away, shattered. It had all been fun & games for Hopey, just a bunch of hijinx where the consequences never seemed to matter much for her. She never understood how her charismatic nature, the way that she attracted people to orbit around her, could wind up destroying lives.

Jaime returns to Maggie in the second half of the book, "Chester Square". It's more episodic and rambling and brings Maggie through a very different kind of experience from Hopey. By the end, Maggie finally grows up and learns to assert herself and comes to terms with a number of important people in her life: her sister, her father, Danica, her aunt Vicki, Queen Rena and many more. Maggie reaches her own low point and more importantly comes to terms with what she had to do to survive. Going through that nadir had a sort of transformative effect on her, where she stopped caring what others thought about her. It was that catharsis, combined with Hopey's realization that Maggie was the only really important person in her life, that allowed the two to reunite.

Once again, Jaime returns to a number of his story interests: wrestling melodrama with Vicki Glory and Rena's wrestler brother Diablo, political (and interpersonal) intrigue with Rena, Hispanic culture, a kidnapping plot and much more. He even ties the story emotionally to Speedy's death, and alternates a light, comedic touch with great empathy for his characters who are stumbling their way through their lives.

Maggie notes in this story that she just wants a clean slate and discovers that it's not that simple. Jaime gives the reader a false, "it was all a dream" happy ending that comes in the middle of one of my favorite sequences in all of comics. Maggie has just finally managed to make amends with everyone in her life, including a prostitute that she managed to run afoul of on more than one occasion. Hopey is in town, touring with a new band, desperately looking for Maggie. She spots her going into a bar, and another loose end of Maggie finds her and calls her a whore. As she walks out of the bar, she's slapped by an old woman on the street, which kicks off an amazing sequence where every person in Maggie's life slaps her in the face. That leads to that little dream sequence before Maggie is snapped back into reality, and reunited with Hopey in the back of a police car. It's an ending that's far more satisfying than the false one that Jaime teased us with, and in a way it's an ending he teased himself with. That ending represented a dead end in storytelling, a regression to his earliest development as an artist, and the real ending was just a little reminder of how far he had come as a creator who created an entire dramatic world with characters that we couldn't help but ache for as they struggled.

Ultimately, there's an idealistic streak in Jaime's comics that burns through the hipster cynicism that permeates characters like Hopey and many of her friends. Even Hopey knows that this is just a pose, and that Maggie represents a sort of authenticity in human relationships that she can't achieve otherwise. For Maggie, she had to learn how to focus, find out what she wanted and how to get it. Jaime Hernandez ties in pathos, raw sexuality, humor and action in a rambling, complex and multi-layered storyline that both stands well on its own and builds on what has come before. As always, Jaime is able to skillfully evoke a sense of time and place that grounds the characters but never drags them down. The best news about this volume is that it's only the beginning of Jaime's mature style, and he's only continued to get better.

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