Thursday, January 1, 2009

Love & Rockets New Stories #1

It's stunning to consider that Los. Bros. Hernandez have been making comics for over 25 years now. It's even more surprising to note that the second volume of Love and Rockets ran for a decade. That kind of relentless devotion to their craft is rarely seen in any art, much less in art-comics, where so many cartoonists aren't able to work at a steady pace because of outside work. Looking at the entirety of that second volume, one can now see it as an extended denouement to the first volume. Gilbert Hernandez concluded the story of Palomar in volume one, but he had quite a bit more to say about the lives of Luba and her extended family in America. That American story was darker in tone than the Palomar stories, lightened only by the presence of Petra's daughter Venus and her metacommentary on comics.

Meanwhile, Jaime's stories about Maggie, Hopey, Ray and Doyle were all about the sensation of a feeling being lost, an opportunity gone by. The characters were all aging and the bloom of youth was certainly off, but the way that they coped made for some exquisitely bittersweet stories. Jaime also started to return to his sci-fi/magical realist roots a bit, while still firmly grounding his stories in the emotional narratives of his characters.

In Volume 3, Jaime starts from a familiar story point (Maggie being the manager of an apartment complex) and takes a sharp left turn into a wild superhero narrative. Penny Century, who had long wanted to receive superpowers, finally gets them but with disastrous consequences. Jaime's newest great character, Angel of Tarzana, teams up with apartment resident Alarma to search for the power-crazed and grief-stricken Penny. Jaime somehow manages to write a silver-age type story (completely with multiple all-girl superhero teams, retro comics designs, and a stunning use of old L&R continuity in some unexpected ways) that in every way is consistent with the emotional tone of his Locas stories. Part 2 of the story, "Penny Is Found" moves the action relentlessly from panel to panel like a Jack Kirby comic and manages to tie in L&R's punk rock roots with superhero tropes like evil twins from the future. After writing a decade's worth of quiet, restrained stories, one can sense Jaime reveling in this bit of lunacy. It's pure fun, from beginning to end, with each story mimicking the average length of a superhero comic (25 pages).

With regard to Gilbert's contributions, fans of his out-there New Love series will admire the sheer variety of approaches he uses in his narratives. In "?", he creates a sort of symmetrical visual poetry, as a series of mysterious but connected images revolve around thirst. We go from humans to anthropomorphic ducks to anthropomorphic blobs back to humans in a story that demands multiple rereadings. "Chiro El Indio" and "Never Say Never" are both stories jam-packed with bizarre shtick; the former uses familiar sitcom tropes in a story that is hilariously blasphemous. Simply looking at his rubbery, exaggerated character designs inspires laughter, and the light touch he gives his characters is counterbalanced by the demented nature of the story written by Mario Hernandez (involving the local church trying to drive out Indians). "Never Say Never" feels like a stream-of-consciousness bit of comedy, where a leftist polemic-spouting anthropomorphic kangaroo is aided by giant anthropomorphic penises, wins money gambling and turns down the advances of a gold-digger. It's a minor Beto piece, but in the context of the rest of the avalanche of inspiration he presents in this issue, it seems like another set of ideas and images that simply poured out of him.

Travel is at the heart of this issue's showstoppers: "Victory Dance" and "Papa". The latter is the grueling story of a man's arduous journey for to deliver a package for money. He survives a fall from a mudslide and copes with the horrific discovery that he's swallowed some poisonous worms. The scene where his eyes swell shut and one starts spouting blood when he forces it open are among the most gruesome and visceral I've ever seen from Gilbert. The emotional hammer in the issue is the idea that his own wife may have tried to poison him. When he comes home after collapsing and passing out for a couple of days, he's more worried about his wife's anger than his own safety--or any sense of satisfaction that he's completed the job. Gilbert draws some of my favorite ugly characters in comics, and the cast in this story is an all-star lineup of grotesques. The only exception is the young girl he meets who leaves her home, admonishing him by saying, "How can I see the world if I stay home all the time?" "Victory Dance" continues the thread of Julio Juan, a character he introduced in L&R Volume 2. It?s a story about second chances offered but then rejected.

The wackiest, and my favorite, story in the issue is "The New Adventures of Duke and Sammy". It takes a very thinly veiled version of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis from the heyday of their comedic partnership and zaps them to another planet where they gain superpowers, come back from the dead, engage in mortal combat with squat, spear-wielding aliens, fight nearly to the death against each other and then zip away in a spaceship. It feels like an especially demented issue of the old Martin & Lewis comic from the 50s, and it manages to stay true to the wackiness of that premise (and its stars) while taking a darker turn ("Back to beautiful lovers and crushing enemies!").

There were some who complained that the Hernandez brothers were getting stuck in a rut in L&R volume 2, that their characters had long overstayed their welcome. I don't agree with that line of reasoning, but I can understand readers wishing to see Gilbert really cut loose on new ideas and Jaime apply his skills to something a bit more energetic and whimsical again. In Love and Rockets: New Stories, Los Bros. Hernandez have both started over and come full circle, and long-time fans will find much to sink their teeth into.

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