Thursday, August 20, 2009

Twists and Turns: Love and Rockets New Stories #2

Rob reviews the second issue of LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES, by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez worked in almost completely different territories for the second issue of their now-annual LOVE AND ROCKETS: New Stories series. Jaime wrapped up his super-hero epic surrounding Penny Century, Angel of Tarzana and the Ti-Girls, while Beto's big story was a wordless bit of whirling imagery in the mold of his old NEW LOVE stories. It's been awhile since I've seen Gilbert do a story as deliberately oblique and enigmatic as this, given that much of what he's done of late has been either wrapping up the fates of his American-based Palomar characters or whipping up over-the-top noir/pulp thrillers. For Jaime, his first stories in the new version of L&R have been a return of sorts to his early Mechanics roots, only even more steeped in the fantastic. At the same time, his commanding storytelling prowess and greater subtlety directly inform this story, leading to some surprisingly poignant moments amidst sci-fi twists and costumed mayhem.

Gilbert actually contributed two stories to this issue. The first, "Sad Girl", introduces his latest female character of note, Dora "Killer" Rivera. Killer actually first appeared in an occasional L&R volume II feature called "the Kid Stuff Kids", one of Beto's more delightful and light-hearted features in recent years. Reconnecting with the extended Palomar family, Killer is the daughter of Guadalupe and granddaughter of Luba, the principal character of the Palomar stories. Killer is an interesting counter to Luba's sister Fritz; she has the busty physical proportions of the family but has a confidence and self-possession that Fritz always lacked, even if Killer is every bit as vulnerable in her own way. Beto fast-forwarded Killer to her teenage years and surprisingly turned this from a typical slice-of-life character study into a bit of noir. One senses that this story is the first of many for this particular set of characters, as Gilbert once again manages to maintain his connection to his oldest characters. In recent years, his stories have become increasingly sordid as Luba's extended family moved to the USA. Decay, decadence, corruption, hypocrisy and the erosion of community & family bonds have been his most notable themes, along with the destruction of innocence. This story ends with the end of Killer's innocence, much as he started out in this way with Luba in POISON RIVER or Fritz in Volume II. Both of those characters took different paths, so it'll be interesting to see where he takes Killer.

"Hypnotwist" is a silent dream/nightmare journey comic that is not unlike the experience of a David Lynch film. It follows a woman awakening from a restless sleep who slips on a shirt and ventures out into the night, meeting a variety of unusual people. That journey was mediated by a pair of what appeared to be magic slippers ala Cinderella, or perhaps Dorothy --only they tended to guide her to the seediest places wherein she faced her fears and obsessions. Gilbert does something interesting at the beginning of that journey, where the woman sees the shows glow and finds herself sinking into the floor. The room she sees is rendered more crudely, with thicker lines reflecting the unreality of the moment. As she proceeds, she faces her obsession with having children, with her own potential madness (meeting a crazed, homeless version of herself on the street) and with her own questionable choices in men.

The story gets more crazed as it proceeds, as she comes across a building with a haggard woman trapped in a pit awaiting torture, finds herself in that role, and witnesses a number of bizarre transformations. Melting transformations are a running motif in this story, as the protagonist escapes several menacing situations by changing identities and locales. The final pages are especially fascinating, as the woman gets out of another jam, realizes that she's menstruating, and then goes on stage as a magician/hypnotist. Walking home, she meets up with a variation of a figure she's seen earlier in the evening, looking back on the madness she went through on her journey. Secrets and images of Masons and other conspiratorial elements beyond one's control dominate the story, as the hypnotist dreams of the fluidity of identity. Visually, this is Gilbert at his most exciting and fluid, as he varies his line weight and style to help create the story's disorienting effect.

Jaime's Kirbyesque "Ti-Girls Adventures" somehow manages to neatly synch up his slice-of-life Locas stories (including the sterling batch that he wrote for Volume II) with slam-bam action, ridiculousness and even a suprisingly tender meta-narrative. In a story ostensibly about Penny Century gaining superpowers after years of wanting to be a superhero, Maggie became the key figure because her gift was being able to interpret and read obscure old comic books that foretold the future. The story dealt with topics that Gilbert tends to favor: the relationship between mother and child, the awkwardness felt between older and younger generations (especially with multiple generations all interacting with each other), and the legacies left for children. Of course, Gilbert explored those ideas within the framework of magical realism in Palomar, and later within pulp/soap opera tropes. Jaime plays them out within superhero spectacle.

What's remarkable about the story is that it is completely successful as a super-hero epic. Jaime cuts loose with the fights with every bit as much verve as he did when drawing his wrestling stories in WHOA NELLIE! Jaime touched on cliches like evil twins from the future, the origin of superpowers, women's prison breakouts, brawls in outer space and superteam dynamics to create a story of epic scope that still managed to neatly put all of the toys back in the Locas box, so to speak. He also injected a great deal of humor into the story while still respecting the bounds of the genre, though one had the sense that he was deliberately evoking the spirit of obscure, hacked-out superhero comics that nonetheless had a certain no-one-is-reading-this weirdness to them.

What we've seen from Jaime & Gilbert in volume III of LOVE AND ROCKETS is very much a back-to-basics movement, filtered through what they've learned as cartoonists. For Jaime, his line has become impeccable without losing any of its spontaneity, but what really separates this from his earliest genre works is the way he paces the story. There's none of the awkwardness and raggedness of line that marked some of his earliest stories, and his use of spotting blacks is simply stunning. One senses that Jaime wanted to cut loose after years of creating stories out of quieter and quieter moments. I'll be curious to see where he goes next. As for Gilbert, "Hypnotwist" is a remarkable return to the sort of surreal storytelling that he has occasionally delved into, a rich series of images that reward multiple readings. Neither brother is doing what I'd call groundbreaking work at the moment, but they've earned the right to revisit past ideas and techniques and see where they can take them.

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