Monday, September 26, 2011

A Dozen Thoughts On Love & Rockets: New Stories #4

This isn't a formal review, per se, but instead a few gut-reaction thoughts on the remarkable new issue of Love & Rockets: New Stories (#4). I've never bothered to do this before in a review, but the nature of this issue demands that I note that there are spoilers below.

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.


  1. Nice bullet points, but Maggie's partner is "Yax," not "Yaq," waaaaay back from the Rand Race days!

  2. Fixed. And good god, you're right! I totally forgot about him! Time for a series-wide re-read...

  3. I couldn't have said it better myself, Rob. What a fantastic issue!

  4. I'm always amazed how Jaime can add a flashback that not only feels like it works within the decades of narrative history (you don't feel like he's rewriting the history), tells an interesting story in itself, and comments on the stories before/after it. The Letty story in this issue is just so impressive on that account.

    The first time through I was a little more focused on how it worked in regards to Browntown and WigWamBam (is that where we first learn about Letty?), but the second time through I saw how much it resonated with the current story and with Maggie's outburst about people being "gone" on page 62.

  5. Wig Wam Bam is indeed where we first learn about Letty. It's the first time we start to understand why Maggie is the way she is. And you're so right that Jaime designed that flashback to resonate with past stories but always, always had his eyes on the prize with this storyline.

    Marc, where do you think Jaime goes from here? I'm eager to hear more details about what you thought about the story.

  6. Well said! I believe the Locas characters are real like they exist in time - but more in that way that the characters mess around with my own sense of TIME. Decades pass and stories change - characters change - it's emotionally moving and lyrical. Beyond description what Xaime does.

  7. Excellent post, Rob! I got New Stories #4 last week, just in time for my birthday (woo-hoo!), and I was completely blown away; it left me a tearful, elated mess. The emotional impact of Jaime's story surpasses that of last year's volume, which is truly amazing. I was in a daze for hours after reading the most powerful art, it had an exhilarating effect that lingered. I've been wanting to rave about it to anyone who would listen for a week, but I realized I had to wait until the reactions started trickling in.

    I'm still at this time trying to sort it all in my mind, but one thing that this volume demonstrated is Jaime's unparalleled (and downright uncanny) ability to repurpose his own work in original and unexpected ways that prove to be highly emotionally resonant. I can't think of any other artist that can do this, or at least this beautifully and effectively. Letty's story (with the masterstroke of the interrupted narration) and that magnificent double-page spread being the obvious examples. I had to run and look up the original panels for that spread in the old books; I recognized them, of course, but now they had an added weight to them that changes upon re-reading the originals. Jaime is THE master comics storyteller and the best artist of his generation. Period.

  8. Just a small but important point of clarification. The first mention of Letty was not WWB, but actually Young Locas (in Maggie the Mechanic) several years earlier, all the way back in 1985. It was only a couple of panels, but Jaime's early work is filled with these kinds of brief mentions that are not fleshed out until much later, a la Flies on the Ceiling.

    As far as where Jaime goes from here, of course only he knows. Although the Love Bunglers does bring a certain sense of closure to the macro-storyline of Maggie's romantic life, it is her journey through life itself that is the real story, and so I expect we'll see a deeper exploration of her relationship with Ray, Hopey's experiences as a mother, the evolution of their fascinating friendship, etc. Maybe even the return of Izzy or some of the other Locas cast. I can't wait to find out.

  9. y'know...the 'ti-girls' story held my attention just as much as any of the other new stories. sure, it was more "rockets" than "love" but that didn't make the latest chapter in the penny century/beatriz garcia story any less interesting. also, i wouldn't mind seeing more from beto either. xaime has been taking the lion's share of the last few issues, maybe there's a new chapter in the luba story. with all of her kids, there has to be a few stories waiting to be told, no?

    i'm still stunned by the love bunglers story. it definitely set the high water mark for comics in 2011. sure, there are good stories out there, but the emotional resonance just isn't there for me...

  10. Great piece. Like everyone else, I was just blown away by "Love Bunglers." I can't think of many works in any medium that have truly brought me to tears but this did it. Those last pages gave me chills and left me totally stunned. It really does feel like an ending. I don't know if Jaime will continue to tell Locas stories, but this feels like such a natural place to stop, to call this saga finished after all this time. It's just perfect. Jaime's work, much more than his brother's, has always been about accumulation and the passage of time, and this story builds naturally on all the emotional background of his entire epic from the beginning. It surpasses even his previous high-water mark in Ghost of Hoppers.

    Anyway, was that really Fritz in Gilbert's story? She wasn't lisping, and all of Gilbert's big-boobed women are starting to look the same to me. I really enjoyed that piece about the woman and her lover, though, just great dialogue in that with everything being said between the lines.

    But Jaime was definitely the real star of this issue.

  11. Finished reading Jaime's story this morning and think it's the best thing that I've read since Browntown. I felt so good after reading this and will be thinking about the story for the rest of the day. The emotional impact of this work is grand.

  12. I've read a lot of people saying this feels like the end of Locas, or would be the perfect stopping point. I totally disagree. Jaime's devoted 30 years of his life to chronicling the lives of these characters, he's not going to stop now. Rather, I think time will show that Love Bunglers was the beginning of a new era in Jaime's characters' lives, as they start to grapple with aging, parenthood, marriage, etc. I see it as a landmark story in terms of the characters' development, just like Wig Wam Bam and the stories that followed showed them growing out of the punk phase into young adults.

  13. Ed, I'm pretty sure that was Fritz. There have been other stories where she didn't have the lisp.

    Marc, I hope you're right. My saying this feels like an end is more of a statement of worry than a declaration that he should stop writing about these characters.

    That said, I'd like to see Jaime take a long look at Hopey and how she got from nearly broken up to having a kid, and then seeing where that goes.

    He also clearly has a great deal of affection for Angel, who I see as kind of Maggie Mark II--only better adjusted. Still, the story here hints that she's now confident enough to start to do some really stupid things.

    And Calvin's story can't be done, either.

    But as far as Ray & Maggie go, I'm content to see them in the background for a few years.