Friday, June 6, 2014

Cracked Lenses: Love and Rockets New Stories #6

If Love & Rockets New Stories #5 saw Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez retrenching as they built storylines around new characters, then #6 is the first powerful realization of that idea. Both brothers often talk about certain characters and following them around to see what they'll do, to see if they can figure them out. Both talk about certain characters as unknowable for a variety of reasons; loose cannon Hopey has always been Jaime's unknowable character, while Gilbert has enjoyed writing Fritz for the opposite reason, that she has no real agency of her own and thus can fit any number of ideas or storylines. In Gilbert's cracked-lens return to Palomar, his new central figure is Killer, the daughter of Guadalupe and granddaughter of Luba. After last issue's hilarious interpolation of a film about Palomar starring Fritz with Killer meeting everyone for the first time, this issue delves into Killer trying to figure what she wants to do with her life. In particular, she wonders if she should give up being an actress.

After last issue's splashy stories, this issue is a bit more low-key with regard to Killer and her story, preferring to lay some narrative pipe and give the characters a bit of room to breathe and interact. The essential narrative arc to be found here is whether or not Killer is pregnant, a story that's fanned by media interest and that excites her father, Hector. When he learns this is not the case, there's a devastating scene where he cuts her down and she walks away. Killer, the "Sad Girl", who inspires story titles like "Willow, Weep No More" is perhaps the most stoic of all Hernandez's characters, rarely betraying any signs of negative emotion. She's guarded but not impossibly so, like Luba (or Maria, for that matter). She's flexible but is learning to exert agency in this storyline, unlike Fritz. Gilbert also drops a lot of other familial tidbits in this story as a way of connecting the toxic communication styles that plagued Killer's family for years. We see Maria (her great-grandmother) expressing guilt about giving away Luba, then denying her existence, then in a flashback where they cross paths without knowing it in America. This is connected with footage from the Maria M. movie popping up, something which means little to Luba (who hardened herself against the existence of her mother years earlier) but which endlessly fascinates Killer. We also see flashbacks to Fritz trying to curry her mother's favor with regard to the film, with an offer to appear in it even as Fritz plays her. Killer represents a chance to do things differently in this family saga, to be someone who manages to dodge the same kinds of tragedies and horrors that her older relatives endured. Guadalupe was always the most stable and happiest of Luba's children, and Killer represents a child who has her mother's stable nature but who is still teetering on the edge of dealing with fame. The end of the book, where she encounters Doralis' ghost and suddenly gets the urge to act again, has the potential to set some interesting stories in motion.

It's amazing to see how Gilbert continues to approach this family in new ways to get at different emotions and experiences. Luba may now just be a sideline character and Fritz relegated to cameos and appearances in her "films" (the story where she appears as a furry monster and fights a magic man in boots was hilarious, disgusting and profane in all the best ways), but the sheer weight of their history can be felt on every page. Even for a new reader, their presence becomes important thanks to flashbacks, even though the story could be followed fairly easily as a continuation of the previous issue. The Palomar characters and setting seem effortless for Gilbert to draw, which is why the untitled story was so much fun--the reader got to see him really cut loose and get nasty. The tie-ins between this story and the Maria M. standalone "movie" book were also interesting, as this issue is a kind of commentary on both how the characters view the "films" but also Gilbert's reaction to reader and critical commentary on that work. In a sense, he's giving the readers what they want by going back to Palomar, but he's doing it in a sneaky way, one where he wants the reader to know that they're not going to get exactly what they think they want.

In L&R New Stories #5, Jaime introduced Tonta as his new tentpole character. This teen is a sort of "Bizarro Maggie" in that she shares much of Maggie's awkwardness and desire to be part of a scene but she has far less of Maggie's charm or good looks. Jaime spent the issue slowly exploring her world, one that finds her with her own version of Rand Race (a punk rocker named Eric), except that the crush is pretty much unrequited. If Tonta has a Hopey, it's Gretchen "the Gorgon", a girl from school who's as weird and wired as Hopey, only with a distorted, ugly face. Gretchen clearly has a crush on Tonta, a fact lost on the endlessly dense girl. Indeed, she embraces her nickname (which means "dummy" or "stupid" in Spanish), preferring it her given name of Anoush, which means "sweetness". Jaime sets her up as a punk rock wannabe, but also displays an enormous amount of affection toward this character, whom he's clearly trying to get to know. It is telling, however, that Jaime doesn't use thought balloons for any of his characters in this issue with the exception of one returning character. Traditionally, Maggie always got thought balloons but Hopey never did, as she was an impenetrable character for Jaime. Whereas Maggie was someone that he "knew", and it delighted him to put her in different kinds of situations.

Where that leaves Tonta is a good question, one that I'm not sure Jaime himself is sure of at the moment. We're seeing "Bizarro Maggie's" story play out, but this time, we don't know everything she's thinking. Of course, the way that Tonta blabs out her thoughts and feelings, one wonders what she does keep inside. Hernandez connected her to two old characters: Vivian, the "Frogmouth", is her half-sister. Angel of Tarzana is her high school P.E. teacher. Angel knows Tonta because she knows Vivian, and there are all sorts of hilarious scenes that erupt because of that connection, like Vivian attacking Angel from behind when she's on the field during class. Tonta and her friends (including Gomez, who's sort of Daffy-like in her innocence) are fascinated by their teacher, who wants to bring as many new sports as possible to her students. When they are summoned to a mysterious location for what turns out to be a Luchadora wrestling match, it's all thanks to Gretchen, who knows that their teacher is wrestling as "The Angel of Assassins". This is the most light-hearted part of the book, a throwback to those wrestling comics that Jaime used to do so well.

All of this is window dressing, essentially, fun incidental stuff to get lost in as a means of getting to know the characters. What seemed like somewhat aimless character work in #5 is quickly established in the serial "Crimen" as an especially brutal and heartbreaking story. When Tonta comes home from a day's shenanigans, she's told that her step-father has been killed by a burglar. We are then introduced to Violet and reintroduced to Ishmael, a seeming thug who worked at a country club. When Jaime reveals that Ish is in fact Vivian's twin brother and that they are all half-brothers and sisters (along with Tonta, Muneca and baby Alby), it's a surprise. What is a shock is Violet's assertion that their mother had Tonta's step-father killed, and that she had accused her mother years earlier of killing off her father. This brutal story of family politics, lies and betrayals seamlessly blends the harder edge Jaime has brought to his stories of late along with the lighthearted, character-based work that's been there as well.

Even as the children scheme to send their mother to children (with Tonta being the last to know everything, including the fact that she even had a brother), Jaime manages to inject humor into the grimmest of proceedings. That's because the drama all takes place off-panel, allowing him to focus tightly on the character interactions of the siblings. Thanks to the fact that Vivian is a total loose cannon who's as likely to punch her sister Violet in the mouth as look at her, Jaime has a built-in monkey wrench and live wire for his stories in a character who can't help but liven up any story she appears in. At the same time, he adds depth and even pathos to this brute of a character while subtly crafting a story where she is manipulated by others from the very start. What's remarkable about Jaime's stories in these two issues is the way that he's able to tie the events of this story (which of course end in disaster for the children as they are utterly outmatched in court and intimidated out of court) back into the funny, quotidian adventures of Tonta. Dyeing her hair black and attending a new school, she attends a concert by the band containing her object of affection, a band that's now become popular. When he starts singing a song called "Black Widow", which she realizes is about her mother, she's experienced the ultimate betrayal. It's a heartbreaking way to end the issue, one whose final scene is Tonta as a baby at the swimming hole that's a big part of this story, with her siblings showing her affection even as her older brother (at age 13) has stopped living with his mother because of what he knew she did. Indeed, the family politics surrounding Tonta make Maggie's family look stable and loving by comparison.

Jaime hits the Hank Ketcham hammer hard in this issue with his character design, the overall looseness of the characters, and the slightly goofy and grotesque characteristics this particular cast has. Violet's slightly hard-boiled appearance betrays her as someone who's done a lot of hard living. Ish and Vivi are both impossibly attractive in their own way. Tonta's snaggletooth overbite, her messy hair, her poor posture and overall schlubbiness are simply fantastic; she's a self-described loner who is desperate for company and love. Gomez' willowy frame, Angel's sturdy and powerful body and Gretchen's remarkable grace all inject tremendous amounts of personality into these characters before they speak a single word. As great a draftsman as Jaime Hernandez is, he's a far greater cartoonist. Gesture, body language, minute facial expressions and the ways people interact with each other in space and in terms of panel-to-panel transitions are his real strengths as a cartoonist. Nailing these small details allows him to go "big" with emotions and the occasional exaggerated expression (especially from Tonta, who's always pulling faces) with no dissonance whatsoever, Each chapter of "Crimen" is only two pages long, in a 2x4 panel grid and the first panel blacked out with white title text. This is where things get heavy. The other stories have freer grids, befitting the lighter touch of those stories. Beyond the powerful emotional content and humor in this issue, Jaime's comics are master classes in how to structure a loosely-serialized set of short stories.

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