This, then, was my introduction to the idiosyncratic and fantastically imagined worlds of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. A landmark series from the alternative comics world of the 1980s, "Love and Rockets" followed the black-and-white serial narratives of indelible characters for 15 years, explicitly influenced by the renaissance of punk rock in the late 1970s; after a hiatus, it reappeared in 2001. The brothers don't collaborate on the same comics; rather, Gilbert created the "Heartbreak Soup" epic centered around the tiny fictional town of Palomar in Mexico, while Jaime created the "Las Locas/Los Locos" stories that follow a "modern day" (ie, 1980s) cast of young Chicanos with music-loving alternative lives in California. Interspersed among these ongoing narratives are curious side-pieces--sometimes self-contained, sometimes developed. While the stories and art of each Hernandez brother is unique, they shine extra bright by being juxtaposed, one to the other. Altogether: these rambling, lingering tales are bewitching.
The art of "Love and Rockets" is exceptionally physical: the Hernandez brothers delight in drawing an enormous range of bodies and movements. There is sex and pain, there are bodies that transform with puberty, age, injury, weight gain, muscle-building, haircuts, pregnancy, changing facial hair, emotion, costuming, dyed hair, and make-up. The heightened attention to physical form borders on the Grotesque--with all the exaggeration and wonder that that implies. The change of physical bodies is a fascinating way of marking time in a series that floats so easily among the "normal" beat of chronology.
These comics demand a lot from the reader. You cannot passively consume this. You are expected to make leaps in time and space without having clear directional guides; you must keep up with an expansive multi-voiced ensemble cast of characters--many of which move in and out of each others' stories. The reader must entertain the possibilities of magic, coincidence, oddity, and synchronicity. There are flashbacks and layers to these characters. I found myself cheering inside when I saw the reappearance of, say, Maggie (a bright and insecure mechanic, who, when I met her, was recently kicked out of the place she was sharing with on-again, off-again lover, Hopey) or Cholo (the muscular woman who is the sheriff of Palomar, and, as a former midwife, helped birth the people she now chases down).
Oh, there is levity too. Light touches of humor and wit, of playfulness and silliness that disarm the reader; it gives us something to hold onto as we navigate the strange and compelling worlds of "Love and Rockets." This is notable: so many of the stories--especially the Palomar ones--risk melodrama, fully facing the implications of telling stories of high stakes, of acts of heroism and villainy, of romance and loneliness. For god's sake, we meet a witch ("la bruja") who happily clanks the skull of a baby as she toddles around town (see the cover image above). It is the humor that makes this keening, dream-like drama not only palatable, but charming.
As well: it is not lost on me that "Love and Rockets" is produced by two Hispanic men and features a cast of almost entirely brown people living in either Central America or California. There are a lot of gay people in the cast, too, as well complex female characters. On all ends of this, this is radically rare in the comics universe. Of course, the Hernandez bros. are well aware of the context they are working within. Says Jaime:
When we got into the comic world, it was almost zero Latin. We were in this world with almost all white people. In the beginning, people were afraid of us, because they thought we were hoods. How racist is that? But people supported us. I like to think that we speak a universal language in the comic. So even though these people are Mexican, you can still relate to them as people, which was our main objective. I want people in China to like our stuff.
When Maggie and Hopey became popular as two lesbian characters drawn by a heterosexual male, people said, 'Who do you think you are? Why do you think you can do it?' And I just said, 'Well, I do it. I make no apologies for them. These are the characters. If you don't like them, do your own comic.'
Well, for writers and filmmakers, the more ethnic it is, the more universal it is. The more Swedish a film is, the more we like it, the more we understand it. It's when they try to water it down, and try to second-guess the foreign audience that you run into trouble. Even Spike Lee -- the more black his films are, the more universal they are. The whiter the Beach Boys are, the better they are. I know a lot of people don't like the Beach Boys because they say they are too white. I say, that's what's good about them. That's one of the main ingredients. Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly are really great artists because they are as white as they can get. This is going to sound weird: White people, black people, Hispanic people, people of color -- I sound like MTV.
These days, the "Love and Rockets" stories are collected in all kinds of ways, as you might expect from a beloved ensemble story that spans decades. Some focus on particular characters, some on particular places, some break it down chronologically. If I fully understood the scope of the"Love and Rockets" epic before I began, I might have been intimidated away from it--feeling like I needed to start at the very beginning and read it straight through, if I were to meet it at all. Happily, I was able to simply accept the collection that was offered to me--which happened to be "Vol.6 - Duck Feet." This turned into an invitation to simply leap into the middle of this wild world, to turn my head back and forth among the shifting stories and just take it in. Though I've closed the book on this particular collection of the stories, I still feel like I'm in the middle of it. I'm not through with this yet. (In fact, happy Anna, I've got "Vol. 7 - The Death of Speedy" on hand to dig into soon.) I'm not alone in the ongoing fascination either: just a couple weeks ago, Los Angeles celebrated the work of Jaime Hernandez.