Sunday, December 07, 2008

Love & Rockets: New Stories

Los Bros Hernandez - Love & Rockets: New Stories (Fantagraphics Books, 2008)

Now into its third decade, the Hernandez brothers’ Love & Rockets is firmly established as one of the great art-comics and an important expression of Mexican-American art. Hip, sexy, beautifully drawn and, above all, brilliantly written, Jaime’s Locas stories and Gilbert’s Palomar saga raised the bar for independent comics in the 1980s, and their work continues to be full of vitality and imagination.

Following the final issue of Love & Rockets Volume II last year, the comic has switched from a periodical pamphlet to an annual trade paperback. The new format suits them: Jaime presents the first instalments of a new adventure featuring his Locas characters, while Gilbert and occasional contributor Mario experiment with one-off stories and bizarre humour.

Jaime’s gorgeous cover art, depicting a giant female superhero lifting the roof of an art deco office building as if it’s the lid of a teapot, is a playful hint towards the book’s content. In contrast to the ironised, even dismissive attitude towards mainstream superhero fare in some art-comics, Jaime unapologetically celebrates them, while playing with their conventions. Although the sci-fi trappings of Jaime’s earliest Locas stories were dropped in favour of realist stories about Maggie Chascarillo, a bisexual Mexican-American, and her friends and lovers, the author continued to express his love of comics, wrestling and punk through his characters. His new Locas story, ‘The Search For Penny Century’ begins with Maggie poring over issues of Ti-Girls, a second tier female superhero comic, with her room-mate, and possible lover, Angel. (Jaime has a gift for gradually drawing out details of characters’ relationships and histories. Angel is a relatively new character, and he has been careful not to give away too much too soon). The twist, which Jaime has been setting up for some time, is that the universe of these comics exists alongside that of Locas. We learn that Penny Century, Maggie’s reckless bombshell friend, has finally realised her dream of gaining super-powers, but in the process has lost her two daughters. In a neat take on the La Llorona legend, she travels the universe searching for them, leaving mayhem and destruction in her wake. After the complex treatment of memory and ageing in recent stories like Ghost Of Hoppers, this sudden leap into the realms of fantasy might seem a little trite. But by exploding Penny to cosmic dimensions, Jaime dramatises her grief and reminds the reader how she’s reinvented herself, from a working class Chicana to a billionaire’s wife. It also humanises her: for possibly the first time, we see Penny in tears, a vulnerable, lonely woman struggling with a terrible loss. Coming to her aid are the Ti-Girls, of whom Angel is revealed to be a member, even though she has no super-powers. She is joined by the middle-aged Espectra, and the statuesque Alarma, who, prior to this, we had been led to believe was playing at dress-up. As with any superhero universe, there is a hierarchy, and the Ti-Girls are very much the working-class outsiders in relation to the snooty WASP sorority girls, The Fenomenons. As with his mid-period stories about women wrestlers, Jaime proves himself to be an acute observer of female power relationships.

The art is stunning, with the clean lines, inspired composition, and mastery of body language Jaime is renowned for. Yet he retains the ability to dazzle with new tricks, running wild with Jack Kirby-esque motion lines in the action scenes, creating an almost psychedelic array of swooping, swirling trails around his heroines.

Gilbert’s stories are much more inscrutable. Stepping away from the Palomar universe, his stories present a travelling salesman suffering from a bloated stomach, a gay man leaving his lover to explore frozen wastes, two Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis analogues slaughtering aliens, and a kangaroo scoring big in Vegas thanks to some coin dispensing humanoid penises. The first of these, ‘Papa’, is the most successful, a magic realist miniature that creates sublime effects through Gilbert’s expressive landscape work. The second, ‘Victory Dance’, feels like a fragment, yet on reflection, its ambiguity is quite affecting, leaving the reader to speculate on the characters’ history and motivations. There is also a surreal strip entitled ‘?’, where the camera, as it were, floats through a house to reveal two cheerful ducks and a floating orb drinking from a bottle of wine. Thick, rounded lines and stylised interiors make it look different to the rest of his work, and the results are both funny and unsettling. Gilbert also draws a brief farce penned by Mario. It’s not one of their finer moments. While his strengths lie in extended narratives (the intense serial killer drama Human Diastrophism, the sprawling portrait of Los Angeles in Love & Rockets X), Gilbert’s shorter pieces allow his imagination free reign. Neither he nor Jaime has been known to bow to expectations and this latest incarnation of Love & Rockets is no exception.

Stewart Smith

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