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For a little over 10 years, this comic was among the best things available in comics form. Now it will always live on in the books collected from it. Maggie and Hopie and the inhabitants of Palomar remain some of my favorite companions, and Los Bros Hernandez (Jaime, Gilbert and occasionally Mario) remain among my favorite comics creators.
Although it is common for comics fans to refer to their favorite writers or artists by first names, I generally avoid it. Instead of sounding friendly, it all too often has the effect of denigrating the material. Can you imagine the New York Times Book Review publishing a piece on Norman Mailer wherein the writer constantly refers to him as "Norm"? However, I have abandoned my usual practice of referring to comics creators as "Sim" or "Gaiman," because I find "J. Hernandez" and "G. Hernandez" just too unwieldy. Thus, they will Jaime and Gilbert.
Over the course of 50 quarterly magazines, collected into 15 volumes, Los Bros Hernandez produced comics that were from the very beginning different from the standard superhero fare, and continued to grow in depth and artistic ambition until they could be seriously discussed as literature. They are among the handful of North American comics creators who can be compared favorably to prose writers (and not just potboilers like Grisham or Steele, but literary writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez) with a straight face and without a trace of embarassment by a sane adult.
Their body of work is substantial and varied, and defies easy categorization. Gilbert in particular is a multifaceted talent who has done much more than the Palomar stories that receive most of the attention. Nonetheless, the Palomar tales make up the vast majority of his Love and Rockets work, and that's what I'm going to concentrate on, too. What I'm trying to say is that anything you see here must be taken with a grain of salt, and realize that while it might apply to most of the work of one or the other brother, there will always be exceptions.
The older brother, Mario, became a professional cartoonist first, and they always acknowledge him as the inspiration and original leader of their team, but aside from a few early stories and an appearance at the end, Mario didn't really contribute much to Love and Rockets. So again, I'm going to unfairly ignore the contributions he did make and concentrate on Jaime and Gilbert.
Still, Jaime's pictures of pretty women is probably what drew early fans to the book. Heavily influenced by Archie Comics, Jaime's cheesecake poses with realistic models are much more attractive than the balloon-breasted women so often found in mainstream comics. His simple lines sometimes run to caricature, especially when contorting faces to show extreme emotion. His loose, somewhat cartoony style works very well with his stories, which usually emphasize the interrelationships between the various characters in a soap-opera sort of way.
Most of the characters live in Hoppers 13, a barrio (Latino community to you Anglos) in a town somewhere in Southern California, apparently based on Oxnard, where Los Bros grew up. Although I once said on a newsgroup that several of the main characters weren't Latino, I had forgotten that Penny Century, for instance, is a made up name and her real last name is Garcia.
Another thing that happened as the series went along is that Maggie gained weight. Sometimes she would be very large, then she'd go on a diet, but she never got back down her her slim, trim Betty & Veronica look. She became much more real, and the fact that Jaime still obviously enjoyed drawing her, still obviously thought her attractive and fun to draw after she began putting on weight made Love & Rockets a welcome relief from the dozens of comics with big-breasted, small-waisted Amazons. A lot of women cheered Jaime's realistic approach. A lot of men who should have known better kept asking him when Maggie was going to get skinny again. "Never," he answered, and remained true to his word. Personally, I prefer the more rounded, womanly Maggie to the girlish one.
Despite early experiments with science fiction, most of Gilbert's Love and Rockets work revolves around the little village of Palomar, a quintessential small town located somewhere in Central America. In the very first story set in Palomar, "Heartbreak Soup," Chelo, the local bañadora (giver of baths) is threatened by a newcomer to town, a big-breasted woman named Luba who is also a bañadora. Chelo, the native Palomaran, is also a former midwife who helped bring most of the children and young adults in town into the world, and we follow their antics as well as the story progresses.
The conflict between Chelo and Luba is settled to everyone's satisfaction, and Luba stays in town. She and her children become part of the fabric of life there as the years pass and the children we met in the first tale grow up. Even when she's not at the center of the action, Luba always seems to be hovering in the background. If the saga of Palomar has a protagonist, it is Luba.
Luba even gets an entire graphic novel devoted to the long-wondered about story of her early life before she came to Palomar, in Poison River, and after having said farewell to Palomar forever at the end of Love and Rockets, Gilbert is now chronicling Luba and her family in America in a comic magazine called Luba.
Gilbert also created the amazing "B.E.M.," a short biography of Frida Kahlo that is as visually arresting as her own work, "Twitch City," and a host of other pieces over the years, but he will always be best remembered for these wonderful stories about complex people in a simple town.
I also have a very modest list of links, one of which is to a much more complete list of Love and Rockets links.
I interviewed Los Bros Hernandez in 1993 and reviewed the graphic novel by Gilbert named "Love and Rockets X" (featuring a band by the same name who may or may not have stolen their name from the English band that actually stole their name from the comics magazine - got all that?) for the Post-Dispatch. I also mentioned Flies on the Ceiling in my 1992 Graphic Novel Roundup and Wigwam Bam in my 1994 edition of same.
(FURTHER NOTE: I don't own all the collections yet (though I've read all the stories at least once in the original magazines). It may be awhile before I get complete descriptions of all the books here.)
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This first book reprints the first two issues of the magazine (the first four issues were 64 pages each). As is the case with Cerebus, Sandman, and many other long running series, the first book only hints at what was to come.
Jaime's stories seem to take place in a world quite different from our own - one not unlike the worlds of the Marvel and DC superheroes. Indeed, one panel shows a sky filled with flying, caped figures. Maggie the Mechanic works on robots and spaceships, not junk cars.
Gilbert's stuff here is even farther out. Most of his part of the book is taken up by the multi-part epic "BEM," a sort of existential sci-fi-James Bond-monster movie pastiche that features a big-breasted woman wielding a hammer whose name is Luba. We will meet a big-breasted hammer-wielding Luba in Palomar, but surely this can't be the same woman, can it?
Jaime told me in an interview a few years ago (you can read the article that resulted from that interview, but this part didn't make it in) that "Mechanics," the long story that features a spaceship and a dinosaur, is entirely fictional - not just in the obvious sense, but that Maggie made the whole thing up. It is told in the form of letters from Maggie to Hopey, and Jaime now claims that Maggie was just spinning a yarn. Of course, there are a lot of other early stories that are just as much separated from the real world, the one the readers live in and the one Maggie and Hopey come to inhabit in the later books.
As for Gilbert, he remains justly proud of "BEM." As an early critique of the action-adventure genre so heavily identified with comics that people can speak of Rambo or Terminator 2 as "comic book movies," it strikes deeper and stands on its own merits better than most of those that have followed. If it's obscure, abstruse and difficult to follow, this is not only intentional and part of the fun, but in fact helps lift the work above mere parody to a challenging mental exercise. Besides, it is certainly clearer than some similar works by the creator who obviously inspired much of it - Steve Ditko.
Mario's first "Somewhere in California" story continues the genre theme, mixing an incognito dictator fleeing revolutionaries, some California druggies and an inter-dimensional alien inventor in a slapstick tragedy of mistaken identities. Both Jaime and Gilbert credit Mario with the inspiration and idea for creating Love and Rockets, saying that at the time he was a real comic book artist and they were just kids messing around. But after the first few issues, Mario basically disappears until the very end. Except for a few pages here and there, the 50 issues of Love and Rockets were done by Jaime and Gilbert.
There is a Palomar story in this first volume, but the copyright date indicates it was a "bonus" story written for the collected volume. We have to wait for the second volume for Gilbert's first Palomar story.
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The second volume of the Love and Rockets collection begins with Gilbert's first Palomar story, "Heartbreak Soup" - still one of my favorites, after all these years.
Palomar is a mythical Central American village that Gilbert uses as the quintessential small town. It's a sleepy, backward kind of place, with five cars and no TV. Everyone knows everyone, and it seems we come to know most of the town's residents over the years. Gilbert would continue to write stories about Palomar until the very last issue of Love and Rockets, and his new series includes some of the same characters, though in a new setting.
We are first introduced to Palomar through Chelo. She is a bañadora, which means she gives men baths. She was also once a midwife, and delivered most of the younger characters we meet. Among them were Manuel, Soledad and Pipo, around whom the first story rotates. But we also meet Heraclio, recently moved into town, and Vicente and Jesus and Gato and many others. Including, of course, Luba.
Luba moves into town in this first story. An itinerant bañadora, there is immediately strife between her and Chelo, since this small town isn't large enough for two bañadoras. An ingenious solution to their mutual problem is worked out by the end.
I don't want to give away too much, but I do want to say that from the very beginning, the Palomar storyline was wonderful. "Heartbreak Soup" remains one of my favorite stories within the larger work that is Love and Rockets.
Jaime's portion of the book is mostly devoted to "100 Rooms," wherein Penny Century takes her friends, including Hopey and Maggie, to one of her boyfriend H.R. Costigan's many mansions. Costigan is the richest man in the world, and this story features intrigue and a rightful king and even a supervillain (temporarily playing with the good guys as H.R. Costigan's bodyguard). It's not one of his best, but it's worth it for the ending, wherein Hopey, who left a party mad because she and Maggie had had a fight, then came back to tell her off because she thinks Maggie is going to run off with Casey (and, although she says it's because he's wrong for her, what's really bothering her is that she's jealous. She happens to be around the corner when Maggie and Casey run into each other, and he asks her to go away with him.
"Maybe I could run away with you five years from now," she say, "but not right now. . . " And we watch the look on Hopey's face as she hears Maggie say "Right now there's no one I'd rather spend my life with than my friend Hopey. I wish she was here this very minute."
From that moment on, Hopey and Maggie's relationship is closer and deeper than it had been before, and even when they're separated by thousands of miles or long periods of time, even when Maggie comes close again to falling in love and marrying this or that man, we somehow know that nothing will ever really separate them, that they will always end up back together.
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The inhabitants of Chepan don't like being owned by Dr. Beaky, and start a revolution, blowing up empty factory buildings and the like. When they blow up the one with the robots, Maggie happens to be inside, along with Rena Titañon, a former pro wrestler whose belt was taken by Maggie's aunt, Vicki Glori. (One of Jaime's obsessions is wrestling, particularly women's wrestling and Mexican masked wrestlers.) They escape into some tunnels underneath the building, but at first they are believed dead, though no bodies are discovered. Much more attention is given to Maggie's friends back home in this story than the first book, first in similar letters from Maggie scenes, then later as they deal with her apparent death.
In "Act of Contrition," Gilbert continues the story of Luba in Palomar, wherein Luba finds a boyfriend. Also from Gilbert we have "The Whispering Tree" and "The Laughing Sun," two other Palomar stories, "A Fan Letter," which recounts the history of a (fictional?) punk rock band and prefigures his later "Love and Rockets" story, "Le Contretemps," a story about Errata Stigamata, a wonderful little character I forgot to mention in the first two books. Jaime rounds out the volume with "A Date with Hopey."
Not the best single volume, probably not a good place to dip in to see if you like it, but of a high consistent quality that marks the entire series. Although the Love and Rockets series doesn't present one single consistent storyline like, say, Sandman or Cerebus, where any missed volume will make a gap in understanding, even the lesser volumes like this are worth buying and reading, and will help understand the characters and enlarge one's picture of their lives.
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Hmmm. Perhaps I was wrong in guessing above that the third book featured the last of the action/adventure stories, for in a very short story, Rand Race makes a brief appearance here. It doesn't go anywhere, and Jaime apparently does it primarily to embarrass Maggie, who's been steadily gaining weight and is now (according to some of us) comfortably round or (according to others, including Maggie herself) a fat pig.
I love the heavier Maggie. When Jaime was in town for a signing here and I got to interview both him and Gilbert, they were doing sketches, and I specifically asked for the rounder Maggie. For years, Jaime said, he would get letters or hear comments at signings about when Maggie was going to lose weight. A couple of times, she lost a little, but for the most part from here on she would continue to get bigger. I think this Maggie is a LOT more interesting than "Maggie the Mechanic."
I don't know if we saw it previously, but we definitely see in this book that Maggie and Hopey are sleeping together. Hopey seems definitely a lesbian, with little interest in men. Maggie, on the other hand, seems primarily heterosexual except for her special relationship with Hopey. Of course, placing labels on people like "heterosexual" and "lesbian" makes about as much sense as labeling them "chicano" or "Republican" or whatever - the labels can be useful shorthand, but can never really describe the person they're attached to.
Gilbert is represented by several short but powerful Palomar stories, including one where Luba's daughter, Guadalupe, delirious from a fever, sees the painted, naked Luba from "B.E.M." and Errata Stigmata. "Bullnecks and Bracelets" gives us insight into Israel, whose twin sister vanished during an eclipse. Grown now, he lives an omnisexually hedonistic life. "For the Love of Carmen" is a sweet little tale that focuses on grown up Heraclio, who married hellion Carmen. By now, all the children from the first "Heartbreak Soup" tale are grown (those who didn't die, anyway), and the focus from here on will be their adult lives, though we will occasionally flash back to their childhood.
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The title says it all. This was the first volume to be devoted entirely to the work of one brother, in this case Jaime. Speedy Ortiz, Izzy's brother, had been a minor character, popping up occasionally from the very beginning. Maggie had a crush on him long before she ever heard of Rand Race. At one point, they almost got together, but she thought he was teasing her and got mad. He hangs out with a bunch of guys who might or might not belong to something formal enough to really call a gang, who in any case are having what amounts to a gang fight with another bunch of guys from a nearby barrio. Speedy gets caught up in the middle of it.
I can't really give it away, since Jaime gives it away in the title to the story, but when it comes Speedy's death is neither dramatic nor cathartic. It's simply sensless and sad.
There are other stories here, too, including a rather long take on the wrestling world as Maggie moves in with her aunt, Vicki Glori, who takes her on the road as her "accountant" as she demands the W.W.W. board let her insure her champion's belt. A good time is had by all, except Maggie - and Vicki's opponents, and she swears to put every one of them in the hospital until the board relents.
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If you only read one Love and Rockets book, this should be the one. I've read it three times, but not recently because I can't find my copy. I want to reread it again before I post a description here.
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This is the best single book collecting work by both brothers, in my opinion. It's a bit atypical, with the title work concentrating on Izzy Ortiz, one of the supporting characters in the ongoing story of Maggie & Hopey. Izzy seems to be perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and we know she spent a year in Mexico (Maggie once found a diary about it). In this story, Jaime shows us what happened to her in Mexico, often eschewing dialogue altogether and presenting what Izzy sees as her mind breaks down, which is not the standard psychedelic weirdness that has become so clich� but the real reality in front of her just slightly askew. It's very powerful, and very good.
My favorite thing by Gilbert in this volume is, for once, NOT a Palomar story, but his excellent biography of Frida Kahlo, once known primarily as Diego Rivera's wife but gathering increasing respect for her body of work in the years since her death. Like one of Gilbert's character who has her picture on the wall, Kahlo suffered a severe back injury as a young adult that left her permanently, though not totally, disabled. Gilbert's fanciful aping of not just Kahlo's but several other relevant artistic styles through the piece is delightful.
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Through the rest of "Wigwam Bam" we follow Hopey around as she alternately searches for and tries to forget Maggie. She figures Maggie went home to Hoppers, but although we keep hearing that she's back, we never see her there, and when we finally do see the woman some people have seen that makes them think Maggie is back, it is someone completely different. So where is Maggie?
While the reader and several characters are wondering about Maggie, Hopey's picture is showing up on milk cartons. Somebody has turned her in as a missing girl. Izzie Ortiz, whose mental state is always fragile, is obsessively collecting these milk carton panels. Eventually, she sets out looking for Maggie and Hopey.
Finding and losing, knowing where you are and being lost, are the obvious themes in this book, one of the most mature and thoughtful by Jaime. It ends with a story that echoes his earlier "100 Rooms," but instead of that story's playful innocence we have sexual perversion and a violent ending.
And, even after the epilogue that finally explains how Hopey's picture got on all those milk cartons, we still have no idea what happened to Maggie.
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Poison River is mainly the story of Luba before she came to Palomar. It is also a story of gangsters and politics and Latin music and many kind of love and lust. It is an ambitious work, dealing with a lot of themes, covering many years, and attempting to answer questions that had been hovering in the minds of readers for years
It's ironic that while the story was running in the magazine, many people complained about the abrubt time transitions back and forth, when Jaime had been using such flashbacks since the early days. I found the storytelling technique fascinating, but apparently Gilbert decided the criticisms were valid, for in compiling the graphic novel he not only added 50 pages but entirely rearranged the story, so that there is only one extended flashback that occurs about 2/3 of the way through.
That this is a completely different work than the magazine version explains one reason why I'm hesitant to put up reviews of the books I don't own by rereading the magazines.
There are people who think this is Gilbert's magnum opus, but I'm not one of them. It's very good, but I personally liked it better when it wasn't so straightforwardly chronological. On the whole, I don't think it's quite on a par with Blood of Palomar.
But, of course, it is the story of Luba, who has been at the center of Gilbert's work since before there was a Palomar, appearing in a weird prototype fashion in "BEM." And she is the title character of his new magazine, continuing to dominate his work after Palomar as well.
It's not my favorite, but it's certainly one of the best things either Hernandez brother has yet done, and well worth the investment of time and money it requires.
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We also learn that Maggie isn't Maggie, and really never has been. Her name is Perla, and Maggie is just a nickname. What she's doing here is searching for her identity. In a way, it's what she's been doing all along.
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