Love and Rockets #3 Notebook
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
WARNING. Normally I wouldn’t put in a spoiler warning for a few blog notes, but this is a special case. I’m going to be talking about Love and Rockets: New Stories #3, which contains what is arguably one of the best comics stories ever, Jaime Hernandez’s “Browntown” (along with the stories “The Love Bunglers Part One” and “The Love Bunglers Part Two” which are essential accompaniments to the main tale). These stories are built around a series of unfolding surprises. The best way, really the only way, to appreciate them is to read them. It’s essential that any commentary be read after encountering the stories. So please go out there and read Jaime’s stories in this volume (and also Gilbert’s two stories) and then come back and read these notes.
What Gilbert is up to. Before getting to Jaime, I want to talk a bit about Gilbert’s story. Because Jaime’s stories here are so good, arguably a high-water mark in his career (and hence a peak achievement in comics), there is the danger that Gilbert’s work will be overlooked. Some reviewers have even expressed puzzlement at Gilbert’s two stories in this issue (“Scarlet by Starlight” and “Killer*Sad Girl*Star”), saying in effect that they don’t know what Gilbert is up to. Here’s a thought: in “Scarlet by Starlight” Gilbert is re-writing some of his earlier Palomar stories in a different genre and in a different emotional key. “Scarlet by Starlight” benefits in particular from being compared to earlier stories like “Human Diastrophism” and “An American in Palomar.” In those stories, infused by an earthy humanism and light fantasy, we saw the clash between the “First World” (American technology and scientific expertise) and the “Third World” (poorer societies where life is at once more emotionally expressive but also more brutal). In “Scarlet by Starlight” this clash of cultures is re-written in pulp sci-fi terms (the story itself is one of Fritz’s films), and also told in a much colder way, with a notable lack of emotional affect on the part of the characters. Again we have people from the “advanced” society going into a supposedly “primitive” culture and becoming emotionally entangled with the people there, with dire consequences. The slaughter of the “pinkies” in “Scarlet by Starlight” recalls the massacre of monkeys in Palomar. In “Killer*Sad Girl*Star” the same material gets re-cycled a third time by being a story within a story, and a commentary on present-day America.
Paradise Lost? Creators often return to the same key story, re-working it again and again in different modes. As I’ve suggested before, for Dan Clowes that essential story is Orpheus (and perhaps also the love triangle that lies at the core of orphic mythology). For Gilbert, I think the key story is that of the early books of Genesis: they fall from Eden. Palomar, when we first encountered it, was a kind of paradise, albeit one populated by very flawed people. But over time, we’ve learned that the halcyon statis of Palomar is impossible: forces both external and internal are working to destroy it. “Scarlet by Starlight” is another variation of the story of Paradise Lost. (Jaime’s great myth is the story of the princess who has magic powers but loses them).
Jaime’s masterpiece? Several reviewers have already said that the Jaime’s three stories in this issue are among his best work. Of course, with an artist as prolific as Jaime, who has done top notch for for nearly thirty years now, one should be careful in singling out particular stories, since what is really amazing is the body of work. Still, some of his stories do distill his art in a particular effective way: “Flies on the Ceiling”, “Jerusalem Crickets”, “Spring 1982”. The three stories in the new issue feel like they are of that calibre; interestingly in the past Jaime’s peak work tended to very brief (“Jerusalem Crickets” is 6 pages long). These are stories where he zooms in on a character or mileu with such accuracy that we learn all we need to know in a few pages. “Browntown” is different: it’s longer, and not just about one character or moment in time but really about the ripple of family secrets over a lifetime. The length of the story is no guarantee of its merit, but it does suggest that “Browntown” has a range that wider than many of Jaime’s stories.
A tough subject. “Browntown” deals with a tough subject, one of the toughest subjects around, the rape of a child. But it deals with this harsh material with great delicacy and is not at all exploitive or gratuitous. Having said that, the child abuse is only one thread of the story and, I would argue, not the core of what Jaime is dealing with. I think the key to this story comes in a comment made by Maggie: “There are certain things about my family mom always preferred to keep hush hush.” Family secrets, the suppression of family history, is the thread that ties everything together: the affair that Maggie’s dad had, the rape of Maggie’s brother, and Maggie’s own alienation from her family: because these secrets can’t be dealt with openly, their lingering effect is all the more powerful.
Pacing and unfolding stories. I don’t know if I have the critical vocabulary to describe one of Jaime’s greatest skills, which is the pacing and unfolding of stories. He really knows how to sequence events for the maximum effect, and goes back and forth in time in an effortless way. The only other artist I can think of who does this is Alice Munro in her more recent collections, where the best stories are never told straight (beginning-middle-end) but rather are presented in looping movement between the past and the present, with the writer carefull disclosing information only when needed. I usually distrust “surprise endings” as gimmicky throw backs to the O. Henry era, but both Munro and Hernandez have shown the power that a story can achieve by keeping crucial information hidden till nearly the last minute. I literally gasped when the big surprise came in “The Love Bunglers Part Two.” That was the second time Jaime had a visceral effect on me in this issue. The first time was when I started crying at the end of “Browntown.” I do think that this movement back and forth in time is something comics are, arguably, particularly good at: an artist like Jaime doesn’t need to say he’s going back in the past, he can do so just by showing how people dress and look. Film can do that, but it’s harder for film to show the same character at many different ages: it requires make-up and sometimes several actors (as in The Godfather Part II). Jaime can show us Maggie at any age and we quickly grasp when the story is set.
Learning from Gilbert. The story that needs still to be told about the Hernandez Brothers is the way they’ve constantly influenced each other. There is some unepected and atypical violence in “Browntown.” It is very brief but shocking. I wonder if Jaime hasn’t been influenced by some of Gilbert’s recent stories which have also had scenes of carnage: in particular “Chance in Hell” and “Speak of the Devil”.
A mega-novel. What genre is Jaime working in? (Or for that matter Gilbert in his Palomar and post-Palomar work?) The category of soap opera doesn’t quite work. I often think Jaime is doing something similar to what John Updike did in his four Rabbit novels (and sort of sequel, the novella “Rabbit Remembered”): following a character around for several decades. The collected Rabbit books are sometimes called a “mega-novel.” Other mega-novels would be the Palliser series Trollope did, maybe also Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. So why don’t we call the complete Locas stories a mega-graphic-novel? As with all mega-novels, part of the effect of each segment comes from how they change or or strengthen our view of the characters. Trollope talked about the peculiar aesthetic of the multi-volume novel series in his Memoirs, comments that any student of the Hernandez Brothers should look up.
Gratitude. It’s so easy to take the Hernandez Bros. for granted: they’ve been around so long, put out work regularly, and often use the same characters. So the temptation is to just think that they’re a stable public resource, like the library or a museum: they’ll always be there and we can ignore them for years, checking in on them only when we need to. But really, these guys are among the best cartoonists who have ever lived. Like Seth, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Kim Deitch, they are constantly pushing themselves to do better work, and are now at a career peak. We need to give thanks for this, loudly and publicly.