Love and Rockets #3 Notebook


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The new Love and Rockets

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.

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13 Responses to “Love and Rockets #3 Notebook”
  1. Robert Fiore says:

    Ain’t it the truth about the potential spoilage? It’s Jaime’s Rosebud. Ideally you read the story without knowing until the end then go back and reread it with the knowledge. I’ve said before and say again, on the level of pure chops there’s no better cartoonist working now than Jaime. I would still give precedence to “The Death of Speedy” and “Wigwam Bam” for breadth and scope. As a minor cavil, I think “serial sexual abuse” would be more accurate than “rape” in this instance. “Family secrets” — well, are these really the kind of problems that could have been solved by openness? In the case of the sexual abuse Calvin isn’t equipped to comprehend what’s happening to him or what he might do about it until it’s too late. In the case of the infidelity there’s at least an implication that the longer the infidelity remained undetected the longer the family would have remained intact. It was doomed as soon as the infidelity was discovered, but compromised as it was the family was better off while the illusion of fidelity remained. The two secrets are mirror images, actually; the earlier the abuse had been discovered the less damage there would have been. I don’t quite see the problem as being a need to maintain a sense of propriety.

  2. Bob Temuka says:

    Oh God, I’m dying to read this comic, especially with all the fine reviews that are cropping up, but Diamond screwed over my local comic shop and I’m not expecting copies to show up until next week at the very earliest.

    I can get any issue of something like Red Robin two days after it comes out in the States, but something I’m genuinely excited about? Sit back and wait, comic boy. It’ll get here when it gets here.

    It’s hard enough waiting a year between issues….

  3. Norn Cutson says:

    Thank you for this heartfelt review.
    I’ll never recover from this story.
    The Hernandez Brothers just get deeper & deeper, and they have the respect for their audience that we are intelligent, real and in touch with our emotions enough to go there with them.
    I love them, I love their characters, and I *do* take every opportunity to thank them, LOUD & PUBLICLY!

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    @Robert Fiore. I actually struggled with how best to describe what happened to Calvin. I could be that “rape” is too strong a word but I also thought “child abuse” (or your term “serial sexual abuse”) would be too weak. Part of the difficulty is the complexity of Jaime’s portrayal: it started off as the sort of youthful experiments that many boys (and girls) engage in but became over time something much worse and more damaging. Of course, the airing of “family secrets” wouldn’t solve problems but I do think it is one of the traits of the Chascarillo clan is that they don’t speak to each other. Note that when Calvin gets into a fight with his abuser, the mom responds by saying “I don’t want to know.” That’s her attitude towards her husband’s affairs as well (and mirrors Nacho’s own lack of concern for his kids). And the legacy can be seen in the relationship between Calvin and Maggie: they are in close proximity in the story but, aside from a brief moment where they don’t look at each other, they don’t talk. The inability of the Chasacarillo’s to talk to each others lies at the heart of the story Jaime is telling here.

    • Robert Fiore says:

      I disagree with you on the dynamic at work here with the children. It has to do with the status differences between older and younger children. Within the child world older children have a higher status and younger children want to hang out with them; older children rebuff them and try to limit their social circle to other older children. The rapist in the story (I don’t catch a name) is a bully and manipulator who uses this dynamic for his own ends. He is not experimenting with homosexuality but looking for sexual gratification. He perceives that he can’t get away with sex with girls at this stage. You will note that he is the eldest of the boys he hangs out with. He manipulates the middle children, who are flattered by his attention and not subjected to the worst of it and are thus recruited as henchmen, and he picks out the youngest, weakest and most easily manipulated to gratify himself with. Once he’s old enough to have a reasonable chance of having sexual relations with girls he gives up his game, believing erroneously that his victim has no capacity for doing him harm. The mother sees herself as having more on her plate than she can handle, and assumes that any troubles her children bring to her are trivial. In many cases this is in fact true, but not so in this case, with disastrous results. About her marriage she chooses to believe the best case scenario as long as she can in large part because pressing the issue can’t possibly turn out well for her. She’s well aware that she can’t compete romantically with her likely rival, and that the likely outcome of seeing what is under her nose and bringing the matter to a head is to be left with the full burden of the children and no future romantic prospects whatsoever. The unfaithful spouse for his part wants to have things both ways, or at least finds the status quo preferable to breaking up his family and going off with the other woman who he will also tire of eventually. Indeed, the family gives him a pretext for holding off any deeper emotional demands from the other woman. All this is happening, you will recall, in the time before life became therapy. He doesn’t do what he does because he has no concern for his children, he imagines he can get away with it without harming them. He could easily construe concealing his other life as something done out of concern for his children. You can make moral judgments on what people do, but that doesn’t mean morals were their frame of reference when they did them.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Robert Fiore. You’re dead-on about the dynamics between the kids and also the psychology of the rapist (who I don’t think was named). When I talked about “youth experiments” I didn’t mean what the rapist did but the idea of the “nasty in nature club” which one of the other kids mentions and which Calvin finds attractive (“Can we do the nasty in nature club today?”). While the rapist was into manipulation and exploitation all along, the younger kids were just playing around with their bodies the way kids often do (as in playing doctor).

    I didn’t mean my comments about Maggie’s mom and dad to be moralistic or judgemental, and you’re right that many of the choices they made might have been perfectly reasonable in the context of their lives (a milieu that Jaime’s depicts in a completely convincing way). Still, I think that three stories are in large part about family life, and show how the dynamics that were created when Maggie and her siblings were young still have repercussions today.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    I should add that one reason why its difficult to make any easy moral judgements about Maggie’s parents is because Jaime potrays them, as he does almost all his characters, in a fully founded, believable way, so they have the complexity of life itself.

  7. Jeet Heer says:

    Note that on page 84 Calvin says he saw a blue sun, noting “yeah, one of the first days I moved here, I looked up and the sun was blue but nobody believed me.” That re-inforces the “family secrets” and denial theme. And note that the cover of the issue takes up the “blue sun” idea and flips it around with the parents looking at the blue sun and the kids looking elsewhere.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    I think that’s true, that most parent’s would assume the blue sun is being imagined. Which is why it works so well as a metaphor, I think: Calvin’s parent’s were perfectly rational in assuming all was well with the kids and not noticing the problem signs, but the sun really was blue, at least if the cover is to be believed, and Calvin really was molested. It’s a situation where everyone was perfectly rational by their lights but the end result was still horrible.

  9. […] Jeet Heer on the new Love and Rockets and the old Douglas […]

  10. Rob Clough says:


    Really great comment on what Gilbert is doing as a variation on his Palomar stories, or a funhouse-carnival mirror version.

    It seems like Jaime is doing a mirror-version of his earlier Locas stories as well, reflecting back on key emotional moments (the stuff with Ray was evocative of this), with the NYT story the moment in which we passed through the mirror to the other side. We’ve since gotten a superhero story, bent reality a bit and have now revisited the Ray/Maggie relationship–all with a different lens. Maggie’s even considering becoming a mechanic again.

    “Browntown” truly was wrecking-ball devastating, the Rosetta Stone of the Chascarillo family’s disintegration. The way Jaime used hair and clothing in this story was nothing short of remarkable, as Maggie went from girl to disaffected teen (in large part due to Letty’s far-away influence being much stronger than that of her distracted mother or absent father), with her clothes going from the rainbow t-shirt of a girl to the grown-up camisole top. With Calvin, his longer hair reflected the journey from being a boy to a pre-teen, with the horrible experience of betrayal (the sequence where he’s so happy to be part of the “nasty in nature” club to where he’s raped for the first time was heartbreaking) playing out for him again and again in his life.

    He was betrayed by his mother, his father and even Maggie, whom he maybe loved and looked up to more than anyone else. He wanted to talk to her about this, but she had gone beyond caring, thanks to the way older children detach from their families as teens. (That said, Maggie didn’t have a great role model for compassion or caretaking, given her mother.) That’s what makes his appearances in the Love Bunglers so interesting. Why is he trying to beat the shit out of every guy interested in Maggie? Is it his way of working out his issues, by protecting her from guys she doesn’t know are secretly bad? It’s clear that he has respect for Ray, so Calvin’s not just trying to beat on every guy Maggie’s been with. How long has this been going on?

    Part of this whole exchange speaks to the ways in which Maggie is still very much a teenager and has the emotional self-obsession of a teenager. (That’s one reason why the juxtaposition between the two stories is clever for so many reasons; it’s as much the Origin of Maggie as we know her as it is the secret history of Calvin). Jaime clearly points to her father’s infidelity (and her subsequent self-blame in breaking up the family [spurred by her mother ACTUALLY blaming her–what a brutal sequence where she keeps saying “I’m sorry’]) as the primary reason why she’s unable to build stable relationships, and why she shut herself out of thinking about her family very much.

    Really, Maggie **should** have sought out her brother and tried to help him, but she was very “oh well” about it. A great deal of the blame goes to her mother and father who kept that dreaded secret.

    Another side bit was the one-sided (on our end) correspondence with Letty, whose death was just around the corner. It’s the other great truth of Hernandez Brothers comics: every single event, line or bit of dialogue that occurs at any point of the series has the potential to be deepened into a crucial plot or character point years later. You have to keep up and pay attention, even in seemingly throw-away character bits.

    One last point: I can’t think of any artist, ever, who was better at drawing children than Jaime Hernandez. He gets their body structure, their body language, the ways in which they talk, etc.

  11. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one who thought this was among Jaime’s best-ever work. One question remains for me…why does the adult Calvin show up NOW? It’s not very likely that he’s been watching Maggie for very long, seeing as how he’s all but discovered by her in this story; he’s not doing a great job of hiding his presence.

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