Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, during my early years in high school, I collected large stacks of fanzines. I didn’t just want to read the zines, I positively craved them. With a frustrating family life, and with my boredom with the bland and uninteresting comics that were being published by Marvel and DC at the time, I had a craving for comics that felt fresh, interesting and compelling. I needed richer material than the work that was often found in those days. I needed comics that were filled with a unique sort of individuality and artistic temperament, comics rich with a passion and energy and a love for the medium.
I stumbled into the world of fanzines, self-published zines by passionate kids that had that energy and vitality that I wanted in my comics. There was a lot of great work in those zines by dozens of interesting, thoughtful and creative people. But there’s no doubt that the greatest of all the creators were Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.
The thing I remember the most about Jaime’s fanzine stories is their tremendous sense of liveliness and humor. At that time much of the work done for the zines was dark or deadly serious. But Jaime’s stories had a different feel from those of most of his peers. His short stories felt carefree and charming, the sorts of stories that would inevitably leave the reader with a smile when they were done reading them. Jaime’s characters always seemed to be having a good time, truly enjoying their wonderful lives and the adventures in they would get involved.
Despite the lightheartedness of many of those stories, it always felt like there was always a great sense of depth to the characters that Jaime would portray. Despite the fact that his main recurring character Maggie was a “prosolar mechanic”, whatever that meant, and that Jaime’s characters would often gallivant across space, their inner lives as important as their adventures. Hernandez’s characters weren’t two-dimensional characters with lives that only existed on the printed page, but fully three-dimensional men and women who had their own very unique ways of dealing with the world.
It was no surprise to those of us who loved Jaime’s and Gilbert’s work in No-Sex and Potboiler and the rest of the zines of the day, that the Bros would make it big in the comics industry. What was a bit of a surprise was that Gilbert and Jaime became big on their own terms.
When so many of us fans left stopped creating our little comics and moved on to our ordinary careers – though still occasionally while dabbling a bit in comics – the Bros went the opposite direction. They devoted themselves to comics; more than that, the Hernandezes became fighters for a certain kind of comic: a comic that wasn’t defined by genre but was about personal expression and style, a comic in which the integrity of the work was the central and most important fact. Love and Rockets is so brilliant because it practically bleeds artistic integrity in the form of India ink.
Jaime devoted himself mainly to tales of the suburban town of Hoppers, near LA, and the people who live there. As part of the tapestry of the city, he devoted himself mainly to telling the story of the lives of Maggie and Hopey, two lifelong friends who live in the area, hanging out with their friends, visiting clubs and simply enjoying their lives. He was also devoted to telling the stories of their friends, lovers and acquaintances, from the ill-fated gang member Speedy Ortiz to the vivacious, and later magisterial, wrestler Rena Titañon.
Two or three times per year during the ’80s and ’90s, a new issue of Love and Rockets would be released, and I would immerse myself in the world that Jaime had created. You never would know where one of Jaime stories would lead, because his stories took the shape and feel of real life: always unpredictable, sometimes elliptical and often strange, with outcomes that only seemed inevitable in retrospect.
The Secrets of Life and Death: the Art of Jaime Hernandez is a deluxe coffee-table tribute to Jaime’s career and biography of the artist. This is a systematically detailed book with spectacular reproduction of a wide range of Jaime’s greatest and most interesting work. It was published by Abrams ComicArts, who released the sublime Art of Harvey Kurtzman last year, so it was inevitable that this book would be of the absolute highest quality.
This book is a must-have for any fan of Jaime’s work. Its 224 pages are absolutely jam-filled with extremely well-selected examples of Hernandez’s art, including reproductions of homemade comics he created with his brothers at age 10, his Pee Chee high school folder, dozens of examples of fanzine art and punk rock posters, sketches, and numerous examples of continuity from L&R over the years. The best word for the range of work presented here is encyclopedic; it’s really hard to think of any significant work by Jaime that’s left out of this book.
Just as important as the artwork, we also get photos of Jaime’s whole life – heck, the book even includes images of Hernandez’s family from before he was born, including an image of his mom and dad strolling through Mexico in 1953 that’s somehow completely charming. The photos help to ground Hernandez’s life and give readers a feel for the events and circumstances that shaped him.
Writer Todd Hignite has assembled a sumptuous collection of Hernandez’s work. He also delivers a very thoughtful biography of the artist that puts Jaime’s career in historical and social context. I found Hignite’s essays in this book to be very insightful and stimulating while not overly praising the artist. His writing is even-handed with its intelligent approach to the artist’s work, and I found myself appreciating Jaime’s comics more after reading Hignite’s discussions of them.
Maybe the highlight of this book for me was its representation of “La Maggie La Loca,” a 23-page story that ran in serial form in the New York Times Magazine in 2006. This story tells the story of Jaime’s longtime protagonist Maggie as she turns age 40 and tales a bizarre little vacation on the island of her old friend Rena.
In the context of this book, the subtle storytelling elements and feeling of characters slowly aging gives the story a fascinating depth. We’ve seen Maggie grow and change dramatically through the years, and it’s starting how three-dimensional she seems in this story.
“La Maggie La Loca” highlights the tremendous growth, intelligence and confidence Jaime shows in his art that we’ve seen develop throughout the rest of this book. This story brings readers Jaime at the top of his art, fully in control of all elements of his story. It provides a nice sense of closure to the narrative of his career.
If you’re at all a fan of the work of Jaime Hernandez, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book. As a fan of Hernandez’s work for over half my life, I found this book endlessly fascinating and wonderful.
In a very odd way, Jaime Hernandez has been a companion for much of my life. I’ve never met the man, but his work has a constant element in my life since I was an early teenager. I’ve grown, matured and changed over that time but at my core I’m the same person I used to be. It’s the same thing with Jaime, and seeing that whole life on display in the pages of this book is an exciting and fascinating experience.
His comics still seem as filled with passion and energy and a love for the medium, and Todd Hignite’s book does a great job of spotlighting Jaime Hernandez’s long and outstanding career in comics.