KEITH SILVA: “I don’t even believe your gold is real!” – Lumina
What is this?
Like every Hoppers-head, I was psyched when Fantagraphics announced “Gilbert and Jaime’s return to the ‘floppy’ format for the first time in a decade.” For me, this news was less about nostalgia — I didn’t read Love and Rockets when it ran as a ‘magazine’ in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s — or format — is that still a thing in comics, format?. What I heard was the voice of The Stranger at the end of The Big Lebowski, “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s [they’re out there]. The Dude. [Maggie, Hopey, Ray, Penny, etc.]. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.” Los Bros Hernandez abide.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of experiencing new work from a favorite creator, or in this case, creators. Almost. Second to that one-of-a-kind thrill of experiencing the latest from one’s favorite director, musician or writer is what occurs when frustration and remorse overrun that initial bloom of anticipation. When the malaise, of ‘what did I just hear, see or read’ sets in. You feel it like the coming on of a head cold, a viral strain of PTSD for fans. What you experience isn’t bad, but different … unexpected … you have questions.
In the thirty-five years the Hernandez brothers have been telling Love and Rockets stories, even the most ardent reader (and perhaps the Brothers themselves) would agree there have been crash-and-burns mixed in with the moon shots. If Love and Rockets Volume IV #1 was either end of this spectrum, it would be easier to critique, instead it’s other and so denies easy categorization. Challenging, personal, confusing yet relatable and wholly itself, which, for the Hernandez brothers may be the ultimate goal, but it leaves the reader in a weird place.
Love and Rockets Vol. 4 #1 feels, format-wise,like what it is, a magazine. The light stuff leads — two short stories from Jaime, ‘I Come From Above to Avoid a Double Chin’ and ‘Zinefest,’ each stars Maggie, Hopey and a few of the Locas crew — followed by the issue’s centerpiece, ‘Begin Again’ from Gilbert which finds Fritz and her many mammary-endowed imitators as she discovers a grandchild she didn’t know existed, and concludes with an off-the-wall un-titled Princess Anima story from Jaime. I’d like to begin with Princess Anima and one panel in particular which immaculately illustrates (ahem) my reaction to this issue — so immaculate, in fact, it could be an internet meme for this (wonderful?) what-the-fuck-ness frustration machine.
It’s difficult to locate where Princess Anima, an amnesiac superhero, fits into Love and Rockets. She was introduced in the volume that directly preceded this new floppy iteration of the series, Love and Rockets: New Stories #8. If nothing else, she allows Jaime to indulge his proclivities for curvy sensual superheroines. Sex, lust, physical desire and kink are elemental to the L&R cosmology and what, arguably, makes (and has always made) Los Bros Hernandez comics for grown-ups.
The story begins with six panel introduction in which Lumina, Princess Anima’s sidekick, is walking through ankle deep water. She’s wearing a sarong. A naked man emerges, head-first, from the shallows. She undresses and approaches him. He kneels, his penis in engorged, but not erect. In the penultimate panel she kicks her right leg over his shoulder, grabs him by his hair and is about to (presumably) pull his head down between her legs. Yes cunniligus and damn the penis! In the last panel the dream defaults as Lumina, in her skin tight costume, returns to reality. She retains the same posture, except the man she’s seducing is tied up, has bat ears and a wispy five o’clock shadow. Alas, female empowerment deferred. Whereas, in general terms, Jaime’s Locas stories have an overt, but casual approach to sex and Gilbert’s Palomar stories are hyper-overt and fleshy, the ‘otherness’ of Princess Anima makes it as subtle as saying to your partner, ‘let’s fuck.’ O.K., it loses something in the romance sure, but it’s direct. Princess Anima stories are carnal and so is the dream/fantasy that begins this story.
The bat-eared-facial-follicle dude (he later says his name is Katak) is Anima and Lumina’s prisoner. All three of them are waiting in a warehouse for his friend (so-called) to return with a transporter so they can go home. Whatever’s occurred may have something to do with Katak’s gold which may, or may not, be real. The story that follows makes as much sense as any indie superhero yarn: Lumina sulks, continues to complain about wanting to go home and stops Anima for sucking Katak’s blood. Anima, cowed after Lumina’s reprimand, leaves the warehouse and sullenly skulks across a cityscape where naked people are falling from the sky, engulfed in flame due to an alien invasion. She stops the invader (duh) and returns to where she left a pining Lumina and lassoed Katak. Here’s where it gets weird.
Exhausted, Anima returns to find Lumina in a sports bra with her leggings pulled down to the top of her boots, her arms hang limp and her head tips slightly back. Weirder still, she’s suspended in midair at the end of Katak’s penis which looks to be as long as a firehouse and equally as supple. He’s naked and his eyes have become black saucers similar to when Anima was drinking his blood. Neither Lumina or Katak seem to be aware of what’s happening and neither seems to be taking pleasure in what’s going on. It’s remarkably unclear if this is a continuation of Lumina’s earlier fantasy/dream or who engaged who. Meanwhile Katak’s friend with the transporter remains at large.
The scene is composed in an large upright rectangular panel on the bottom-left-hand side of the page. Jaime’s composition is impeccable (of course) and creates a 3D effect in a 2D image by placing each character in a separate plane. He foregrounds Lumina in the center with her back and semi-nude body exposed, this puts her closest to the front so the reader identifies with her first. The reader’s eye follows the shaft of Katak’s whip-like penis in a reverse S from between Lumina’s legs (presumably) to the mid-ground in the panel’s bottom-right where his body slouches against a wall, his eyes empty holes. Jaime places Anima in the background on the left-hand side, she holds her head with her hands, a look of horror plays across her face. Given the angle, Anima sees the front of Lumina’s semi-naked body and it’s from her reaction of shock that the reader forms an interpretation. The scene explains itself although it’s not clear how or why it’s happening. It’s exploitative, yes, yet tempered by the degree of separation Jamie provides via Anima so the reader never sees what’s going on — where does that penis end up? — but Anima does and so she reacts. Jamie plays what follows as comedy (of course). Anima rips Katak’s penis in half — don’t worry, it goes back to normal, “good as new,” he says, “better in fact” — which sends Lumina tumbling off her perch. There’s some penis fumbling and some projectile bleeding before Anima takes the severed end of the penis, which continues to spout blood like a fire hydrant (hose?) and with her eyes closed puts it in her mouth and drains that dick dry until she is sated. And scene.
Such was the rainbow of emotions I felt reading Love and Rockets Vol. 4 #1, exactly, in tripartite: at times I looked on with shock and surprise, while in other moments I stared glassy-eyed and barely there and lastly, yes, I felt as if I was teetering lifelessly in midair with my pants around my ankles and the business end of a double-digit sized dong (sans tip) shoved somewhere near my nethers. So sexy, sort of enjoyable, but also not so much, not to mention confusing and overly … odd.
JASON SACKS: Silva, I know the feeling. As you so eruditely explained in the previous 1300 words, the latest Love & Rockets #1 is… odd. It’s a dislocating experience. And that’s kind of great.
As you say, the issue sucks the reader in with two stories that are familiar and comfortable. Jaime’s “I Come from Above to Avoid a Double Chin” provides readers a story that fits comfortably in the Hoppers oeuvre. “Double Chin” stars Maggie, Hopey, Daffy and a handful of other friends in a madcap yarn animated by the twin Jaime pillars of punk rock and longtime friendship.
This is a classic Jaime tale, a kind of “Maggie’s Pals and Gals” that tells a tight six-page tale that feels both improvised and well thought out. It echoes the past of the comic and these characters, with scenes this issue that feel like scenes Jaime has delivered before and settings that resonate throughout all the volumes of L&R. Jaime’s storytelling is at its sterling apex here, exaggerated to add vivid energy but also humanistic as hell. For us longtime love and rocketeers, stories like this are manna, providing just enough of what we’re used to along with more than we thought we wanted.
In fact, that dilemma — giving the readers exactly what they want only different — is the core problem with comic book fans today. Comic fans, especially fans of super-hero series, are notoriously picky about what they read. No matter if they’re reading Batman, Hellboy or the work of Jaime Hernandez, the motto for many readers could be said to be “give me exactly what I’m used to, just with a few variations.” Thus we have a world where writers like Scott Snyder and Tom King are elevated to fan favorites for providing takes on favorite heroes derived from media and the real word. That’s not a problem, really (King’s Vision is pretty fucking great), but at its worst, this inbred approach to comic art can be stultifying. In “giving the people what they want”, an important principle can be forgotten: the imperative for creating truly challenging, idiosyncratic art. After all, should art be based around giving the reader what they want to read or around giving the artist the freedom to explore what they want to create?
In many ways the back two stories in the new L&R show the latter approach.
Gilbert’s “Begin Again” is the first of two stories this issue that show the auteur approach of this new volume. For the last decade or so, Gilbert has been delivering work (including Marble Season, Children of Palomar, the sublime Bumperhead, and Twilight Children, with the late great Darwyn Cooke) that often leaves the reader befuddled. Many of Gilbert’s recent stories center around a key enigma: perhaps the disappearance of children, an out of time iPad, or, as (in the case of the story in this issue) the passion that much of the world feels for actress Fritz.
Gilbert explored the tangled and bizarre world of Fritz in the previous volume of L&R, but here he drops readers right into the middle of a deliberately dislocating design involving doppelgangers, lost sisters, high crime, pormography, large-breasted women and dwarves. Despite the fact that Gilbert’s storytelling approach seems clear (at least on the surface), “Begin Again” is all feints and twists and confusing character moments seemingly created in order to distance a reader from the story on the page. Characters often seem like caricatures. The ridiculously pendulous breasts on most of the women quickly lose any sexiness. Many characters are drawn in ways that make them seem detached from reality.Topping it all, Gilbert’s art has a loose, often almost thrown-off approach that makes it feel improvised.
In an odd turnabout that’s emblematic of this series, the very opaqueness of the story being told makes “Begin Again” more intriguing. We are given enough to start to parse the subtext, to get an idea of the basis of this almost dreamlike world under Gilbert’s brush, but we are always held a bit at arm’s length until we go back and dig deeper, deeper, until we can see resonances from previous stories and previous scenes, until we discover that this tremendous fever dream of a yarn makes delightfully surreal sense. This is a new volume and it brings new stylistic quirks. We begin again with a new mindset and a new approach to storytelling. Beto isn’t playing it safe. He is delivering work that appeals to him, and if you can’t keep up or make sense if it, he probably doesn’t care. Gilbert Hernandez is not Scott Snyder.
Maybe delightful isn’t the right word to use to describe this story. Maybe the story is more confusing or off-putting or just plain fucking odd than delightful. There’s a pervasive atmosphere of sexual decadence about “Begin Again” that gives this tale a sleazy strangeness. So many women have large breasts, and so many of them parade around in high heels. So much of his tale is about sexually objectifying women, and the twin costs and benefits given to the women who are sexually objectified. That’s a painfully, frustratingly confusing dilemma for any artist. For Gilbert Hernandez, whose depiction of women has often simultaneously been both celebrated and despised, such an objectification presents the reader an equally difficult dilemma. Is this work empowering or is it demeaning? Are the smiles on the faces of these characters avatars of happiness or signs of resignation?
Even with all that, though, ultimately the strongest emotion I feel after reading and rereading “Begin Again” is gratitude: gratitude that comics like these are being created and gratitude that Gilbert is sharing his imagination in his own very specific and often dislocating way.
Like you, Silva, I also had trouble with Jaime’s eight-pager that closes this issue. Equally as infused with sexual energy as Gilbert’s story, this tale is also confusing and dislocating. It’s somehow both euphoric and baffling (a phrase the Alanis Morrisettes of the world would call ironic), another seemingly improvised, dreamlike trip into the id of Jaime Hernandez.
You do a wonderful job above of summarizing my feelings about this story, so I’ll mainly defer to you. But I’ll add what I hope are a few decent insights into the story.
First, Jaime created this story as an eight-page backup tale. As a comics fan growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Jaime was familiar with the eight-page backup and its special rules. The back-up story was meant to be a supplement to the other stories presented in a comic book. A bonus tale of Green Lantern or Doctor Fate in the back of a random issue of The Flash would tell a story quickly, deliver a quick thrill or two, maybe deliver a moral lesson, then shuffle the reader on to the letters page. The backups almost never were anything other than a small trifle, a true throwaway tale.
I therefore approach this story in that light, as a quick trifle meant in some way to offset all that has come before. In a spookily thoughtful way, this oddball tale does just that. It combines the familiar bouncy trifle of Jaime’s first stories with the darkness of Gilbert’s story to produce a tale both sweet and tough, a quick, absurd melange of images that just barely works as narrative. In its own very strange way, the backup is like a “Mr. and Mrs. Superman” story drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger following a Cary Bates/Curt Swan Superman story in Action Comics.
This tale is more the implication of a narrative than an actual narrative. Much of the tale seems told between panels, or behind walls. Who are these people or creatures, why do they care about a transporter, why are people falling from the sky, and what the fuck is that tentacle creature? In an eight-page backup, readers don’t necessarily get all the context to understand the details of the story being told so we are forced to fill in the blanks, to interpret things the way we want. Unless we are fully versed in this fictional universe, most of the actions taken in an eight-pager can seem arbitrary. The confusion isn’t hand-waving or obfuscation; instead, it’s a storytelling trope.
Jaime’s art in this story alternates between delightful and painfully pedestrian. As you say, Keith, the opening page is delightfully created, and there are a few scenes that channel Jack Kirby in all his glory. An image of haunting faces on page 6 is gorgeously wonderful. Other pages, however, include painfully sparse backgrounds and confusing place settings.
I was actually a fan of the squarebound Love & Rockets: New Stories that preceded this new volume, but I was excited to see this new volume on the shelves. For all its deep and considerable flaws, the new L&R #1 presents two master storytellers who are now 35 years into their careers. Unlike so many people in their 50s, the minds of the Bros are continuing to open up to new possibilities in their art and their storytelling.
As fans, we can only hope our minds are open enough to accept those new possibilities.
KS:First, wouldn’t “coming from above” actually emphasize a double chin? Unless, of course, you’re keen to throw your head back in the throes of passion like you’re trying to impersonate a whore from King’s Landing. No matter. It’s not important, probably.
As much as I want to keep wringing my hands over what this comic means beyond the whereabouts of Katak’s gold or his friend’s transporter, in my heart and in my head, I get it. It’s not about the gold, the transporter or the hand wringing. As for the meaning? Well … it’s Chinatown innit?
I know that someone as worldly, well-read and accomplished as you are, Jason, has heard Aesop’s fable ‘The Farmer and the Viper,’ perhaps you know it better as ‘The Scorpion and the Frog,’ Either way, same result, same lesson. As much as this story is about what happens to those who ‘pity scoundrels’ or the inherent vice of wickedness, I always read it as about expectation. Vipers bite. Scorpions sting. And Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez are punks.
Your reading of the Princess Anima story as a perfectly executed eight-page backup speaks to your (arcane) knowledge of comics and pulls back the curtain to reveal what this story is, a perfectly executed eight-page backup, for all that means in the context of nearly eighty years of comic book publishing. You’re also spot-on when it comes to the approach the reader needs to take to ‘get’ “Begin Again” and “Princess Anima.” As you say:
“… go back and dig deeper, deeper, until we can see resonances from previous stories and previous scenes, until we discover that this tremendous fever dream of a yarn makes delightfully surreal sense. We begin again with a new mindset and a new approach to storytelling.”
With the (occasional) exception a ‘surreal sense,’ what you’ve written in a few words is the template, the only primer one needs to read and enjoy and love Love and Rockets. The best literature engenders re-reading, of going back and finding something forgotten or overlooked the first time through or discovering something that reads anew as one ages. I understand re-reading for pleasure to ‘begin again’ with Frodo or Sam for instance and that’s not to say that new discoveries can’t be found on that road. But new truths? I’m not so sure. At its best, Love and Rockets rewards re-reading because it reflects what it means to be human and at its worst, it’s a comic book, one of many, disposable. So, for anyone that’s made it this far, where does Love and Rockets Volume 4 #1 reside? Well, somewhere in that amorphous country known as the middle, not the worst nor the best, but somewhere in between.
I’m a true believer when it comes to the raw power of Love and Rockets, how aggressive it is in the face of the status quo of comics, how antagonistic, how punk. I’ll never understand why Love and Rockets doesn’t get the same treatment (from the mainstream?) (from comics readers?) (from professed Comics fans?) as Watchmen or DKR or those other ‘not for kids’ comics. Never. What is Love and Rockets if not the quintessential rejection of mainstream comics in the broader culture? Oh, right. Neither of the Hernandez brothers are the snotty punks they were in 1981. Thank God. People age, personal philosophies, not so much. Gilbert and Jaime are fundamentalist punks. A change in the format for the distribution of their comics from hardback annual to (sorta) semiannual floppy doesn’t change the nature of Love and Rockets or its creators. It’s as fucked-up and funny and opaque and surreal as ever — it’s for matur(er) readers. Not always ‘getting’ Gilbert — I’m the first to raise my hand on that score — or recognizing when Jaime provides what fans want plus a bit more and is ‘taking the piss’ in equal measure is part of the game. It’s Love and Rockets after all, and Love and Rockets abides.