Sunday, November 23, 2008

Comics Review: Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, and Mario Hernandez

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories, the latest incarnation of the showcase anthology periodical for Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's work, finds them both at a low ebb.

Gilbert, in particular, appears to be just blowing off steam. Since the previous Love and Rockets series ended last year, he's completed a full-length graphic novel in Speak of the Devil, and it's easy to see the nine pieces he contributes to this issue as fun-to-draw, for-the-hell-of-it efforts meant to recharge his batteries. They include three oddball strips in the daily-newspaper format, a goofy funny-animal story featuring a gambling kangaroo, and a madcap tribute to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis imitators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, done up in the sort of story one might expect in the DC Comics Martin & Lewis series from the 1960s. The experimental piece "?" plays around with aspect-to-aspect panel progressions and Caligari-style surrealistic distortions. "Victory Dance" is apparently a send-off for Juan Julio, a featured character of Gilbert's in the last Love and Rockets series. The most interesting moment in the piece is the ending, which arbitrarily ties into the ending of another story. "Papa" is a meandering effort that looks like it could intersect with the Palomar material but never does. These strips aren't much of a read, but they fly by quickly enough, and Gilbert's cartooning is as energetic and expressive as ever.

"Chiro el Indio," which Gilbert cartooned from his brother Mario's script, is the most entertaining story in the issue. Set in what appears to be a 19th-century Central American village, it's an amusing slapstick piece that pits traditional Latino Indian religion against the governing Roman Catholic faith. The main characters are the forever squabbling Indian couple Chiro el Indio and Preciosa, and much of the story revolves around their arguments over who will bring rain if prayed to: the "Beer Hen" Mary or Quetzaquatl, divine king of the Toltacs. The central joke is that everyone defines his or her life through religion without having anything resembling a spiritual connection to it. The various characters--the impulsive, high-strung Chiro, the cynical-but-gullible Preciosa, Chiro's sexpot "savage" sidekick Moom-Fah, the randy monsignor, and the exasperated town mayor--show comic potential that would seem to go beyond this one short, and one looks forward to Mario and Gilbert doing more with them.

The story that dominates the issue--it takes up half of the hundred pages--is Jaime's "Ti-Girls Adventures No. 34." It's a remarkably vapid strip that reimagines the superhero genre with Jaime's standard-issue fantasy girlfriend characters. Jaime's central flaw as a cartoonist is that he doesn't really write stories; he commits his daydreams to paper. (He may load them up with grit and angst, but they're daydreams nonetheless.) His pieces are rarely worked out in terms of dramatic conflicts or narrative effects; one thing just happens after another, and the reader's interest is largely defined by how much one shares Jaime's infatuation with the girls he depicts. I quit finding the ding-a-ling behavior of late teenage girls charming somewhere in my mid-20s, when my hormones cooled down enough to look at them and not fight the temptation to drool. Jaime's pushing 50, and he still hasn't gotten over them. His delight is palpable in moments like the one when two girls are putting on make-up and happily exclaim, "Oh, look at us. We're so gonna look like whores." And he's obsessed with their bodies; he rarely indulges in drawing overt cheesecake, but one can tell he's thought out every aspect of their figures and poses, and with a big grin on his face the entire time. I have no doubt his favorite visual detail in the story is how one girl's skin-tight top keeps riding up over her belly. "Ti-Girls" seems like a complete waste of time, largely because it doesn't feature much of the well-observed social detail that helps one through the "Locas" material. It also doesn't have any characters like Izzy Reubens or Terry Downe, who have an urgency for Jaime that snaps him out of his daydream mode and compels him to think like a proper storyteller. "Ti-Girls" is just a jokey good-girl superhero piece, and it evaporates while one is reading it. The story's supposed to continue in the next issue, but I doubt anyone will care if Jaime drops it in favor of something else.

It must be said that Jaime's art is phenomenally good, though. I prefer Gilbert's looser, more expressive style, but Jaime's draftsmanship is just astonishing. As impatient as I get with his story material, there's no denying the skill and sophistication of his visual treatment. His sense of black-and-white design is peerless, as is his precision with delineating character expression and gestures. The action is clear and uncluttered, and there's not a lapse anywhere in the drawing of figures or settings. So much ability that so little worthwhile is done with. Jaime is alternative comics' answer to Alex Toth, another masterful cartoon dramatist who wouldn't have known a good story if it hugged him.

A number of reviewers have observed that Love and Rockets: New Stories harkens back to Gilbert and Jaime's earliest efforts at the start of the 1980s--pieces like "BEM" or the Maggie the Mechanic material. There may be something to that; the key difference with Jaime's "Ti-Girls" piece, at least, is that the execution is much more polished. But the Hernandezes' reputation was built on their expanding comics' capacity for handling extended realist narratives. They may have gone as far with that as they can go--it's always possible the realistic material might stop having expressive urgency for them. But one hopes the first issue of the New Stories doesn't signal a new direction for their work. It's hard to feel they're doing anything here besides spinning their wheels, which is guaranteed to get everyone nowhere fast.

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