Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rereading the Locas Stories

This is revised version of an essay that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on March 26, 2012. It was a contribution to a roundtable on Jaime Hernandez's work. For the index to the roundtable, click here.

Over the last several weeks, in preparation for this roundtable, I’ve been rereading the Locas material I have on my bookshelves. This is volumes 1 through 11 of the original Complete Love and Rockets trade paperback series. It covers the first dozen or so years of Jaime Hernandez’s career, beginning with the early “Mechanics” efforts and culminating with "Wigwam Bam." For those familiar with the current publishing plan for the work, these are the stories in Maggie the Mechanic, The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., and nearly the first half of Perla la Loca. Because of the recent attention given to the stories "Browntown" and "The Love Bunglers," I've sat down with them as well. Here are some thoughts and observations.

I’m still in awe of Hernandez’s draftsmanship, design sense, and all-but-unsurpassed skills as a visual dramatist. And I again found myself impatient with the bulk of his stories, which are invariably slight and undeveloped. Most never get beyond the level of sketches, and the longer they are, the more meandering they tend to be. (“The Death of Speedy Ortiz” and "Wigwam Bam," the most ambitious of the extended pieces, are inchoate sprawls.) In general, Hernandez doesn’t tell stories so much as play voyeur on his characters. His work often feels like the comics equivalent of a reality TV show, albeit one shot by a world-class cinematographer.

This is perhaps what gives Maggie, Hopey, and the others the quality that makes his fans see the characters as real as people in their own lives. (The elegant visuals also provide a basis for aesthetic appreciation that isn't available for viewers of The Real World or Jon & Kate + 8.) In most narratives, characters are in service to the larger effect of the story. This leads to aspects of their personalities being heightened for the story’s purpose. But since Hernandez’s narratives are often not conceived in terms of overall effect, the heightening is absent, and the result for some is that the characters become a source of relaxation in the manner of hanging out with one’s friends. For my part, I can’t enjoy characters and narratives in this way. I tend to see characters in stories as a means to an end, not the end in themselves.

I don’t think all of Hernandez’s stories are negligible. There are times when he demonstrates the narrative chops of a good prose-fiction writer, particularly with the short character studies he produced between “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” and "Wig Wam Bam." The smartly constructed “Tear It Up, Terry Downe” makes deft, varied use of irony and reversal, and it has a good sense of humor besides. “Spring 1982” is beyond smart; it’s fairly masterful. Here, irony and reversals are used as effectively for dramatic purposes as they were for comic ones in “Terry Downe.” Hernandez takes the reader inside the Doyle Blackburn character, his propensity for violence, and his feelings of self-disgust. One sees the character’s violence from all sides: how it allows him to make his way in the world, how it defines and disrupts his relationships, and how it stands in the way of his finding any lasting fulfillment. The running-water motif is brilliantly used to organize and pace the narrative. This piece and "Terry Downe" can hold their own with most contemporary fiction.

“Flies on the Ceiling” is generally cited as the most accomplished of the stories from this period. It’s about the efforts of the Isabel Reubens character to flee her sense of guilt, and how this has resulted in that guilt defining her. With this story, Hernandez has moments of artistry more dazzling than he has ever shown elsewhere. Montage is used in a brilliant variety of ways: to condense the passage of time, to dramatize multiple perspectives, and to render the central character’s internal conflicts. Dream sequences are stunningly used to escalate the narrative tension. The command of pace and rhythm at times is nothing short of astonishing: in particular, the shifts between condensed-time single-moment montages to standard multi-panel scenes feel as natural as can be.

But it’s maddening when Hernandez undermines this largely tour de force effort midway through. The two-page dialogue between Isabel and the devil (who personifies the guilt she can’t escape) is exasperating. The sources of her guilt are made thuddingly, redundantly explicit. Worse, the scene degenerates into a taunting match, which disrupts the carefully wrought tone that comes before and afterward. The rest of the story moves up and down the scale of portent, and this scene completely throws one out of that. Hernandez regains his footing once he moves on, but the wrongheadedness still leaves one wanting to punch the wall.

I’m also put off by Hernandez’s insistence on building effects out of one’s knowledge of Isabel from other stories. A minor example is the gang-member tattoo she sports on her shoulder. The tattoo is an ideal trope for being unable to escape the past, and Hernandez certainly calls attention to it. But he doesn’t make any other reference to her gang experiences. If one doesn’t know or recall the earlier material, it comes across as an ostensibly relevant but conspicuously undeveloped detail--in short, a lapse. The story’s ending is similarly problematic, although on a much greater scale. The devil tells Isabel, “I may turn up as flies on your ceiling.” Now for those who have read “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” and recognize the reference to Isabel’s dissociative episodes, this means quite a bit. The guilt that has haunted her is going to return in bouts of madness. The phrase “flies on your ceiling” is a fairly chilling trope. But if one hasn’t read the earlier story or doesn’t remember it, how is one supposed to take this? In light of the devil’s other statements to Isabel, especially “You’re not afraid anymore,” one is apt to think the devil, having lost his hold on her, is exiting in a moment of empty bravado. It comes across as a hollow taunt. That’s exactly the opposite of what’s intended! Hernandez tries to build the ending out of an Easter egg for his long-term readership, and he ends up with the yolk on his face.

Hernandez’s Easter-egg storytelling tactics were present even before “Flies on the Ceiling.” If the more recent stories “Browntown” and “The Love Bunglers” are any indication, they have become an increasingly integral aspect of his material. Hernandez’s admirers don’t see this as solipsistic or undisciplined, though. Rather, it’s indicative of how the Locas stories are, to quote Jeet Heer, “a wonderfully cohesive and organic work.” One can expect the comparisons to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy to follow. (Click here.) However, Proust and Updike, unlike Hernandez, didn’t take reckless chances on confusing the reader. The narrative plan of Proust’s work is in place from the start, and Updike took care to design the individual Rabbit books as reasonably autonomous units. Proust’s framing scene and his “Swann in Love” novella notwithstanding, the two authors also develop their narratives chronologically. Hernandez, by contrast, just seems to be making it up as he goes. The stories superficially appear to be autonomous pieces, but they’re not. They also jump back and forth across the timeline of Hernandez’s narrative world, but they require that one read them in the order they were created to be properly understood. “Flies on the Ceiling,” for example, takes place before the Maggie-and-Hopey narrative that grounds the series, but one has to read “The Death of Speedy Ortiz,” which was created first but takes place much later, for it to have its full intended effect.

With Proust and Updike, one also notes that their narratives were strongly realized from the very first page. The dozens of pages prior to “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” (generally seen as the beginning of Hernandez’s more ambitious work) are thinly conceived banality, and a good deal of what follows isn’t much of a step up. But one still has to wade through it all to fully grasp the more accomplished pieces. The Locas stories have their moments, but overall, they're an erratic, haphazardly conceived mess.

(After this article first appeared, Fantagraphics Books, Hernandez's publisher, started comparing Hernandez to Updike on the jacket copy of his books. It's a peculiar move for reasons aside from the ones given above. Updike's work, for all its virtues, is notoriously sexist and WASP-centric. It doesn't seem a desirable comparison to make when marketing work about the life and times of a bisexual Hispanic woman and her circle of friends.)

Hernandez doesn’t really remind one of Proust or Updike. The most analogous figure is a contemporary, Cerebus cartoonist Dave Sim. The two cartoonists--both technical virtuosos--came along when open-ended serials were the norm for comics, but they weren’t very far into their careers before literary fiction began to assert itself as a new model. Caught in a transitional period (one they admittedly helped bring about), they tried to create work that combined the values of both approaches.

Hernandez's Easter-egg aesthetic is a conspicuous reflection of this. He's transplanting highbrow literary effects into a serial-fiction structure. The applause this has earned from certain circles of comics fandom isn't surprising. As anyone who's been around a Trekkie knows, particularly obsessive fans place a high value on details and resonances that more casual audiences miss. It's unfortunate that Hernandez, with all his talent, undercuts his work by catering to this proclivity at a larger readership's expense.

That said, I do think Hernandez’s work is somewhat better than Sim’s. It’s far less of a thematic free-for-all, and unlike Sim, Hernandez smartly ditched the pulp and children’s-entertainment aspects of his material before they became incongruous with his ambitions. But he and Sim both ended up with very similar things: artistic projects that are unwieldy leviathans, intermittently brilliant, but ultimately accessible to only a devoted cult audience. One wishes it was otherwise, but Hernandez's material is what it is, and one can only accept or reject it. In my case, it's the latter.

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