"Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."–George W. Bush
Back in the 70s, it was hard to find a good man–let alone a woman–of color in the comics. Black Panther, you were gone so fast we barely knew you. Luke Cage too. Iron Fist? Blonde. Conan? Brunette, but a barbarian.
There was Shang-Chi the Master of Kung Fu–revived by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy from Sax Rohmer’s World War I era Fu Manchu pulps. Shang-Chi joined London’s MI-6 and struggled (mostly non-verbally) with the legacy of his dad’s villainous nails while kicking much ass.
Then the 80s came and, per Tina Turner, we didn’t need another hero. By the end of the decade Frank Miller had pumped Batman the Dark Knight full of fascist steroids, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were exposing the Watchmen as underwear-sporting creeps. In some ways, this was a delayed response to McCarthy-era culture wars. During the mid-50s, facing a bilious Senate, the comic-book industry had agreed to censor itself, guaranteeing parents that their books would conform to basic moral standards. Superheroes and saccharin Richie Rich characters soon became the norm. Social issues were either encoded or handled gingerly.
The arrival in 1982 of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comic book was the breakthrough. The book helped revive the adult comics genre, which had flowered briefly alongside the hippie counterculture, then been hounded to near extinction. Praised by old-schoolers Robert Crumb and Moebius, Love and Rockets influenced a whole new generation of serious comic book writers, from Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World", Lloyd Llewellyn to Moore ("From Hell"). The effect was global; Love and Rockets is now translated into Danish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and, of course, Spanish.
Equally important, Love and Rockets offered a new kind of narrative; freed of the caped crusader paradigm, it was thoroughly polycultural and punk, as if intensity and identity had to go hand in hand. At once, Los Bros, as they called themselves, destroyed two longstanding totems–no well-rounded protagonists of color and no liberated women. They rendered women of color–tall and short, gorgeous and plain, of various and multiple sexual appetites, all instantly recognizable both visually and emotionally–in black and white and fine shades of gray.
Their comic-book began as a genre title, complete with pro-solar mechanics, robots and rockets. "The meaning of ‘Love and Rockets’ is emotion and technology, living and loving hand in hand," says Gilbert. But soon the rockets were gone, and Los Bros went to work transforming the entire field. While Gilbert and Jaime briefly put the title to rest in the mid-90s to concentrate on spinoffs and other books, they recentlyrevived it in 2001. "I dunno," Jaime cracks, "something about those three little words brings ’em in."
A Borderless World
Jaime’s stories center on Margarita Luisa Chascarrillo and Esperanza Luisa Glass, Maggie and Hopey to their fans. He has followed their friendshipfrom their havoc-wreaking punk urchins in the fictional Barrio Huerta (better known to its residents as Hoppers for its stash of low-riders) through their on-and-off love affair into early mid-life . Gilbert created the mythical Palomar–a rural, matriarchal Central American village where, as one character puts it, "the men are men and women have a sense of humor"–to map the lives and loves of indelible characters like Luba, an earth-mother figure with a violence-scarred past, Chelo, the female town sheriff who keeps order with common sense and ample patience, and Tonansin, the tragic beauty who becomes a political martyr.
Jaime’s clean, emotionally precise lines–drafted as if Betty and Veronica had said "Fuck a sensible haircut!" and joined the 21st Century–maintain a balance with Gilbert’s magical realist maelstrom of vast landscapes, heaving cities, and secret jungle gardens, of Kahlo allusions and cinematic jumpcuts. On the page, Maggie and Hopey’s world-in-miniature–watering holes and stuccoed two-story apartments, comic book stores and cable access studios–and Palomar’s quivering, quassated paradise–in constant danger of being overrun by serial killers, urban gangsters, death squads, gringo surfers, liberal photojournalists, and Luba’s brood–almost never converge, except in the very occasional inside joke. But while Maggie and Hopey’s milieu has recently shifted south to Los Angeles, and Gilbert has moved on to other Latino idylls, together they represent a cohesive, shrinking, borderless world–albeit one where the masked pro wrestlers with goofy names ("Chango Pongo de la Planet Mongo!") are always bigger and nicer than rock stars.
Los Bros grew up in Oxnard, an aggie town of Chicanos, Latinos, Filipinos, and whites in the vast nowhere between elite Santa Barbara and authentic Los Angeles. Their Chihuahua-born father passed away while they were young. "Growing up, it was just our mother and her mother, our grandmother, raising us. Two women raising six kids," Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times. The wash of pop culture–"The Grapes of Wrath" and "To Kill A Mockingbird" on television, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols on the stereo–might have been a potent parenting aide, but the family took it all quite seriously. Gilbert, Jaime and older brother Mario (who still writes the occasional Love and Rockets story) were promised every comic book they wanted; their grandmother had thrown their mother’s away.
By the late 70s, as Los Bros entered their twenties, punk’s louder, faster ethic provided a perfect escape from small-town life and a dizzying entry into a fascinating world of characters. Just as importantly, they had absorbed tales tall and small from their mother and grandmother of pre- and post-Alamo life in Texas. As they struggled through dead-end janitorial jobs, Mario encouraged them to develop their comic book storytelling aspirations. In 1981, Gilbert and Jaime sent some of their work to an industry magazine, The Comics Journal, for review. The Journal’s editor, Gary Groth, offered them a book on his small Fantagraphics imprint, and comic-book history was made.
Finding the Race in Racy
It’s not hard to see what caught Groth’s eye. Love and Rockets’ utter freshness was represented first of all by–as Chief Rocker Busy Bee used to say–sex and more sex. Girls, boys, women, men, brown, black, yellow, and white, they were all getting down, or jigg’ng, as Hopey and Maggie so elegantly put it. Love and Rockets is certainly not porn, but it swings in all directions and always manages to find the race in racy. In 1992, the books were banned briefly in South Africa. While the sexual content was cited, it is not hard to wonder what else the censors thought was at stake.
After experimenting with futuristic gizmos and gadgets, Los Bros found their voice closer to home. As Jaime often tells it, "In my late teens, early 20s, the life we were living was more interesting than the comics we were reading." His punk roots, barrio observations, and underdog love all came together when the mestiza pixie Hopey arrived. (He has said that she is based on his fiancee.)
Irreverent, temperamental, and mischievous, she was the perfect foil for the lovably brittle, sweetly redoubtable Maggie. Jaime surrounded them with a wonderful supporting cast, including the bleach-bombshell Beatriz Garcia, who marries a millionaire and reinvents herself as superheroine Penny Century, and Isabel "Izzy" Maria Ruebens Ortiz, a sickly author, bandmate, and childhood friend with a goth flair for the supernatural. The list goes on: the gregarious gap-toothed stripper Danita Lincoln, the naïve rich punkette Daphne Matsumoto, the smart but struggling artist Ray Dominguez, Izzy’s beautiful but doomed brother Eulalio "Speedy" Ortiz.
That punkers, strippers, cholos, pochas, authors, artists, and party-girls should be moving in such close quarters isn’t far-fetched. In fact, it’s quite natural. "Ninety-nine percent of our characters are second- or third-class citizens. There is always something about them that is not very popular," Jaime has said. One webfan’s unofficial census of Jaime’s universe found "about 70 Hispanic characters; 84 white; 12 Asian; 16 Black." A Jaime story is a bottoms-up generational snapshot of Anytown, Southern California, with no need to correct for undercounts.
This microcosmic realism inspires rabid devotion. Like a brown comic-book Oprah, Maggie’s waistline has even become a subject of controversy. Women loved the realistic depiction of Maggie trying to find a good angle in front of a mirror before finally gagging in disgust and tossing out her bathing suit. They appreciated that Maggie’s guy lovers had no problem with her body. As Amy Benter wrote in Salon, "The Hernandez women look like the women who men and women actually make love to." Maggie’s male readers couldn’t stand it. For his part, Jaime refuses to fight time, gravity or anything else on Maggie’s behalf.
It’s a laughable debate, so pre-9/11. By the second edition, Maggie and Hopey have hit their late thirties. Hopey tends bar while Maggie fixes toilets in her building. Maggie has just divorced, and is recovering from depression. As they stumble through the motions of life, they find themselves, as Jaime says, caught in a world "they are definitely not in control of which leaves some of them pretty lost and desperate." Their emotional crisis seems to mirror our own post-9/11 confusion.
Of Heroism and History
If Jaime holds a magnifying glass to the foibles of the down-and-always-trying-to-get-out, critics describe Gilbert’s work as a serial-art analogue to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epics. Jaime’s characters explore interiority in familiar settings–the club, the bookstore, the living room with the foldout bed–but Gilbert’s protagonists always seem to be moving in a sort of exodus through panoramas of history. The stories have exhaustive scale, imagining the history of the Americas in breaks and displacements.
In deft narrative leaps between past and present, we follow the story of Luba in Gilbert’s twin Palomar classics, the tellingly titled "Human Diastrophism" (collected in Blood of Palomar, Volume 8) and Poison River (Book 12). Her life moves through banditry and revolution, mambo hedonism and brutal gangsterism, small-town banality and urban entropy. Eventually, Luba’s daughters–seven from five fathers–immigrate north to find their fortunes, and she follows.
Gilbert’s vision is often seen as the darker of Los Bros, more unrelentingly cynical. Love and Rockets X (available as a graphic novel in Book 10) captures a racially divided Los Angeles before the Gulf War and the riots. The plot uses a failed SoCal garage band called "the real" Love and Rockets as its tongue-in-cheek animating device. (During the late 80s, a British goth group actually stole the comic’s name. Still, the book has outlasted the band.) Racial and sexual tensions swirl around a mansion party where young and old bulimics, undocumented lesbian immigrants from Palomar, Hollywood execs, racist skinheads, and revenge-minded homeboys are all about to hear the band’s debut.
He skillfully draws the proliferating characters wide enough to escape stereotype but narrow enough to suggest a key to puzzling out the essential decay of the time or place. In his new work, "Julio’s Day", he follows the story of Julio Reyes, a wide-eyed boy who wants to be a farmer, and encounters hate at an early age.
"If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s racism or prejudice against sexual preference. So we emphasize that people can be anything they want," Gilbert has said. But on each page, they strain at limits imposed by unseen forces. There is much frivolity, but not much freedom. A young Luba dances and shoots smack until she is led away from certain death by her gangster benefactors; Tonansin’s sister Diana practices sprinting for a contest that will never come; Luba’s daughter Maricela hides her sexuality from her mother and the town, then escapes to sell flowers on L.A. street-corners.
And yet they survive, always the wiser. Here is the fundamental beauty of Love and Rockets: the heroism emanates from the quotidian and the grey. This second edition of Love and Rockets arrives at a time when art seems both more useless and more necessary than ever. Art cannot speak to the new horrors yet, but it must calm our souls. We will not get that from Supermen with super powers, Dark Knights with hearts of vengeance, or unelected demagogues with nuclear warheads. In Los Bros’ America, the women run the place, the borders are gone, and the superheroes won’t save us. Right now, anytime, it’s a great place to be.