“Love and Rockets” Is Still Independent

“Love and Rockets: The First Fifty” collects decades of work by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.Photograph by Carol Kovinick-Hernandez / Courtesy Fantagraphics

Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez self-published the first issue of “Love and Rockets” in 1981. The brothers financed the initial eight-hundred-copy run with a seven-hundred-dollar loan from their youngest brother, Ismael, and stapled its pages together at Mario’s house in Oxnard, California. They sent a copy to Gary Groth, the publisher of the artsy, angry trade magazine The Comics Journal, hoping for a review. A month later, Groth called the brothers and asked to publish the book himself. He reissued the first “Love and Rockets” in July of 1982. After the second issue came out the following April, Marvel Comics began calling Jaime with offers of work. But the Hernandezes were California punks. Marvel was the mainstream, and they prized their autonomy. Jaime declined. For four decades, the brothers have produced the series and its many spinoffs—as of this writing, a hundred and thirty-six issues in all—by themselves.

“Love and Rockets” is rightly recognized as the blueprint for a mini-boom of alternative comics for adults in the eighties and nineties. Daniel Clowes’s “Eightball,” Peter Bagge’s “Hate,” and Chris Ware’s “Acme Novelty Library” would likely not exist without its example or its patronage. (Clowes’s early work was excerpted in its pages.) The Hernandezes—sometimes credited as Los Bros Hernandez—have worked in familiar forms, drawing sweeping serialized melodramas, one-page gags, and enthusiastically obscene sexual confession. But from the beginning, the brothers have used the latitude of indie comics to tell stories underrepresented in those forms. They draw queer and trans and bisexual characters—some of whom are also white Latino or Afro-Latino—whose personalities do not seem to have been focus-grouped. Small children are as complex and interesting as adults. (Owen Fitzgerald’s “Dennis the Menace” stories are a notable influence.) Characters fret about their sexual preferences. They argue about the ethics of passing for white, and the ethics of berating each other for passing for white. They make split-second decisions about how to deal with bigotry, sometimes badly, sometimes well. Some worry about proxy wars in the Global South, which directly affect them or their families. Others find themselves harassed by cops, sometimes cops in riot gear. Many of their Reagan-era fears, like the immigration police, are depressingly constant.

Love and Rockets: The First Fifty” gathers every issue of the series the Hernandezes published between 1982 and 1996. The brothers were in their twenties when the earliest issues came out, and the collection doubles as an autobiography, tracking the maturation of two great artists over their first years-long surge of creativity. From their first stories, the Hernandezes’ ambitions are clear: they are trying to establish the styles of their lifework. Their parallel stories rarely intersect but they seem to emerge from shared experience and mutual inspiration.

The initial proposition of “Love and Rockets” was simple: each brother would be able to do whatever he wanted. Every issue has at least one story by Jaime and one by Gilbert. (Mario’s contributions to the comics tapered off, but he has made sporadic appearances in the meantime.) Each brother uses roughly half the magazine’s sixtysomething pages, but they also make room for one another. One month Jaime will take up a larger share, and the next month Gilbert will be in the spotlight.

Gilbert’s first stories explore the secrets and troubles of a close-knit Latin American village called Palomar, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Jaime’s stories, set in Hoppers, the Mexican side of the fictional Huerta, California, are more expansive; his characters are forever discovering new social scenes tangentially connected to their own circles of friends. Much of the fun in Hoppers has to do with its subcasts of glamorous wrestlers and bartenders with terrible bands. Jaime’s cartoons often depict some delicate, nameless emotional state only present in a particular combination of people and circumstances. Gilbert has said more than once that he draws to purge his worst thoughts, and anything seems possible in his stories; at least once, God shows up. Their visual styles, too, differ wildly. Jaime’s early drawings are modelled on swashbuckling adventure comics; Gilbert’s drawings are so economical and so experimental that he occasionally seems to have no style at all.

Jaime has used his share of “Love and Rockets” to construct a single, vast graphic novel about his indecisive and unlucky heroine, Maggie Chascarillo. Maggie is forever falling in and out of love, sometimes with men, sometimes with her gay punk-rocker best friend and occasional roommate, Hopey. (With characteristic discretion, Jaime often obscures what exactly has happened between Maggie and Hopey and whether they’re together or seeing other people.) As Maggie ages and the series progresses, her face and body change, but she remains enigmatic and magnetic to her friends and acquaintances. When she is not Jaime’s direct subject, she is the star around which his other characters orbit, the main topic of their conversations, and the beneficiary of an endless parade of pet names. (It’s worth noting how good Jaime is at names; one character, Terry Downe, is said to have a sister, Fallon. All we know about Fallon is that she is about to marry a foreign-exchange student named Lundin Bridges.)

At first, Jaime seems compelled to demonstrate that he can render action scenes as well as intimate moments. As his work matures, the more dramatic the event—a death, an abortion, a marriage—the less willing he is to depict it explicitly. In one story, “Flies on the Ceiling,” he fills in a mysterious character’s backstory, but he does so impressionistically, doling out fragments of her past in individual, disconnected panels as she sits alone in her house with her memories. In early stories, Jaime’s art includes crosshatched shading in lieu of gray, but as the series goes on he uses hard blacks almost exclusively. Jaime draws instantly recognizable people, whose faces seem photographically detailed, despite being composed of only a few lines. When they are shocked or alarmed, they might suddenly sprout huge fangs, or disappear from view, leaving only a pair of feet sticking up into the panel from the bottom. Over the years, Jaime’s style has absorbed children’s humor comics, too, and has settled into something able to sustain slapstick and tenderness.

Instead of drawing a continuous story, Gilbert’s Palomar comics are more loosely linked, though they, too, initially revolve around a mysterious woman. The stories’ nesting continuities are often inventive, even frightening. Jaime tends to fill in the past in flashbacks, or with stories told to a character who is out of the loop. Gilbert, omniscient, happily flings the reader decades into the past. His approach to publication evokes the dream logic that often disrupts and upends his characters’ lives. In later stories, several become minor TV and movie stars. Their fictional films, which Gilbert has drawn as a series of short stories and novellas, include a pornographic version of the Book of Genesis, a series of horrifyingly violent sci-fi stories, and a bio-pic of María, the mother of Palomar’s matriarch, Luba. The latter story, published as a self-contained graphic novel, “María M.,” in 2019, “stars” one of María’s own daughters, Fritz, as her mother. For a new reader of the series, it’s a perfect introduction to Gilbert’s earlier stories. Those stories, in turn, will lead the reader back to “María M.”

Thematically, Gilbert’s work is darker than his brother’s. There are depictions of graphic violence and emotionally destructive sex, as well as subtler ways of unsettling his readers. His main character, Luba, founds a family dynasty in Palomar. She is also part of an extended family from across the border, and that family has its own secret crimes and subtle connections. The parallels Gilbert draws between those two complicated sets of relationships are sometimes ironic, sometimes inexplicable, even mystical. Obsession and attraction, in his world, are so powerful that they can doom a woman’s jilted lovers to death or insanity, or give a man a sixth sense that lets him know where any woman is, no matter where or how well she tries to hide. (This character is generally benign; for many years, Luba hates him anyway.)

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