The Return of Love and Rockets
I have said here that Gilbert Hernandez is one of my favorite contemporary writers. And I am not talking exclusively about comics. But if you are aware of alternative comics, you have probably heard of him and his brother Jaime. Together, 35 years ago, they released the Love and Rockets anthology, an enduring series that definitely redefined, and have been redefining, alternative comics from the early 80s onwards. It soon became a milestone for the medium, having since being considered by critics one of the most important graphic novel of all times. Complex characters, multi-layered stories, and an innovative, yet reverent, and highly personal approach to comic tropes define Gilbert and Jaime’s work. These were also the qualities that helped redefining alternative comics.
Love and Rockets have never been out of print and its creators have never stopped publishing. The anthology is always available in multiple formats through Fantagraphics, being one of their bestselling titles. The brothers themselves also continued producing throughout the years. In particular, Gilbert is extremely prolific, releasing graphic novels and new titles through a number of publishers, from the original house of Love and Rockets to Vertigo and Dark Horse comics, all worth checking out. As a collective, they have also intermittently put out some numbers of Love and Rockets in different reincarnations, most famously the yearly edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories, in which they follow up on the beloved characters they have created; characters that the readers have been following since the early editions of the original series. Namely, in New Stories we catch up with Jaime’s Maggie and all the old and new characters of the fictional neighborhood of Hoppers; and also with Gilbert’s characters out of the fictional town of Palomar and beyond. They all feel like long-time friends, especially if you have spent the last 35 years with them.
This is one of the main traits of both Hernandez’s works, creating realistic worlds and characters with which readers can relate and follow as they unfold. In contrast to most long-running comic characters, though, these characters change, not only psychologically but also physically. For example, Maggie’s long storyline shows her struggles with her weight, among other things, as she grows up. Palomar, in turn, is a long family saga, that starts up with a group of residents of a fictional town south of the border and develops into a generational mise en abyme across countries. Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez, in particular, is a rich character that derives from this world but creates a universe of her own. She is a soft-spoken, light-skinned, gorgeous Latino woman born in America, who is a half-sister to Luba, one of the main characters of Palomar. In this fictional universe, Fritz becomes an actress. The series of fictional movies starring Fritz are among my favorite pieces of fiction of the last ten years. The Troublemakers, Love from the Shadows, Chance in Hell, and Maria M. are all good examples, all released by Fantagraphics.
Now, for the good news! Love and Rockets is back to the newsstands. And this is not a small affair. The Hernandez Broz decided to celebrate their 35th anniversary by returning to semi-regular, 32 pages comic book format. The first number just came out in September. The reception of it has been stellar. For an example, check out this article on The Guardian. And here are my two cents on this inaugural issue.
Starting with its cover, Love and Rockets Vol. IV #1 seems to deal with the theme of impermanence. I’ll explain. The cover by Jaime portrays Maggie’s crew when they were young. Some of them are not even in the picture anymore. For the long-term reader, it is a nostalgic image, where you can see an innocent looking Maggie, the long-gone Penny and Izzy, and the though young Hopey, among others. You can also see a picture of Ray, the protagonist of a recent highly emotional resolution in Maggie’s life (check out New Stories #3 and #4). For the new reader, the contrast between the young characters and their current images can be revealing of the storytelling. In the first pages, we see Maggie and Hopey reunited today, to do something they use to do in the 80s, attending a punk rock gig. They don’t look exactly like the girls on the cover. But they sure are. The temporal gap between the cover and the initial pages, visible in the character’s faces and bodies, is telling, even if you have never met them before. “You guys never change,” states one of the characters by the end of the story. But that is the beauty of Jaime’s world, the characters do change but they are always themselves.
Gilbert’s story, “Begin Again,” is also about impermanence. Roughly, it is about finding a successor to Fritz in show business. In it, we see a series of Fritz’s impersonators, among snippets of Fritz’s own life in flashback and through the eyes of her daughter Remedios, aka baby Fritz. Baby Fritz is the only one who can use Fritz’s name but she is not a good actress. “All she is good for is porn,” says Pipo, Fritz’s former wife. That is, her own daughter can’t be a revived version of Fritz’s glorious self as a young actress. The subtext here is, Fritz is getting older and there is no one to continue her legacy. In metafictional terms, I would say, the question is, would there be a character as interesting as Fritz? Maybe not. But maybe a troubled daughter, a missing twin sister, a transsexual impersonator, and a small person double will do the trick. The narrative of ”Begin Again” is fragmented and multilayered, as is most of Gilbert’s best work. Even if you don’t know anything about the implied world these characters live in, you can still enjoy the puzzling tale of an outdated starlet and her daughter looking for answers. Gilbert’s portraits are elusive, yet complex. They are ever-changing characterizations, constructed through different, moving points of view. It makes it for a compelling reading experience for both the initiated and the newbie.
I can get on and on about Gilbert’s work, his fictional worlds, his devices, and his personal contribution to the medium. But I won’t. The important thing is Love and Rockets is back. Every issue is an exciting entry to the Hernandez’s canon but also a worthwhile piece of narrative in itself. If you don’t know them yet, it is never too late: Love and Rockets Vol. IV #1 is sure a good place to get up on it!