It’s not just the gorgeous artwork, ultra-tight personal continuity or glimpses inside the human soul that make Love and Rockets one of the best comics ever, although they certainly help.
It’s the little touches and the tiny moments that make every new issue of Love and Rockets so essential and so wonderfully heartbreaking. Behind Luba’s bazonga breasts and Doyle’s sly smile, there are long and painful tragedies that are only seen in the most subtle of ways. It’s the unspoken compliment, or the sideways look, or the blank expression – that’s where the real meat of Love and Rockets comics lie.
And thirty years – thirty years! - after Los Bros Hernandez started telling their stories this way, they’re still doing it better than anybody else in the world.
Love and Rocket New Stories #5 came out this month, and while it’s almost redundant to say that Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez are still producing amazing work after all these years, I still gotta say it. Their comics in recent years are every bit as good as any other period in the long history. Their comics are still smarter and funnier and sexier and scarier and more emotional than anything else being produced these days.
Their comics are so rich, and have built up so much depth in the past three decades, that each little story resonates with meaning and a fierce dedication to storytelling and long-form narrative experimentation.
Each new issue is cause for celebration, especially when it’s an annual thing. Any day I get to read some brand new Love and Rockets is a Good Day, and it’s something I now look forward to every single year. I might never be sure when I’m actually going to get a copy, but there is never any disappointment when I do.
It’s a comic that’s Always Good, and always has been, and probably will be for a while to come.
Last year’s book was a particular triumph for Jaime, as his long, long-running story of Maggie ‘n’ Ray reached a beautiful and heartbreaking conclusion. (I just read it again this afternoon and it was the 20th time I’ve read it, and I still shed another manly tear over it).
Jaime takes a bit of a step back with the narrative in his latest comics, introducing some new characters and picking up some gangster-related threads from a couple of years ago. Ray and Doyle are still there, amazed at how quickly their bodies are falling apart as they get old, (the drip in Doyle’s arm is a painful little sight), and there are nice pieces of history dredged up, like the full history of these old farts’ friendship, or even why Doyle ended up being such good mates with Mike Tran, but most of Jaime’s work is focussed on taking the story forward, at his own pace and his own style.
But it’s Gilbert who makes the most of his own old stories in the new book, because he goes back to Palomar.
Oh Palomar, his Palomar.
And it is good to pay a visit to the strange little town, somewhere south of the border. It’s good to see Martin and Pipo and Boots and Chelo and – especially – Heraclio and Carmen. It’s almost unbearably nostalgic to see a particular hole in the ground, or hear the Ghost Tree talk, or hear Vicente tell a story.
But Beto has always been just as keen as his younger brother to show that he is all about the future, and while he uses the past, he never wallows in it. He has even moved away from any kind of continuious story in the past few years, concentrating instead on complete little tales with only a minimal connection to his wider stories.
The most obvious link between his older work and the things he has been doing in New Stories (and a number of extremely satisfying stand-alone books) has been the movie link - pretending that many of these stories are the actual films that the characters in Beto’s “real” world are starring in. These movie stories, along with the weirdly pointed and crazy sci-fi-tinged work he has also been doing, are often creepy, disturbing and violent, while also feeling sweet, silly and slightly weightless.
In New Stories #5, Beto goes back to Palomar for the first time in years, but also keeps to his more recent style by running one of his movies alongside the visit to his old ghost town. A film (comic) version of an incredibly idiosyncratic town’s recent history intertwining with the latest appearances of the real (fictional) people from actual (fictional) town might sound meta-textually twee, but Beto is still a master of craft and mood, wherever he is and whatever he is doing, and keeps things relatively light.
The only real horror in Palomar any more is in the movie version of the old stories, where little kids are stabbing people in the eye, but there just isn’t any need for that in the proper Palomar anymore.
So Beto is keeping it new while celebrating the past, even bringing Killer, his latest femme fatale, into the town where she has history she doesn’t even know about. In fact, it’s arguable that while it is nice to visit the town and see how its residents are doing, the story itself is pointing out that there isn’t any need to go back again. It’s a town full of ghosts, and not just the obvious ones in the tree. Those old characters and old stories are just as much ghosts as Tonatzin or Toco.
Jaime gave two of his best characters the only kind of real ending they’re ever likely to really get last time, but this year Gilbert puts a whole town to rest. There isn’t any real need to go back there, although it will always be nice to visit.
It’s harder to talk about Jaime’s work in the new book, because each of his comics in the New Stories books has been spread over two years. The Ti-Girls stuff was very obviously a two-parter, while the first part of the Love Bunglers was a beautifully complete story, only to blossom into something else, even more beautiful, when it carried on into issue four. So the sense that there is more to this story, more still to be explained, is inescapable.
Usually, each new issue sends me diving back into the history, just to get it straight on what is happening now, and what it means for those older stories. This time, I was ahead of the game, and in the immortal words of the mighty philosopher Joe Dredd: this time I got my retaliation in first. Thanks to the easy accessibility of the L&R Library, I’d managed to burn through a quick re-read of the chunky Pearla La Loca and Esperanza collections in the weeks before the new issue. This was partly to get in the right kind of mind groove for the new issue, but also because it made catching up on all the tiny plot details that had been forgotten in the long wait between issues.
This time, I was up on the play with the whole Mel Stropp thing, which made understanding Crime Raiders International Mobsters and Executioners in New Stories #5 a whole lot easier. Sometimes it takes me a while – it took me three reads to figure out what was really up with that gun in the lingerie drawer – and there are still things I can’t quite get. I still have no idea what happened to Reno, and I can’t get the idea out of my head that Eric Lopez is the kid Calvin smacked over with the metal bar, all those years ago.
A lot will probably be cleared up in the next issue, but I still have the feeling it will all make sense if I just went back and read House of Raging Women.
In the meantime: Hey kids! It’s new Jaime Hernandez comics! It’s the usual beautiful art (each panel of Uh… Oh Yeah is a masterpiece), it’s still funny as hell (poor old Frank Lopez scratching his head in bemusement cracked me up every time), and I still love these characters (new and old) as much as ever.
One of the most superficial enjoyments of each new Jaime story is seeing how characters have changed their style, or grown older. Doyle is always changing, (there is a lot less hair than there used to be), Maggie is as ravishing as ever in the one, brief panel we see her in, and Vivian is getting more gorgeous the older she gets - I honestly thought that part of #5 was a flashback until some familiar faces showed up at the end, because she actually looks a lot younger.
Vivian can be hard to warm to, especially when compared to other characters in the story. She’s rude and loud, but she’s not an idiot, and there is a look she gets on her face when men start telling her she is stupid that is just shattering, especially because she never argues with them.
But Jaime’s latest comics are also seen from the perspective of people who are outside the usual circle of beautiful people - Tonta is goofy, but still allowed around the edges of this world thanks to her biological connection to Vivian, while Gretchen sees everything, but has no part in anything, because of that unfortunate face.
And there is that subtlety again – Gretchen could be a miserable character, but Jaime gives her body language that is awfully carefree, and the slightly heavier inking on Beto’s ‘movie’ story make it easier to tell apart from what’s actually happening in Palomar.
Things can be played quite broadly, but every time I go in to a new Love and Rockets, there are more and more little touches of storytelling beauty to enjoy.
A phone that won’t die, a hole that never gets filled in and an unexplained mannequin. The wry smile of triumph, the jaw going slightly slack in surprise and the closed eyes of resignation. A metaphor spread so thin it’s almost invisible (while still covering everything) and a blatant heart on the sleeve.
These are the things that help make Los Bros Hernandez so over-praised and under-rated. It’s nothing new to say they’re doing brilliant work, but it can’t be said enough.