Friday, September 23, 2011

31 Days of Recycling #23

Ghost of Hoppers is one of my all-time favourite Love and Rockets stories, but it took me a long, long time to find the words to explain why. (This piece was originally started in 2006 for another blog entirely.)

But that's what good art does - it touches a part of you that can't be easily explained - and the fact that I still get so tongue-tied aound Love and Rockets is a great thing.

All the Love, all the Rockets: Ghost Of Hoppers
Originally posted June 24, 2010

The 25th anniversary of Love and Rockets came and went a couple of years ago, and it was a pity it was seen as a relatively quiet achievement. In particular, it was a real shame more wasn't made of the fact that it is a comic which has maintained an extraordinarily high level of quality for that quarter-century, pushing the limits of the medium while still maintaining a humanity to their work that gives their stories real emotional weight.

Unfortunately, the common perception amongst the comic reading community is that this consistency means there is nothing new left to say about the series. Most reviews of the new issues that appeared every few months before the latest shift to an annual format were, at best, a brief look at what happened, typically followed by a few words of praise for Los Bros Hernandez.

Even the first two issues of the current annual series fell victim to this. There were certainly more people taking note of it for the change in format, with many finding special praise for Jaime's mental superheroics, but real analysis of the issue remained rare.

Any further comments greeting the new work are likely to be along the lines that Jaime's work remains the most accessible, while older brother Beto's comics might be a bit weirder and more preoccupied with the sexual hijinks of his characters, but remains worthy stuff. Beto’s work hasn’t had the universal acclaim that a lot of his earlier work has, with his adaptions of films that never really existed leaving some readers puzzled, and others disappointed. Speak of the Devil was greeted with several vicious reviews, including a disappointed take in The Comics Journal.

The odd interview is unlikely to bring up much that is new. Considering the interview subjects have been known to hide away massively crucial plot points as sketch book jokes, it takes a lot to make an interview with these men a chore to read, but some still manage by sticking to the same questions.

And that's always been about it until the next issue rolls along in another three (or 12) months. But in a medium where the latest issue of Blackest Night can be deconstructed and overanalysed to the point of incoherence, this is, frankly, fucking pathetic. Just because the Hernandez brothers' current output is just as good as it ever was does not mean there is nothing more to say about it.

The last regular series of Love and Rockets launched in 2001 after the brothers spent several years working on their own individual comics. Since then they have produced some stunning work. Some of it didn't always strike exactly the right chord, but for every misstep, the brothers came up with something extraordinary.

Jaime's comics were particularly meaty in the reinvigorated series, his Locas saga building on what has come before to stretch out into something magnificent. In the past, Jaime's work has sometimes been overshadowed by the complex narrative of Beto's Palomar and Luba storylines, with some critics appearing to assume his clean, easy art style somehow means it is more simple. But his work over the past decade has been as good as anything he or his brothers have ever produced.

Part of the relative lack of recognition could be put down to the painstaking pace at which his stories unfold. The first nine issues of the last series had barely a dozen pages of new material from Jaime every few months. While he manages to pack more drama and emotion into those pages than almost anything else on the stands, rereading the current storyline all over again whenever a new issue comes out becomes a necessity.

Mind you, one of the best things about Love and Rockets has always been this necessity. Pick up almost any new issue and there will be a little gem of information or characterisation that provokes a dive back into the comic’s history, each tiny little piece of the story reaching out into other parts of it, bringing it all back together. It's not just nostalgia for old times, it's the constant reiteration that we are all shaped by our pasts, and our current lives are still being shaped by previous experiences.

There are other factors that might play a part in the lack of any critical comment any time a new issue is released. Not only can it can take a long time for a storyline to sink in, but the crucial nature of events and the part they play in the overall narrative might not even be noticed. For reasons that are impossible to explain without boring the shit out of everyone in the whole world, the entire comics medium has been based on the concept of dripfeeding stories out, a little bit at a time, and while it is a pure joy to receive shots of Los Bros Hernandez’s comics every few months, it is only when a story that forms part of the overall saga is complete that a proper perspective is possible.

After a couple of years, Jaime’s Maggie storyline, which ran in L&Rv2 #s 1-10 and was reprinted in the Ghost of Hoppers book, still stands as a truly extraordinary piece of work – a story about ghosts and loss, and new friends and old towns. There are demons in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, and odd little talismans that bind us all to that weirdness.

It’s a story about growing up and sticking by your friends and all the confusion that brings. It’s about adapting to the fact you’re normal and still having to avoid demonic dogs. But most of all, like almost all of Jaime’s stories, it’s about Love.

* * *

Anybody who has gone back to their old home town will have felt it. The sense of familiarity fighting against the shock of the new. The little differences that throw you off, the missing pieces that are gone forever.

If the past really is a different country, what about the actual locations where all that personal history took place? Out in the physical world they might have vanished, but they’ll always be there in your head, the details fading while the core memories just get stronger and stronger.

In Ghost of Hoppers, this sensation is taken to extraordinary lengths. It's a story where the main character keeps returning to her old town and is almost trapped in her own past, something demons, personal or otherwise, are only too willing to take advantage of.

Hernandez has come up with dozens of memorable characters in the quarter century he has been creating Locas comics, but through it all, Margarita Luisa Perlita Chascarrillo has remained his finest character. Starting out as a cute young punk with a beer bottle in one hand and a spanner in the other, she has grown up with the comic, becoming more rounded as time went on, both physically and emotionally.

Maggie has been put through emotional roller coaster and taken rides on her own private ghost trains over the years. In this respect, Ghost of Hoppers is no different, but Maggie finds herself facing something just as horrific as the loss of dear friends: the desperate mediocrity of a rapidly approaching middle age.

One of Hernandez’s greatest strengths is in the sheer universality if his characters. Just ask any decent comic shop owner how many times they’ve been told Hopey is based on them. Maggie has a mixed race heritage and has grown up in an environment of punk rock, mad wrestling and space mechanics in California, but her fears and thoughts are easily recognisable for anybody who does not share her environment and upbringing. Through Maggie, Hernandez articulates the same things we’re all thinking, the same loves and worries and joys.

This does not, in any way, make her mundane. Maggie has had a tough life and while she often curses her own weaknesses, she has shown a remarkable strength in just getting through it all. In this respect, the brief slice of her life that forms the backbone of Ghost of Hoppers shows Maggie, and Hernandez himself, in the brightest of lights, despite the darkness creeping in at the edges.

Sometimes he pulls away from Maggie, and leaves her alone with her thoughts – a silent panel with an unreadable expression that still says so much.

For somebody who can spend literally years telling a simple tale that might be set over a few days, Jaime doesn’t fuck about when it comes to letting the reader know where he is going. Even before the story gets going in Ghost Of Hoppers, two wordless images almost totally sum up the themes and feelings that will be explored in greater depth in the story. The first is the cover to the first issue of the renewed Love and Rockets comics itself, a police line-up. It’s already been used before with different characters - on the cover of the very first L&R comic ever as well as the first collected edition.

But while the first two times the line up was used featured several different characters, this latest incarnation is all Maggie, six different examples of her development over the year. You’ve got Maggie The Mechanic, Maggie the party girl, Maggie the young Chica. And hiding there at the back is the current version, naked and scared.

This deceptively simple image not only reminds the reader of the different periods Maggie and the Locas comics themselves have gone through over the years, it also shows Maggie hiding behind her own past, worried to face the future.

The second image, taking up two-thirds of the first page of the story, casts Maggie in a better light. Leaning back against a fence with a calm expression of peace and contentment in the sun, the wind in her hair and her posture infinitely sexier than a thousand anorexic super-heroines with big hair and impossible spines.

But there, in the background, is the darkness. From the house behind her evil eyes peer. In this image they can’t touch Maggie, but it’s obvious they won’t hesitate to bring her inside their world, given half the chance.

The first part of the story itself sees that darkness beginning to creep around the edges of Maggie’s life, as her life-long friend Izzy comes to stay as part of a book promotion. Izzy is familiar with the evil, having encountered it in an intimate manner at times over the years, most notably in the short Flies on the Ceiling story.

The darkness usually happy enough tormenting Izzy, who has enough ghosts in her own past for the devil to feast on. But Maggie has always been around the edges of despair and total loss. She even shares some of Izzy’s ghosts and has come close to the thing that lives in Mrs Galindo’s house several times, right from when she was a child.

Early on in the first Love and Rockets series, Hernandez started making a point of not showing some of the biggest, most important events in his character’s lives. They would happen in the background. Characters would experience something shattering, only to literally disappear from the comic book for several years, showing up as someone new, someone who has put their pain behind them to get on with life, as best they can.

Over the next 20 incredible years, Hernandez has filled in those gaps, only to add crucial new developments with ease. Shortly before the new series started, Maggie ended up married to a complete stranger, only for Hernandez to show he wasn’t such a stranger after all. Filling in the back story shows the richness of the characters that have now been built up for decades, gives long-time readers a thrill as they realise a question they didn’t even know they had is answered before them.

This is seen happening several times in Ghost of Hoppers, flashbacks to parts of her old life, when she was young and cool. Filling in the blanks. At other times a big event can also be so obvious it could even be easily missed. The phone call at the first chapter‘s climax ends with something that has apparently never been said before. Luckily, Hernandez actually raises the significance of those words later on, just in case it wasn’t clear enough the first time.

People who are too scared of the significant backstory behind these characters to give the series a go are deluding themselves. This is a complicated narrative with multiple characters across several decades, but it manages to keep things clear with easy, accessible storytelling. It might look like a lot of hard work, but as a storyteller, Hernandez is there to help you find the way.

* * *

“Go ahead, you boring people, have your laugh. You’re looking at an equally useless person. How embarrassing is that? I-I’m normal.”

All the devil dogs and black magic in the world isn’t half as depressing for Maggie as the realisation that hits her in the second chapter of Ghost of Hoppers. Now in her late thirties, but far from settled down, Maggie realises she’s just like everybody else.

Much of the arrogance of youth stems from the certain knowledge that we are destined for great things, that the world is ours for the taking. Granted, for some this actually comes close to becoming reality, while others manage to maintain the horrible delusion until their dying day.

But for most of us, the realisation that we’re not actually that different, that we’re not anything special, is something we come to understand and live with, as best we can. Maggie’s own little epiphany at this point in the story is another example of Hernanedz’s ability to use his characters to speak to something in all of us, to touch a part of our souls that can sometimes feel so lonely.

And all this is just the first few pages, with a short appearance from Maggie’s ex-husband. The rest of this chapter not only sees a Dan Clowes character appear, (another Love and Rockets tradition that has seen the brothers insert their characters into each other’s stories and include characters from altogether different creators), but also has Maggie hook up with the volatile Vivian. Seen in the background of previous stories, she latches onto Maggie, joining her for a drink without bothering with anything as mundane as the exchange of names.

Maggie also has a fairly typical conversation with her best friend and occasional lover Hopey. While Maggie is still reeling from her own normality, Hopey shows remarkable awareness of her own coolness, but is left confused when Maggie leaves, disappointed that the words she heard over the phone can not apparently be said to her face.

Luckily for Maggie, if not for Vivian, normal life still involves a threat with a knife, one of the most accurate portrayals of two women fighting each other ever shown in comics and eventual arrest.

Maggie might still have trouble coming to terms with the mundane, but her idea of what is normal is still fascinating. She deals with it, as best she can, even if bail might be a bit more than seven dollars and thirty cents.

* * *

The story piles on the unease from there. Maggie ends with Viv and another old friend up in a dangerous stranger’s house, sneaking out the back when he unexpectedly shows up, and kind words from Izzy –notably more for their rarity than their truth - hold off the shadow dogs. For a little while.

By the fourth chapter, Izzy has got too much to handle and is bundled off home. When Maggie follows her for an exchange of talismans, the ghosts start following her with renewed attention and she is lost in her home town for the first time.

Maggie’s past keeps creeping up on her – drinking with Doyle, she finds that a group of old Hoppers punk rejects she used to hang around with have still been bopping around together – living their own lives well out of Maggie’s orbit. Further flashbacks show that Maggie has always been living on the edge of something mysterious and other, with the striking image of a dog walking on its hind legs towards a younger, drunker Maggie and in the present the inner voices get louder as a fire begins to burn.

* * *

In the final chapter of Ghost of Hoppers, Maggie is dosed by the next generation – who are always annoying – and the mixture of drugs, demons and the weight of her own story drag her out of time and space, pinballing along the history of a haunted house and her own connection to it.

On her journey, there are touching revelations and painfully quiet dignity. The sad story of the Galindos and why it led to Maggie’s naming. The ghost of the haunted house was Maggie all along, and that’s why a glass left out overnight was always half empty by dawn – she could never turn down a drink.

She is the ghost, walking in her own past – revisiting all those brilliant old parties, a brief sighting of her long-lost cousin and very best friend, and the tragic impact of Speedy’s death. This last piece is just three panels, but is a horribly powerful moment. Maggie and Izzy’s immediate reaction to Speedy’s suicide was never seen when it happened, more than two decades ago. But in three panels, Maggie is pulled back to that terrible moment, and she sees herself lost in pity while Izzy counts the flies on the ceiling.

The years speed up, the horrors pile on, but Izzy makes it out, scarred and clear. In the climax of the story – for just a moment – it looks like Maggie isn’t going to be as fortunate. It looks like she could have died in the fire and really is a ghost.

But while she walks with the ghosts for a little while, they leave her alone. Al that’s left is a sweet two page epilogue, showing that weird shit comes and goes, but life goes on. The game of life and love is just as confusing as ever. Maggie just does the best she can, just like the rest of us.

* * *

Ghost of Hoppers is an extraordinary comic book, and after a few thousand words, I haven’t even scratched its surface. There are a million other things that make the story brilliant, warm and thoughtful. There are pieces of dialogue that say so much, and Jaime’s magnificent use of black ink – shadows that creep up on the unwary, the blank space between the nose and the lips of characters in profile.

I live my life to a Love & Rockets beat and Ghost of Hopper is another brilliant step in the story. It’s endlessly rewarding and I could talk about it forever. But I’ll still never be able to encapsulate its brilliance, no matter how many words I write. Because it really does affect me in a way I can not describe – just like all art should.

No comments: