©2003 Ross E. Lockhart
Like most adult Americans, I didn’t take comic books at all seriously. They were kids’ stuff, childish things to be left behind, adolescent power fantasies showcasing the exploits of brightly-colored two-dimensional heroes and villains. As Scott McCloud points out in the book Understanding Comics, “It’s considered normal in this society for children to combine words and pictures, so long as they grow out of it” (139). That all changed for me near the end of 1989. I was hanging out at the home of a girl I’d recently started dating. “I want to show you something,” she said. “Close your eyes.” I complied. “Now hold out your hands.” She pressed a stack of slim, slick-covered magazines into my hands. I opened my eyes. Comic books. A stack of comic books. She looked me in the eyes and said, “You should read these. They’re amazing. It’s just like I’m reading my own life.” The comics were issues of Love and Rockets, a series written and drawn by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. They were different from my preconceived notion of comic books. These weren’t Superman, Batman, or Blade the Vampire Killer fighting formulaic foes in four-color fashion; instead, they were realistic black-and-white representations of normal people living normal lives. These were stories of people who looked and felt familiar, people who joked, laughed, fought, made love, and dreamed of making something of their lives.
Love and Rockets changed the rules. As a part of the “comics renaissance” of the early 1980s, the series proved that the comic book medium could be used to convey meaningful, complex stories that deserved to be considered literature, and that the fusion of words and images did not automatically relegate a work to the lowly status of “kids’ stuff.” In fact, with a skillful combination of words and images, Love and Rockets transcended both, creating something even more significant through their union. In the words of Roland Barthes, “Pictures, to be sure, are more imperative than writing, they impose meaning at one stroke, without analyzing or diluting it” (110).
In addition, Love and Rockets broke ground by giving voice to an underrepresented segment of the population. Most of the characters chronicled in the magazine’s pages were either Mexican or Mexican-American. Gilbert’s stories, which focused on the residents of the tiny South American town of Palomar, have been frequently compared to magical realist writers such as Gabriel García Márquez. Jaime’s characters, on the other hand, “live in Hoppers 13, a barrio in a town somewhere in Southern California, apparently based on Oxnard, where Los Bros grew up” (Bolhafner “Love and Rockets”). Salon columnist Amy Benfer acknowledges that the Hernandez Brothers “chronicled Latino culture, from the barrio to below the border, and punk rock culture, […] long before these things became part of mainstream American culture” (“Real Women”).
The barrio of Hoppers 13 particularly resonated with me. It was a neighborhood that could have existed a block or two in any direction from the one I grew up in. It was the very image of a Southern California neighborhood: palm trees and hedges, identical stucco-covered suburban houses, graffiti-covered fences, liquor stores, taco shops. Every detail was perfect. Jaime’s backgrounds are only as much as they need to be, however, never too realistic or detailed so that they distract from the characters, which are the real core of the story. Once a scene is established, he allows the background to literally fade into the background. He does, however, load his backgrounds with the sort of details that help to make his universe looked lived in, such as graffiti, signs, and brand-name logos on products.
In an interview with J. Stephen Bolhafner, Jaime states, “My half of the book pretty much handles Southern California Mexican-American culture. Teen-age – well, they started out teen-age – girls who happen to be into punk music. Alternative lifestyles in Southern California” (Bolhafner “No Joke”). Those teen-age girls central to Jaime’s stories are Maggie and Hopey: best friends, roommates, and occasionally lovers. Maggie (Margarita Luisa Chascarrillo) is one of the strongest and most recognizable female characters in modern alternative comic books. She is no super heroine, no Wonder Woman. She is simply Maggie, a young, Latina punk rocker who deals with real-world issues. She has relationships, both good and bad. She gains and loses weight. She comes to the defense of her friends and family. She suffers loss. She is as three-dimensional and fully realized as a line drawing can get. In her article entitled “Real Women,” Amy Benfer observes that “the Hernandez women look like the women who men and women actually make love to” (2). In contrast, Hopey (Esperanza Leticia Glass) is the more stable of the pair. She plays bass guitar for the punk rock band La Llorna, and is frequently the cornerstone of Maggie’s life. “Hopey seems definitely a lesbian, while Maggie seems more ambivalent about her sexuality and has had at least two serious male love interests in the […] years the book has been in existence” (Bolhafner “No Joke”).
There are many themes at play in Love and Rockets, almost all of which are addressed in The Death of Speedy. The primary storyline in this volume chronicles the gang-violence-related death of Speedy Ortiz, and illustrates how the loss of one person, even a minor recurrent character, can shape the lives of everyone around him. Strongest of all, however, is the theme of love in all its forms and incarnations, which weaves throughout the series. The characters are not merely falling in and out of love with each other, like a melodramatic soap opera; rather, it would be more accurate to say that The Death of Speedy deals with relationships, all the possibilities the dynamics between people can hold. In fact, this extended metaphor is strong enough that it can be distilled from the actions featured on a single page.
Harsh black-stenciled letters cover the top fifth of page 32 in The Death of Speedy. These letters not only spell out the title of this chapter, but they also help to set its tone with their shape and darkness. “VIDA LOCA,” crazy life, is perhaps an apt description of Speedy’s macho gang-related posturing, his short life, and his senseless death. Other than a graffiti-scrawled subtitle across a background wall, the rest of this page does not concern itself with Speedy’s tragic story. Instead, it deals with a few seconds in the lives of the two characters that Hernandez himself admits reflect the contrasting elements of his own personality, Maggie and Ray Dominguez. Ray’s character was based on what remained of Hernandez’s self-image after Maggie’s creation, with perhaps a bit of perfecting. He is at the same time worldly-wise and innocent. There is an obvious sexual tension between Maggie and Ray, but at this point in the story, it has not yet reached the point of fulfillment.
At two-and-a-half times the height of the title; the first panel immediately attracts the eyes of the reader. Here, we see both Maggie and Ray in profile, facing opposite directions. Ray looks to the left, as if reflecting on his past. Maggie reads a letter, presumably from Hopey, and she walks towards the right, into an uncertain future. Maggie is barefoot, lost in her own contemplative world, where dreams of the past are overshadowed by the din of the present. Ray leans handsomely against his car, posed like a movie star, a cigarette held coolly between two fingers of his right hand. His left hand is thrust deep into his pocket, echoing confidence. Ray has traveled; he has seen the world, and the conflicts of the neighborhood seem small and distant in comparison.
Behind Maggie and Ray, this panel showcases a stunning background. A short wall stands a few inches taller than Maggie. Behind it, we see a suburban house and a beautifully detailed tree. The sidewalk below her feet is alive with detail; every crevice and crack are visible. As the story progresses to the next panels, the background fades away and becomes less detailed as the characters step to the foreground to propel the story onward.
In the second panel, Ray notices Maggie behind him. His head has swiveled from looking away casually to a position of full attention. By showing the back and side of Ray’s face, Hernandez effectively captures both the change in Ray’s focus and his point of view. He looks on as Maggie lifts her foot to examine it. Motion lines chase the foot up from the sidewalk’s surface to her field of vision. Has she stepped on a sharp rock? Has she stepped in gum? In this panel, Maggie is frozen in the moment where even she is unsure. Whatever it is, it is enough to draw her attention away from the letter. Her action draws Ray’s attention to her.
The next panel is almost completely devoid of background detail. Maggie is the foreground and focus, a distant look on her face, obviously unbothered by whatever she stepped on in the previous panel. She holds the letter against her chest, as if she guards some sacred secret. Ray begins to approach Maggie from his car. His hands adjust the collar of his shirt, a confident smirk is on his face, and self-confident little lines radiate from his head. He is quite obviously making his move. Hernandez shows Ray’s face in far less detail here, perhaps to exaggerate the half-cocked smile, or draw more attention to the sad and lonely, yet hauntingly beautiful look in Maggie’s eyes.
The brilliance of this panel is that other than Ray’s car as a point of reference, the background has completely disappeared. It is as if these characters, in this moment, are the only people existing in the entire world. All else has fallen away. This is where the strings come in, the romantic movie music that plays as the star-crossed lovers finally meet, lock eyes, and fall into each other’s deserving arms.
But that’s just in the movies. The final panel is one of Ray with shock on his face, his cigarette about to fall from his open mouth. Motion lines peel in front of him, and he recoils from whatever produced them, his hands balled back in self-preservation. Where confidence once radiated from him, panicked beads of sweat now fly from his less-than-cool countenance. The screech of brakes accompanying the motion blur is visually depicted as an incomplete word, simply “scre…” cut off by the confines of the panel. On the next page, the reader will discover that the threatening object is merely the thumping low rider of Ray’s friend ‘Litos. For now, it remains a mysterious danger, an obstacle in Ray’s path towards Maggie.
This page captures, in a sense, one of the most extreme sensations of love, that of unrequited love, a love full of unexplored potential because it is a love not yet attained. In a flashback earlier in the storyline, a much younger Maggie brags to Hopey that Ray is her boyfriend. Here, the roles are reversed, Ray becomes the smitten, and Maggie the object of affection. From here, they both step off the page into the same direction, walking towards an uncertain, but perhaps achievable future.
In the contrast between Speedy Ortiz and Ray Dominguez, Jaime Hernandez illustrates yet another theme, that of the immaturity of extreme displays of machismo. Ray has moved away from Hoppers to attend college, and he returns with an enlightened perspective. “Hoppers hasn’t changed a bit since I was gone. These guys would kill their best friend over a girl… or drugs. Whichever is more important to them,” he observes while watching a group of his old friends push each other around and posture (Hernandez 23). Speedy, on the other hand, by remaining in Hoppers has not reached the level of maturity that Ray has. When confronted over a woman by Rojo, the Dairytown “gangleader” who will later kill him, Speedy responds with fury, “Fuck you man! Fuck all you Dairytown pussies!” This retort earns Speedy a beating, which Maggie witnesses. As she tries to help Speedy, he turns his bile towards her as well, “Get out of my fuckin’ way!” He yells at her, “What do you know anyway with all your punker fag shit!” (37-38).
Throughout the story, Ray tries to influence his old friends for the better by showing them the error of their ways. “I’m so fucking sick and tired of all this maddogging and territory shit! […] It gets you nowhere but in the hospital or the fucking cemetery, man!” (24) Later, he tries a more subdued approach with his friend ‘Litos, “Just look at you, Man!” he says, “You’re almost thirty, and your girlfriend’s gonna have your kid any day now. Don’t you think it’s time you slowed down just a little?” ‘Litos responds, “I’m trying, man! But I can’t! I can’t! […] It’s like this is my last day of summer vacation an’ I gotta do something before school starts. You know, like, go out in a blaze o’ glory…” Moments later, ‘Litos is mistaken for Speedy and shot in a drive-by by one of the Dairytown boys (53).
One of the distinctive visual strategies used by Jaime Hernandez centers on his willingness to cross the line from realism into the realm of icons to express emotion. The heads of his characters are frequently surrounded by beads of anxious sweat, steaming lines of anger, bright stars of pain, and happy little drunken bubbles. Hernandez allows his reader access to his characters’ emotions through the distortion of faces as well. Anger is shown with sharpened teeth, madness by crossed or swirling eyes. Although our faces don’t distort to this extreme in reality, Hernandez’s illustrations capture the way these emotions feel like they should look.
In a 2001 interview with the Hernandez brothers, Amy Benfer asked Jaime and Gilbert to address whether they felt pressured by the Mexican-American community to act as a representative “voice” of Chicano culture. Jaime responded, “I like to think we speak a universal language in the comic. So even though these people are Mexican, you can still relate to them as people, which was our main objective. I want people in China to like our stuff.” Gilbert followed this statement up, saying, “People will say, ‘why aren’t you at the forefront of the Cause?’ We say, well, we’re not selling anything. We’re presenting Hispanics in the most, let’s say realistic and sympathetic light we possibly can, even though many of the characters are flawed” (“Los Bros”).
Jaime elaborates further on questions of identity later in the same interview. The character of Maggie, he claims, is “caught between being a good Mexican and a good American.” He continues, “I take that from my upbringing: You’re caught in the middle, and you can’t please either side. […] I stick all my insecurities on poor Maggie. She carries my load” (“Los Bros”).
In Reinventing Comics Scott McCloud notes that “the number of interesting Mexican and Mexican-American characters in comics […] tripled overnight with the debut of Love and Rockets” (108). Certainly, the series altered the direction of comic books with its focus on these characters, but the success of Love and Rockets is based on more than that. The Hernandez brothers created characters that a reader, no matter what ethnicity or experience, can identify with as he deals with all the situations that life offers. Characters that live and love, laugh and mourn. Characters that a reader can examine, ponder, and finally exclaim, “It’s just like I’m reading my own life!”