Thursday, September 24, 2009

Love and Rockets: One out of two ain't bad

No links? Let's get straight to the good stuff:

Love and Rockets: New Stories, volume 2
By Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez


Well, I didn't think it was possible, but Gilbert Hernandez finally lost me with his portion of this year's volume. I've stuck with him through plenty of head-scratchers like Sloth, Chance in Hell, and Speak of the Devil, and while they've all been somewhat impenetrable, they were all still compelling and interesting stories. But here, he's gone deep into abstract (although not all the way into this kind of abstract), bizarre, dreamlike territory, without much of a plot to give readers something to hang on to while being assaulted with craziness.

Gilbert actually has two stories here, although they're related. The first one, "Sad Girl", is sort of a short introduction, following a teenage girl nicknamed "Killer" who seems rather blase about everything, although she is constantly barraged with questions about her role in a movie and her breakup with her boyfriend. The former subject seems most interesting; she states that it's a remake of an old "art house" movie, with her acting in front of a green screen while wearing a coat and shoes. But the latter interrogations might be more interesting to her; while we don't see anything happen, she might just live up to her moniker.

The problem I have here is that the character is not an interesting one (I would prefer to spend time with her afro-headed brother, who actually appears to have a personality), and Gilbert's predilection for drawing his women as large-breasted and tiny-waisted as possible has turned her into a grotesque freak (although she might be related to Luba? That would explain some of the anatomical improbabilities, at least in terms of cartoon genetics). Maybe Gilbert is trying to make a point, or at least an attempt at irony, about the character having an emphasized sexuality (her clothing certainly doesn't hide much, and she even works as a belly dancer) while still being young enough to claim to be grossed out by the idea.

Anyway, it's mostly just a lead-in to the second story, "Hypnotwist", which is purported to be the movie that Killer's was based on. It's a wordless bunch of surreality, following a woman in a coat who wanders the streets of a strange city, occasionally being stalked by freakish characters and getting involved in some mad goings-on after buying some magical shoes. Not much of it makes sense, although one could have a field day trying to interpret various symbolic meanings from the events. Many strange bits seems to occur around bottles or glasses; perhaps this indicates alcoholism. Other times, the woman is confronted by freakish older versions of herself, including a homeless woman and an emaciated victim of torment from a jeering crowd of partiers. Is this what she could end up as if she falls prey to the demon drink? Some scenes indicate that she is hopeful for motherhood and family, but maybe these dreams will all be destroyed by her actions? Occasional Masonic symbols show up, accompanied by shadowy, featurless figures, as if to indicate dark forces shaping her world, and at one point, she seems to be briefly replaced by Killer's version of her character, wearing a leather, cleavage-baring version of her outfit; are her sins being passed down to the next generation? A series of scenes involving large balloons bearing happy faces indicate...well, who knows what, but they certainly lead to some striking imagery, especially a scene in which an unconscious man's head is inflated to form a balloon, and is then punctured, leaving a disgusting pile of flesh:


And that's about the only thing I really got out of this story: weird, unsettling images, and a feeling of uneasy, nightmarish dread. If somebody wants to try to explain it all, be my guest, but I suspect it's a stream-of-consciousness exercise, with Gilbert emptying his head of whatever appears within it. That's all well and good; he's entitled to make whatever kind of comics his muse urges him to. But I would certainly prefer something with more of a narrative, or at least a plot and characters that I can follow. I know he can do it, and do it really well. There's always next year.

But while Gilbert might disappoint me in this annual go-round, his brother Jaime does exactly the opposite, confirming my beliefs in the heights of his cartooning powers as he delivers the finale to a raucous, yet still quite moving, tale of female superheroes. After the first part of this story in the previous volume, some lamented that Jaime could have been one of the foremost practitioners of superhero comics if he had chosen to stay within that genre over the past few decades, and he definitely confirms that belief here, delivering moving melodrama and engaging action, even going out of his way to relate the decades-long history of the characters, which wasn't really necessary, but still shows the level of commitment he has devoted to the story; it's not just a frivolous bit of chicks beating up on each other, it's a whole world he has created, with its unique history and a large cast of intermingling characters. It's tons of fun to watch him play with his creations, and it remains internally consistent while continuing to increase the complexity of the characters' interrelations. And it even (sort of) makes sense within the long-standing "Locas" continuity, as Maggie is revealed to be here from another dimension, giving her the power to tell the future via comics and secret gifts from Santa Claus.

Yes, it's goofy and fun, but not completely frivolous; while there's plenty of frenetic, hard-hitting (yet still cartoony) action:



Jaime still makes time for nice character moments, like Boot Angel having a heart-to-heart with her mother about their family's legacy of superheroism:


Or the villainous Espectra Negra breaking down into tears as she is about to fail at her deadly mission:


Jaime has always been good at depicting women, from the way they move physically to how they interact emotionally, and he continues with that here, even in the midst of a slam-bang bunch of crazy, over-the-top action. It's as gorgeously drawn as ever, with the characters all seeming like real people, even when wearing spandex unitards and domino masks, and he manages to turn what could be a silly genre exercise into something affecting and true. That's no mean feat.

Who knows what the future holds for Love and Rockets, but next year's volume will be a hopeful light on the horizon. I would prefer if Gilbert would return to Palomar or tell some of the character-based stories that he does so well, but whatever he does, it should be fascinating to watch. Jaime, on the other hand, can do whatever he wants; I'd follow him to the gates of hell at this point. With the brothers still working at such a high level of quality after over 25 years, anything they do is worthy of attention and analysis. I don't think I'll ever tire of experiencing their work.