Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Love and Rockets: How is it possible that Jaime keeps getting better?

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
By Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics

There's one beautiful, affecting page in the Jaime half of this latest issue/volume of Love and Rockets, seeing a morbidly obese woman reflecting on her marriage as her husband returns home, recalling the ups and downs of their relationship and how he fell out of love with him and then back in, all without letting him know about her inner emotional turmoil. It's absolutely lovely, and even tear-jerking, contrasting a person's silent, impenetrable exterior with the multitudes contained within and suggesting a fascinating life story briefly glimpsed in single panels, as if we're peeking through windows and guessing at everything that is going on. What's even more incredible is that this is the first page of the book, a tossed-off aside to Jaime's main story, showing the full extent of the world that exists all around the main characters. That's the level of skill he's working with here, and it's an excellent indicator of what is to come in the rest of "The Love Bunglers", which concludes here to powerful, resonant affect.

The finale of the story Jaime has been telling over the past couple of annual issues is a moment of bravura comics storytelling, but the buildup to it in the opening portions of this issue is pretty great a well, the kind of "hangout" comics that he has been doing for years (decades, really). We see the characters living their lives, with Maggie planning to open a garage, Ray pledging to provide the venture's startup money as an excuse to get close to her, Angel having some romantic escapades before leaving for college, and other characters orbiting around the edges of the story, all portrayed in a lively manner that makes their down-to-earth activities enjoyable and attention-grabbing, offering readers an experience akin to spending time with friends. It's what one expects to see when reading Love and Rockets, and Jaime has been doing it so consistently for so long that his excellence has become expected, the deft characterization and art that captures the movements and rhythms of life with just a touch of cartoony exaggeration transformed into a ho-hum normalcy. It's the curse of familiarity, but luckily, the greatness is still there when you stop to look at it. My favorite aspect is the flourishes of expressive body language that the characters display, like Maggie changing her clothes while making a phone call:

Or Angel bending over to plant a kiss on the object of her affection:

There's a flashback chapter similar to last year's "Browntown" story, although not nearly as devastating, in which a friend of Maggie's relates what happened when the Chascarillos returned to Hoppers after the events of that story, with her uncomprehendingly trying to pick up her friendship with Maggie where they left off without understanding the cause of the emotional turmoil Maggie and her family are going through. It's as nicely done as everything else, every image narrated in a believably pre-teen voice, concerned with the affairs of adolescents, puttering along with a nice, amiable rhythm before receiving its own abruptly tragic ending. It's very effective in what it does, quickly establishing its characters at a specific point in their lives and illuminating another heretofore-unknown area of Maggie's past.

Ah, but as nice as these stories are, they all seem to be prelude to the dazzlingly virtuosic end of this chapter in the Locas saga, which breaks format from the usual straightforward storytelling to engage in some formal play before taking some jarring jumps forward in time to see Maggie and Ray's relationship play out over several years. It starts with a scene in which Maggie and Ray separately realize they need to be together, with a page of mirrored panels that sees them rushing toward a middle ground. The imagery indicates that they are already most of the way there, their surroundings continuing off the panels as if their worlds are already blending together, the characters themselves steadily moving closer and closer together, until Ray is pulled off course in the last panel with what turns out to be a devastating distraction:

This is then followed up by a two-page spread that sees a number of individual moments from throughout the characters' lives (and also throughout the course of the series; see here for annotations), each panel offering one character's view of the other, with the corresponding reverse view situated on the opposite side of the spread. It's a beautifully moving collection of memories, a lifetime of shared moments piling together and forming a sort of jigsaw puzzle image, or at least a portion of a whole that still seems to fit together seamlessly. And then Jaime plunges forward with abandon into the future, giving readers short glimpses of everything that transpires in the characters' relationship, but still making each moment satisfying and heartfelt. It's a leap headfirst into what seems at first to be a sad life apart before Maggie and Ray inevitably fall back into each other's orbit, capping things off with an ending of sorts, as least for now. This could signal an end to the current era of Locas stories, but these characters are less figures of Jaime's imagination than real people alive in the minds of readers everywhere at this point, and even if another story featuring them never appears, we can rest assured that they will continue to live on, somewhere, sometime.

Oh yes, there are also some stories by Gilbert in this volume, but compared to the excellence on display in Jaime's milieu, they're pretty negligible. Killer and Fritz co-star in a vampire movie that's all about youthful attitudes toward the future or peer pressure or something, and then Fritz meets with a male friend (ex-lover?) for an afternoon of conversation that is pointedly, purposefully meaningless, dancing around any subject of substance and sticking to philosophical absurdities, refusing any questioning of themselves or each other, perhaps as an attempt to enjoy each other's company without getting too involved. Both stories are nice enough, the vampire thing being a decent example of the recurring "B-movies" that Gilbert has been returning to in recent years, and the conversation scene having a nicely playful air, but it all ends up being pretty lightweight in comparison to the fantastic artwork and storytelling on display in the other half of the volume. Hopefully some brotherly competition will spur Gilbert to take things up to another level, because as of 2011, Jaime is handily winning the "Best Hernandez" competition.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Comics is a never-satisfied mistress

I find myself unable to muster any sort of comprehensive reflection, but I did wish to note that as of yesterday, this blog is now five years old, which is a surprisingly long amount of time for any sort of endeavor, especially in this fast-moving, attention-starved modern world. Thanks to anyone who reads for stopping by and paying me some attention; I really do appreciate it. It's been a good time, and if I can ever get my act together to post some more, it will continue to be so for some time, barring the ever-approaching collapse of society. Until then, regards, and hopefully we will be in communication again soon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Holy Terror: In which comic books do not reflect reality

Holy Terror
By Frank Miller
Published by Legendary Comics

The general consensus in the past few years seems to be that Frank Miller has lost his mind, and this book could be seen as evidence in support of that notion, if one is so inclined, what with its apparent view of Al-Qaeda as a highly-organized terrorist network capable of mounting assaults on American cities with missiles, fighter jets, and nuclear bombs constructed in bizarre underground catacombs. It's pretty hard to take it seriously though, even as the propaganda Miller has described it as; he might have opinions about the "war on terror", but if his concept of the terrorist threat is anything like he presents it here, he may well be as crazy as everyone says he is. As a reworked Batman comic in which stand-ins for the Dark Knight and Catwoman fight a convoluted Islamic terrorist plot  (bombs filled with nails and razor blades, followed by jets shooting down a stand-in for the Statue of Liberty, and finally a nuclear bomb that would seemingly render all the other attacks moot) that all takes place over one night, it's certainly an over-the-top spectacle, full of sex and violence, hard-boiled, Miller-style narration, and increasingly messy artwork that speaks of either a dedication to an aesthetic of purposeful ugliness or just plain laziness.

Whatever the case, it's a weird-ass comic, lurching from a protracted scene in which The Fixer (not-Batman) chases Natalie Stack (not-Catwoman) across some rooftops, with the pair fighting violently and then making out for several pages, to a series of explosions that are hard to make out, to scene after scene of the pair attacking and brutally killing the resourceful bad guys and torturing the survivors for information, and then rushing to a finale in which they have to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated, all set to a badass tone, exactly the tough-guy, "not in my city" swagger one would expect from Miller, yet occasionally interrupted for mourning of the dead and half-hearted political commentary. As propaganda, who knows if it's effective, since anyone with a grasp on reality will roll their eyes at the idea that this is meant to be a reflection of real life. It could be seen as an attack on the entire religion of Islam, rather than the actions of some fringe extremists, but aside from the opening quote of "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel" attributed to Mohammed, these terrorists are mostly from Central Casting, bearded Middle Eastern types with either anger or terror on their faces, generic bad guys of the type that have started to be pointed out as offensive as Americans expand their horizons to realize that not all Arabs/Muslims/brown-skinned people are the religious fanatics seen in entertainments like this.

The one exception to this standard terrorist portrayal is a young woman who, in an odd scene, hangs out on the roof of a club in the rain, flirts with a young man, takes what she says is her first drink of beer, then proceeds inside to the dance floor and blows herself up. The purpose of this scene is unclear; perhaps it's a statement about the way terrorists rob young people of their futures through their religious fanaticism? It's a bit of a departure from the propagandistic attitude of the rest of the book's terrorists, and it seems like a poorly-realized attempt to add some depth to the story's purposely dimensionless conflict. It does give Miller a chance to draw the girl's ass in a tight skirt though, and he uses some interestingly gestural art to depict her scene of rainy reflection, ink smeared into the shape of a figure that almost has to be unconsciously discerned:

That sort of thing is probably the main appeal of this book; Miller does some pretty amazingly expressive stuff here, including setting that opening chase in a rainstorm that is depicted on the page as slashing lines of ink that seem gouged into the pages, or using groups of clumped-together fingerprints to depict explosions. It's often quite gorgeous, with hard-hitting violence and nice, noirish shadows, but then it will be followed by oddly shaky figurework, pages full of faces that look like they were scrawled on napkins, and some really awkward images of the main characters swinging through the air and contorting themselves into odd positions:

Miller also takes pains to point out the human cost of the terrorist attacks, filling several pages with grids of people's faces, presumably meant to be portraits of the victims, and then gradually fading them out until reaching a striking two-page spread consisting entirely of blank panels. That works well enough as a way to emphasize the death toll of the imaginary bombing spree, but the odd thing is that it is repeated when our heroes tear through a group of terrorists, the bad guys' faces all joining their targets in little inset panels surrounding the action:

What could be the purpose of this? If this is a work of propaganda, why emphasize that this enemy is just as human as the "good guys"? It seems to counteract Miller's purpose of portraying them as faceless, evil monsters, but maybe he's trying to emphasize that they are defeatable, and in the end, just as dead as those they chose to terrorize. It weakens the popcorn aspect of the book, and raises the ugly possibility that Miller doesn't care how human the enemy is, he still considers them worthy of torture and murder. Like much of the rest of the book, it's a weird choice.

And what of the political caricature which pops up on occasion? Several pages consist of panels depicting political figures (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and plenty others) making speeches (or just making faces), interspersed with either scenes of terrorists preparing for battle or Arabic leaders similarly shouting into microphones. What is the purpose of these scenes? Is Miller trying to point out the uselessness of politics when facing a real (imaginary) threat? He might be trying to emphasize the heroism of the soldiers, the people on the ground doing the actual fighting, but that's kind of undermined by having them be pretty useless here, the evil plot only able to be countered by a lawless vigilante.

In the end, this book is kind of a mess, more of a statement on the state of Miller's mind than anything else, and said portrait is neither consistent nor flattering. Tellingly, the final page sees a police official (the Commissioner Gordon stand-in) sitting in his home, irrevocably changed by the events of the story, terrified for life by the violent actions of the enemy (and probably the good guys too, really). Is this Miller's thesis statement, his cry for help to a world that he no longer recognizes? If that's the real propaganda, that everyone should be forever afraid of a shapeless, faceless, all-powerful enemy that can never be defeated, or even comprehended, it's a pretty sad one, for anyone who chooses to believe it, but especially for its creator.