Love and Rockets: New Stories #1, by Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez
More than twenty-five years after they started Love and Rockets, the Hernandez brothers have relaunched Fantagraphics' signature comic book by taking it back to its roots.
Jaime Hernandez contributes the most noticeable call-back with a 50-page tale that brings his Locas characters back to the tone of the "Mechanics" stories that introduced them. Maggie is still managing an apartment complex, not excavating spaceships, and Hopey is nowhere to be seen, but Penny Century has finally realized her dream--first voiced back in the original Love and Rockets #1 in 1982--of becoming a superhero. Unfortunately, Penny's reckless pursuit of her desires has always threatened to ruin her life, and this time is no different: she becomes a kind of Mort Weisingerized version of La Llorona, roaming the universe wailing for her lost children. The characters are entirely true to form even as Jaime reverses the direction of twenty-five years of Locas stories, moving from highly stylized realism back to manic fantasy.
And he negotiates this U-turn in all of three pages, when Maggie's friend Angel decides to investigate a mysterious tenant by putting on a homemade superhero costume and climbing onto the roof. Naturally! Who wouldn't? One of the most endearing things about this tonal shift is that Jaime executes it so matter-of-factly, without apology or self-congratulation or distancing irony. He just presents the material as if it belongs here, which--of course!--it always did.
He brings back a couple of familiar faces from the old sci-fi days, like Rocky and Cheetah Torpeda, but most of the characters are new, including no less than three teams of super-women and a whole barful of costumed losers. Jaime has a knack for coming up with wonderfully generic superhero designs that still jump off the page. I haven't seen this many costumes tangled up in action since the superhero orgy in Flex Mentallo--never too far out of mind in this story that percolates with the barely contained libidinal energy of Jaime's exuberant good-girl figures.
Gilbert gets in on the act, too, with a couple of stories that hijack the tropes of lame sixties humor comics, including a standout piece that gives Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrelli the Hollywood tie-in comic they never deserved. The Martin and Lewis ripoffs are beamed to a surreal, sadistic Beto-world where they become locked in a deliriously nonsensical battle (whose boundless mutability reminded me, oddly enough, of Glenn Ganges' video game at the start of Ganges #2, only with even less apparent purpose). All of these pieces, from the high-octane romps to the quiet dreamscapes, appear to be drawn for the sheer joy of drawing, the pleasure of throwing images at one another and seeing what results.
For all that it became one of the touchstones of alternative comics, the original Love and Rockets began as an independent comic rather than an alternative one. The early issues were part of the 1980s black-and-white boom, an explosion of creator-owned work that mostly stayed within the familiar genre territory of superheroes, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. It sounds absurd now, but those first issues--viewed as finished products, not as blueprints for their creators' future aspirations--had a lot more in common with Zot! or Nexus than they did with Raw. (Here's an odd data point. One of my first purchases from a direct-market comics shop--maybe the first--came in a bag with advertisements printed on both sides. One side was Love and Rockets, showing Maggie in full "Mechanics" gear. The other was Dalgoda, the adventures of a friendly canine alien. And they were both from Fantagraphics!)
Love and Rockets survived the independent implosion and made the leap to the burgeoning alternative comics movement through its creators' considerable skill and dedication to improving their craft as much as it did through any changes in subject matter. But the overt sci-fi and superhero elements were pushed to the margins--not a problem when the results were stories like "The Death of Speedy Ortiz," "Human Diastrophism," or "Poison River," some of the most ambitious and sophisticated comics then or since. Any direction can grow stale after twenty years, however; I dropped the last, pamphlet-sized incarnation of Love and Rockets when it seemed like Gilbert and Jaime were both stuck in well-worn ruts. (The Mario-written "Me for the Unknown" was easily the highlight of that volume.)
Now they've revitalized the title by going back to its origins. Even the shape of this handsomely designed, squarebound book is a lot more reminiscent of the old magazine-sized Love and Rockets (aspect ratios of 1:1.24 and 1:1.27, if you must know) than the pamphlet series that followed (a boring, industry-standard 1:1.5). Reading the New Stories feels like reading the original comic, except in a smaller, more convenient, and more durable form.
The comics inside present the same attractive combination of youthful energy and mature craft. The Hernandez brothers have honed their styles to perfection over close to three decades, but Love and Rockets: New Stories still feels like the work of a couple of twenty-something kids from Oxnard who synthesized all their influences from Ditko to Dan DeCarlo to Gabriel Garcia Marquez without discrimination or shame, and revolutionized comics.