Emanata: Where to Start With Love & Rockets

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In the last month or so, there have been three new books by the Hernandez brothers, the brilliant cartoonists responsible for Love & Rockets: Gilbert Hernandez’s High Soft Lisp, Jaime Hernandez’s Penny Century and a big hardcover called The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death. Los Bros, as they’re sometimes called, have been responsible for some of the smartest, best-drawn, most indelible comics of the past 30 years, and way too many people that I suspect would love them have explained to me recently that they haven’t read either Gilbert’s or Jaime’s work because there are dozens of books and they have no idea where to begin. This situation must not stand.

Fantagraphics actually has a guide to navigating the various overlapping reprints of the three Love & Rockets series (and assorted associated projects) to date, since everything’s been repackaged and reformatted so many times. That’s useful if you want to read everything in chronological order–but I’d actually suggest that you don’t. Both Jaime and Gilbert took a while to find their voices in comics, and their more recent stuff is generally better, and more immediately engaging, than the early stuff. So here are suggestions for starting points for both brothers’ work.

With relatively few exceptions, Jaime Hernandez’s comics have been devoted to his “Locas” stories, also known as the Maggie and Hopey stories, which track three decades or so in the lives of two women who grew up in the L.A. punk rock scene. It began as a sci-fi adventure series, a mode it moved away from very quickly and has only occasionally touched on since, but if you start at the beginning that’s what you’re going to get. For a relatively inexpensive introduction to the joys of Jaime’s good stuff, though, I recommend Perla la Loca, a paperback reprint of a 1990-1996 sequence that kicks off with the fantastic ensemble tragicomedy “Wigwam Bam” (there’s a preview of it at Fantagraphics’ site), throws in a bunch of wrestling and decline-and-fall-of-punk business that he draws with obvious, infectious relish, and ends with the mistaken-identity tour de force “Bob Richardson.”

If you’re up for a splurge and have a weekend free to get into Jaime’s world, go for the hardcover Locas II: Maggie, Hopey and Ray (preview here), which collects stories that appeared between 1996 and 2007, in which his characters settle uncomfortably into adult life. (It also includes the priceless “Home School,” a flashback to Maggie as a toddler that lets Jaime show off his world-class little-kid-comic chops.) As with Perla la Loca, you’ll be coming in in the middle in terms of understanding the various characters’ history and relationships–but with both Hernandez brothers, you’re always coming in in the middle, even if you start at the beginning. Still, Jaime’s comics are all about subtleties of emotional states and and how characters understand each other and themselves over time; you’ll get your bearings pretty quickly, and he’ll make sure you’re being entertained while you’re figuring it out.

Gilbert Hernandez has a significantly bigger and broader bibliography–the main body of his stories in Love & Rockets and beyond involves a single extended family of characters, but he’s also written and drawn a bunch of unrelated projects (the graphic novel Sloth, the experimental work in Fear of Comics, even a few Simpsons comics), and he’s currently working on a series of comics “adaptations” of nonexistent B-movies that feature one of his Love & Rockets characters in minor or major roles. The conventional wisdom is to start with his ’80s-era Heartbreak Soup, but for a full-on immersion in Gilbertland, you can’t beat the crazily great 600-page brick of a hardcover Luba (preview). Originally serialized between 1995 and 2007, it’s totally all over the place: a wild, flapping, sprawling story with a huge cast (every one of whom seems to have his or her own substantial narrative), over-the-top raunchiness, gentle comedy, bizarre soap operatics, and a sea monster. Somehow, it all pulls together into a portrait of how completely freaking weird California is.

For a more concentrated (and less expensive) dose, High Soft Lisp (preview) is brief, razor-sharp and ferocious, a black-hole-black Almodovaresque comedy about a self-destructive, sexually obsessive actress/psychiatrist and her ex-husband, an over-the-hill motivational speaker. It’s a sort of companion piece to Luba, with which it actually shares six crucial pages. (It’s also a sort of sequel to Gilbert’s X-rated 1990 miniseries Birdland, although the sex scenes here are generally played for creepiness or pathos rather than fun.) But you’ll be fine if you’re coming into it cold–its opening pieces are an introduction to its characters, and effectively an introduction to Gilbert’s hypercompressed storytelling.

All of these suggestions, of course, are very much open for debate–pretty much every Hernandez reader has an opinion on the subject. That’s what the comments are for; what do you think?

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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