Jaime Hernandez, The Love Bunglers

bookcover_lovbunI haven’t actually read the entirety of Love and Rockets, start to finish, but I have read the bulk of Los Bros Hernandez‘ work. I began my relationship with their work–and at some level I think the work becomes richer when I see Love and Rockets as a collaboration among individuals rather than the work of separate people who happen to be brothers–with a collection of Gilbert’s Palomar stories. My first exposure to Jaime’s work was in hist very first stories, which, though fun and interesting, feel as if he was chasing something he had not yet quite found. It’s a natural process: Ornette Coleman‘s first couple records are great, but nowhere near The Shape of Jazz to Come.

So, I had pegged myself, internally, as a Gilbert man, with great respect for Jaime, and I made this explicit in my piece on Chelo’s Burden. Maybe it’s the passing of time, and my own development–getting older, to me a good process–that has refined my opinion, but I’ve been drawing a lot from Jaime’s work over the past couple years. I’ve allowed myself to connect more openly and closely to people, and to myself. I think that in some sense Jaime’s relatively close focus over three decades of work on a small number of characters, particularly Maggie Chascarillo, fits comfortably with changes in how I try to be in the world, and how I am.

So I’ll echo any number of reviews of The Love Bunglers and say that I’ve read no better work in the medium. I struggled to find a negative review of the book, but found one piece–link lost, actually–in which the review, on obvious grad student in the most pejorative sense, kept going on about Lacan while insisting that Jaime, who uses such techniques as “narrative” and “characterization” was not worth all the hoopla and was something on a drag on the forward formal momentum of the medium. Let me point out that Joyce‘s innovations were all–all of them–a function of characterization. More to the point here, the common thread among responses not only praise the work but report the reader breaking out into tears, sometimes at the denouement alone and sometimes at various points throughout. I myself am no exception and fall into the second group.

No real sense in rehearsing the plot of a book that anyone with any sense ought simply to read, or read twice in rapid succession as I did. The second time I was more overwhelmed than the first. Despite the suggestions of the Lacan-name-dropping reviewer, the emotional weight of the work is not at all melodramatic. My sense is that for really uptight people any type of emotional response is evidence of passe literary technique or willful manipulation. It can be. In the case of The Love Bunglers, though, it’s the evidence both, as any number of reviewers have correctly commented, of thirty years’ accumulated experience with the characters, and an exceptionally well-executed storyline in the particular.

This last is something that I haven’t seen emphasized enough. It is true, as I have said elsewhere, that I like comics as a medium precisely because of its serial, open-ended form. As such, always building on prior, if rarely complete, knowledge of characters and milieu, the work provokes a different type of response from a reader than a self-contained novel would or can. Neither better nor worse, but certainly different. I can’t say what it would be like for a reader with no prior experience with Love and Rockets to read The Love Bunglers, but my strong sense is that it would be powerful. If you haven’t read Love and Rockets before, my sense is that, while this one does indeed tie together a long development, if you started here you’d make it a point to read the entire thirty years-plus of the project.

As an aside–possibly–while Jaime’s work is justifiably praised for the deep characterization of its people, the importance of the greater Los Angeles area in the work struck me in this read. It’s true that the particular town names are fictional, but the place of everything is in the very real Los Angeles. Much has been made of Los Bros as chroniclers of Latino life, particularly Jaime, and without question this is the case, though putting it that way almost seems to diminish the achievement. More accurately, there is no universal outside of a particular, and it is a mark of Jaime’s real achievement that he documents not only the people he does, but the time and place. The levels of specificity are profound: cultural, temporal, spatial, individual and ultimately within each individual character.

A last note. It is incredibly heartening for me that work of this quality continues to be produced and, against odds, make its way to an audience. To be sure, Love and Rockets began at a time when Love and Rockets could begin. There was a lot of posing and silliness in early punk, but the sense of DIY, that was real and Love and Rockets more than anything else is its finest exemplar at least as far as the heritage of the L.A. punk scene is concerned. I’m reading another book about Anthony Braxton (et al.):

In T-a W 2 Braxton considers the relationship between creative music and what he names “the spectacle diversion syndrome,” or “what America has rather than culture.” (Graham Lock, Blutopia, p. 174)

This is right. What we’re dealing with is the spectacle diversion syndrome rather than culture. It’s not that there’s no culture at all, but rather that real culture, which is what people do to process life emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, is very often suffocated or supplanted by diversionary spectacle. Love and Rockets generally and The Love Bunglers particularly is culture, not diversion. It points to who and where we are, now, as people.

I can’t praise the book more highly, except possibly to point out that, without making any conscious, explicit connection, within a week of finishing the book I recommenced work, dormant for months, on my own long-term recording project. In hindsight, I can’t see it as coincidence.

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Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

quitterBriefly, a procedural note. No more Amazon linking. I’m done with them. Go to a comic book store. Or if you want your books cheap–I mean really cheap–go to the Library.

The Library. Use it.

So, that’s what I did when I got “The Quitter.” I’ve long loved Harvey Pekar‘s work, though I will say that indeed I was first exposed to it through the film. I feel like I was sort of late to the party with Pekar, like he was a major household name by the time I’d gotten to his stuff. He had, after all, been on Letterman. But I still find myself in conversations where my interlocutor has never heard of him.

Briefly, then, Pekar made his name by self-publishing the comic, American Splendor, which chronicled his own life in Cleveland. Pekar explicitly conceived the work as a counter-point to superhero comics. The medium, he suggested, could handle more than the product he’d read as a kid suggested. This wasn’t a unique observation and Pekar gave much credit to Robert Crumb, but Pekar seems to have ran, as much as anyone and definitely more to my liking than Crumb, with his argument.

The Quitter, as more than one review I spot-checked while looking for an image of the cover noted, isn’t explicitly labeled “American Splendor” but in substance it’s part of that larger project. Much is made of Pekar’s unflinching, to use the word everyone else seems to, self-examination, and that’s definitely what we have here. The book follows young Pekar as he tries various things out only to quit when they become difficult or uncomfortable. Surely Pekar overstates the case in his title, but he is examining something I’m familiar with myself.

One brief episode illustrates for me the essence of Pekar’s art. Harvey gets in an intense violent fight with his father. No Freudian cliches whatsoever, but as important as that is it’s not my point. My point is that on the very next page, life continues in comparatively banal fashion, almost as if the fight never happened. “Almost” is the key word. This strikes me as Pekar the observer at his finest. That is how things work in life. There is a terrible, huge thing that takes place, but you still have to go to the store to get groceries, or put gas in your car, or whatever. Life works that way, and it’s something lesser artists, who imagine that the job is to deal with the apparently big things alone. But–the example is just from my head, not from the book–going to the supermarket after a tragedy is, in fact, a big thing. It’s a very big thing, and entirely necessary to portray in art.

My stolen glances at a couple reviews indicate that a number of people called this Pekar’s finest work, and certainly that is a reasonable argument. People are saying the same thing about Jaime Hernandez’ The Love Bunglers, and that’s an argument I can accept, too. My point here–more true for Pekar who was of comparatively advanced age when he wrote The Quitter–is that I have always felt that any artist, all things being equal, ought to produce better work as they get older. Problem is, music buff that I am, a lot of popular musicians don’t seem to do that. Comics seems to be more friendly to older artists. I haven’t fleshed out why yet, but I’m wondering about it.

Alan Moore, Watchmen

watchmen-thumb-350x538I’d been meaning to reread Watchmen for years now, but I didn’t feel like I liked the book enough to spend money on it, and it was always checked out at the library. Then, lo and behold, it was on the shelf a few weeks ago. A part of me wants to write a lengthier piece, and may at some point. Here, 500 words or so.

My first take on Watchmen, borrowed from a friend about a decade ago after I’d first gotten into comics, was that its reputation greatly outweighed its value. I had heard “greatest comic ever” from any number of people, and once I’d finished it, it was clear to me that those people were simply repeating to me what any number of people had told them. It was as if there needed to be a greatest comic ever and Watchmen was in the right place at the right time and so took the title. My second read has confirmed that first impression.

I’ve written about Moore’s Swamp Thing elsewhere and all of the basic critiques of his writing there were really expressions of what I’d felt upon that first read of Watchmen. What became clearer on this second read, however, was just how full of holes he is as a writer, or rather how wide the gaps are in his understanding of the world as it expresses itself in writing. Moore gets plenty of stuff right, to be sure. As a critique of superhero comics from within, the work is brilliant. Moore is a guy who–it seems to me from the outside–has an understanding of his medium that few likely can equal in sophistication, however one may disagree. No need to over-rehearse the details, but Moore very clearly exposes the fascist implications of the genre. Watchmen is genuinely meta, and from a time–late 1980s–when meta remained semi-hip.

Likewise, the comic is one of the finest documents of British/European Center-Left Cold War nuclear angst of which I know. Outside of its place inside comics, this is probably its chief importance as literature generally. As the Cold War has ended outside only a few right-wing think tanks, the possibility of nuclear annihilation has faded from public consciousness, however real the possibility remains. So too, at the time of publication, the general discourse in the United States was all Reagan triumphalism. Falklands aside, there was more room in public for a robust anti-nuclear movement in England, possibly because England lay in the middle of the two nuclear “superpowers.” Interestingly, reading Watchmen in this light gave it a vitality where it might, in 2013, seem a relic. Moore clearly had passionate feelings on the subject, and his eggheadery needs all the passion it can get, as a tonic.

The flaw in the work is that Moore references things he doesn’t really understand. One example: Nite Owl’s ornithological article, “Blood From The Shoulder of Pallas,” at the end of issue #7. No actual 1980s academic journal would publish an article a) in the flowery prose of British gentleman historians of the late 19th century that b) questioned the whole premise of the academic discipline the journal represents. That’s not how journals work. It might have been a letter to a colleague. This is admittedly a detail, but from a guy who seems to want to be placed among literary titans, it is completely unacceptable. The work is littered with similar semi-understandings. I’ll get to those in depth later, maybe.

577 words, not 500. I gotta reel it in.

Frank Miller, Batman: Year One

I had and exchange with the tremendous Matthew Southworth on Twitter.

southworth_exchange

Valuing, as I do, the opinion of creators in a medium–Southworth not only the artist on the brilliant Stumptown comic, but a musician as well–I figured it might be time for me to get over my distaste for Frank Miller. Not even so much for Miller’s work, which I’ve largely avoided, but for Frank Miller.

As this isn’t a comics blog, a word or two about Miller. He is one of two names that’s near-always mentioned as part of the Great Growing-Up of comics as a medium in the mid-1980’s. Alan Moore is the other name, almost always mentioned first despite alphabetical order. Where Moore’s work is cited for literary ambition, Miller’s work, particularly his run with Batman, above all The Dark Night Returns, is tagged with terms like, “gritty realism,” and “adult-oriented.” Batman, in Miller’s world, is intensely violent and sociopathic, but sociopathic against criminals. He is a criminal against criminals. Society, in Miller, consists of helpless, faceless masses, a small number of venal movers and shakers, and a vastly smaller still number of decent people who actively try to improve society.

Not as problematic as Miller's Occupy rant.

Not as problematic as Miller’s Occupy rant.

So, Miller clearly has never been a little-“d” democrat, and he showed it with a now-famous rant against Occupy, in 2011, published, no link provided here but easily enough found, on his own blog:

The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

And that was just the first full paragraph. Moore responded:

I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it.

So, when Southworth pointed to Miller’s Batman: Year One as his all-time favorite comic, it’s not so much that I was sceptical of its quality, but I approached it with some concern. I’d tried previously to make it through The Dark Night Returns, but very simply could not stomach Batman’s sociopathy.

Batman: Year One, despite the title, isn’t about Batman, however, but about James Gordon, future Commissioner Gordon. [ADDENDUM: to be clear, it’s Batman who takes the primary focus in the book. What I’d argue, though, is that the real drama takes place with Gordon’s development.] Part of the problem with a world view like Miller’s is that it substitutes contradiction for nuance. Batman is a criminal who fights crime. Contradiction. Miller, despite this, achieves some nuance with Gordon. He has an extramarital affair, but is torn up about it. Not that remorse is an excuse, but it does show some real complexity. I suppose if anything, reading Year One gives me the clear impression that, at his best, Miller can write.

The problem of course is that Miller, like Moore, demands to be read not only for entertainment, but for ideas. And so, while I agree with China Mieville that we need to allow ourselves to enjoy art even when the politics of the work repulse us, part of the enjoyment of a work of art for me is precisely the process of critiquing it on among other things political grounds.

This is not an original observation–Moore himself made it among others–but the thorough reprehensibility of Miller’s social politics is entirely on display throughout Year One. Above all, his famous misogyny. Selina Kyle, Catwoman, is a prostitute. Most of the women we see here are as it happens involved in sex work. The exception to this is the colleague–subordinate, actually–with whom Gordon has an affair, and Gordon’s wife. The partner in Gordon’s affair, in Miller’s imagination, is, despite her professional credentials, really just ready to jump in the sack with her boss. Gordon’s wife is the only woman in the thing who is not, fundamentally, a sexual object, and Gordon is, clearly, turned of by her. In Miller’s world, if a woman isn’t simply and completely sexual, she’s repulsive.

Even in something like this, which from what I gather is leagues away from something as gratuitously brutal as Sin City, Miller’s work drips misanthropy. This is not simply a moral or political failing, but an aesthetic one. People in general, in Miller, are pretty rotten creatures. It begs the question, then, why there is any virtue in fighting crime. Why protect people who are themselves crap–because Miller, fan of Ayn Rand, certainly sees people that way. Heroes tower above sheep. Rand, whatever else you’ll say–and I know this only from others’ reports–had John Galt up pick up his marbles and leave. That made sense, given the point she was making about society. There is no reason to help people if people in general are truly crap.

Revenge motivates Miller’s Batman, not any sense of wanting to improve society. We see how the Wayne parents’ murder scarred their son, Bruce, but there’s no indication–necessary for aesthetic reasons–that Bruce transferred the pain he felt because of the trauma to any kind of appreciation for living people. For Bruce to become Batman, he needs to have said at some point to himself,

Wow. It sucked the my parents were killed in front of me. But look at this living person in front of me. He’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. They’re worth fighting for.

With that thought process, Batman could be Batman and still keep his “darkness.” Without that kind of thought process, you can’t explain why someone would put in the effort into becoming Batman. As it stands, Batman is really just a d**k. But my impression is that Miller understands being a d**k better than he understands anything else.

Amir & Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise

Blissfully free from US "graphic novel" market cliche.

Blissfully free from US “graphic novel” market cliche.

I gather from a quick glance at Wikipedia that Zahra’s Paradise was first a “webcomic.” I missed it that time around. This brings me to one of the very many reasons the public library is my single favorite institution, public or private. I was going to get the Elric book and then walk to get my haircut, and as per usual I walked up to the second floor where the comics and graphic novels are to see if anything caught my eye. Zahra’s Paradise caught my eye, and I read it. You can’t do this kind of thing via the net. You have to be in the physical presence of books and your fingers need to be able to touch them.

I am more of a comic book person than a fan of graphic novels generally. For every Maus, which I’ll admit to not having read but which I am aware is fantastic, there’s at least fifty self-indulgent pieces of crap which purport to place themselves above their lowbrow comic book cousins. I feel basically the same about “indie film.” Hollywood produces crap, but does so–at its best, to be sure–expertly. Comic book writers have to produce for a living, and it keeps them on their toes, where I get the clear sense that most graphic novels are written on trust fund income.

So, Zahra’s Paradise is a completely different animal than the run-of-the-mill US graphic novel. The writers, taking pseudonyms, are expats, exiles more properly. I knew a couple of Iranian Marxists who, students in Kansas at the time of the Revolution, could not return to Iran once finished with their degrees. In some sense, despite exile, my friends never left Iran. I don’t mean this in any pejorative sense, but to recognize what exile means. The authors of Zahra’s Paradise are able to have a degree of safety publishing material they wouldn’t had they lived in Iran, but though they weren’t present at the events they are not simply observers of the process. Through exile, they are participants in the larger process of opposition to the regime.

So, the story itself is that of a family’s attempt to find out what happened to their son and brother, who disappeared after participating in the mass protests in 2009 following the clearly flawed election. The narrative follows their search for closure, because, certainly as time passes it becomes clear to them that Mehdi is likely dead. What one takes away from it is a clear sense of the mechanical aspect of repressive regimes. A particularly brilliant panel:

This is what the medium is capable of.

This is what the medium is capable of.

An anecdotal example is here on point. A minor character is a Basij torturer. Among other things, he rapes male prisoners. I am reminded of Primo Levi’s discussion of useless violence in the Lagers, described in the Drowned and the Saved. He also carries on a romance with a young woman. She discovers how he earns his living and a discussion ensues. He accuses her of complicity because she accepts his gifts without, like Carmela Soprano, having dug too deeply to discover where the money came from.

That line is an important examination–the complicity of the passive bystander–but more interesting and less often discussed with any violence of this type is how torture as policy produces a whole constituency dedicated to rationalizing torture. This is as true in Iran as it is in the United States–foreign or domestic torture–as it was in the Soviet Union. My point is not to relativize anything, but rather to point out that Zahra’s Paradise describes a functional quality of repressive regimes. The further political violence goes from social norms of acceptable behavior, the greater the individual motive of perpetrators to hide political violence and, therefore, the more stable the violence is as policy. The more widespread the violence, the numerically greater the constituency trying to hide it. It becomes something everyone knows even as nobody sees it.

The book is as excellent an argument for the ability of comics–be it in comic book or graphic novel form–to handle any material well.

Alan Moore, Saga of the Swamp Thing

I have an ambivalent relationship to Alan Moore.  On the one hand, I admire his skill immensely.  Anyone who has genuinely mastered a craft and has, further, added to it, deserves respect.  Also, I sympathize with anyone whose ambition is create a work that will earn a chosen medium the respect it deserves but is often denied.  I work in popular (often “folk,” a term I really don’t care for) music, and Moore in comics.  I fancy myself an artist, and so does Moore.  All this is great.

Scriptor asinus est.

At the same time, having taken some Latin classes when I was a schoolboy, I recognize, to take the example, Moore’s frequent use of schoolboy Latin for the smarmy pretension that it actually is.  I know that dropping Latin phrases makes a person seem well-educated, but believe me, people, if I can read it without a dictionary or Google, all it means is that Moore attended Latin class when he was a kid, and he may or may not have passed it.

I also–and at some point I want to write a piece on this–take strong issue with the elevation of Watchmen above, more or less, every comic ever written.  It was at the right place at the right time, but as a coherent critique of the fascist tendency implicit in both the superhero as a literary device and United States history writ large, it misses the mark.  No understanding of race at all in it: Moore’s America is a drama among white people.  The real America is not so narrow and never was.

So, Moore’s Swamp Thing: everything that bothered me about Moore in Watchmen, which made Promethea unreadable for me (I tried) and which seemed toned down in the British setting of V for Vendetta, all this everything is there in Swamp Thing.  Somehow, however, it’s all made tolerable by the near-total inanity of the titular character.  The Swamp Thing itself, a walking, talking plant, is such an idiotic idea that the best of Moore’s brilliance–and to be sure, he’s brilliant–can shine.

I don’t know the back story of why Moore took on the series, and I’m not inclined to research it.  I prefer to imagine, possibly correctly, that, balls swollen from Watchmen, he asked for the single worst character in the DC universe, the one every writer dreaded getting, so he could do something fantastic and prove how small minded the other writers on the staff were.  No idea if that happened, but it would be nice.

The introduction makes a big deal about the first storyline in the book, which details how any why the Swamp Thing came into being, completely ignoring Len Wein‘s original idea, which, knowing nothing about it, apparently didn’t really make a lot of sense.  I will say that Moore’s take works beautifully: it’s internally consistent, and has a veneer of scientific plausibility that makes one forget in the moment how completely unrealistic the idea of a walking, talking plant actually is.  This reader forgot, while reading it, how totally stupid the actual premise of the comic was.  That’s an achievement.

Ultimately, I like my comics less artsy than highbrow “graphic novels,” but more substantial than run-of-the-mill superhero stuff.  A guy like Jack Kirby, however, I can admire because it’s so clear how talented he was, and how thoroughly he was in control of his medium.  In general I find Moore’s position–capital “A” “Artist”–annoying at best and juvenile at worst, even if the juvenile in question would doubtless be a child prodigy.  With Swamp Thing, the character itself tones everything down a bit, and we’re left with Moore’s considerable talent and intelligence.  Go ye forth and read.

Los Bros Hernandez, Chelo’s Burden

I enjoy comics, and in particular I enjoy comics as comics. That is to say, I don’t appreciate the idea of the graphic novel. Two problems with it: first, it reeks of classism. The formerly upwardly-mobile white hipsters who use it don’t want to admit they read comic books. They reference Melville or Pynchon (never Joyce, and never, ever Morrison) but don’t read them, at least not cover-to-cover.

My more substantive objection to the term is formal. Comics as a medium do not lend themselves to the novelistic linearity, nor to the type of verbal detail novels demand. What they do well–story that unfolds rather than begins, reference to other story, previously told or no, and multiplication of possible meaning through the combination of visual and textual means–they do better than novels. Add to that their lowbrow status and comics offer a type of expressive freedom commercial novel culture cannot.

No comic clarifies this better than Love and Rockets, and no narrative thread in Love and Rockets better than Gilbert‘s Palomar stories.  Chelo’s Burden contains his first Palomar episode, and it starts well.

It was Chelo who talked Vicente’s mother Gabriela into not drowning him when he was but a few minutes into our grey world.

This is what using the medium is all about.  The frame comes at the start of the piece, introducing on the one hand Chelo, but also Vicente, his mother, and the world.  This, in one sentence.  Novels need to follow each thread through its implications, and the good ones do so without wasting words.  Comics, like poetry, send a reader out from the text into implications and imagination.

The image, too multiplies the effect.  Vicente clearly has some serious health issues, so much that his mother was ready to drown him as a newborn.  What’s he doing, though?  He’s got a nice, semi-smile, at ease look.  He looks like a fairly happy kid.  The meaning of the image takes a contrary tack to the meaning of the text.  This is not irony: there is no real meaning contrary to the explicit meaning.  Both meanings, contrary, are simultaneously true.  As a medium, comics put this mechanism into play as textual communication contradicts visual–as in drawing–communication.  The two function through different parts of the brain, so to speak.  Text cogitates, image experiences.  The two, operating simultaneously, multiply the meaning of the work as it is experienced by a reader.

Love and Rockets is not just Gilbert, but brothers Jaime and Mario as well.  Mario considers himself less talented a writer than his brothers, and his contribution to Chelo’s Burden bears this assessment out.  There is general disagreement over the relative merits of Gilbert’s and Jaime’s work.  Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey stories are the equivalent of Gilbert’s Palomar, his major contribution to the medium.  In a nutshell for the uninitiated, Maggie and Hopey are two young Latinas whose friendship becomes, on and off, romantic.  Over the long-term, there’s not a human relationship better-explored in the medium than that between the two.  Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey stories here are evidence of this.  Saying this, I’m a Gilbert man myself.  For every explication of Maggie and Hopey’s relationship, Gilbert offers a fully-articulated implication, however paradoxical the notion, of Palomar, and that really sets me off in a good way.