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.

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, 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.