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The Light Of Love And Rockets

Jaime Hernandez’s art and characters have inspired a generation

sep2010_pg42From an early age until college and, living in Sarnia, Ontario, I subsisted on a diet of mainstream superhero comics, lost in a state of post-puberty but presexual suspended animation, where costumed fantasy, simplistic moral tales, and righteous, ham-fisted battle sequences, preferably inked by Terry Austin, were easily digested and understood. In my teenage orientation dysphoria, I embraced this formula for perhaps longer than I should have. Then in September 1984, as an 18-year-old in my first year at Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Brampton, a fellow student exposed me to the work of Jaime Hernandez, who would forever change my perception of the parameters and possibilities of the comics.

Hernandez fundamentally changed the face of comics and graphic storytelling forever. His style appeared almost fully formed, from the very start of his career in 1981. The impact of his work on comic arts, and the work of his brother Gilbert, cannot be underestimated. Comics that followed Love and Rockets took on new narrative structures, showcased new kinds of story content, and fresh, creative execution approaches. By drawing his vision in black and white, magazine-sized, without the use of colour, Jaime Hernandez encouraged the reader to focus on the look, feel and atmosphere of the world he was creating. It suited the story he was telling. It also allowed you to appreciate the level of craft and economy of line he put into every artfully composed panel.

Abrams Comic Arts has just released a comprehensive overview of Jaime’s life and work, The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death, assembled by noted comics historian Todd Hignite. It is a treasure trove of choice panels from the various Love and Rockets series, original comic art, sketches, early work, editorial illustrations and other commissioned work, including Hernandez’s collected run of his serialized “La Maggie La Loca” story that appeared in 2006 in the New York Times Magazine. The book also serves as a detailed biography.

sep2010_pg43Exposure to Jaime Hernandez’s work, as well as to the work of Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s RAW, the writing of Alan Moore, and Robert Crumb’s Weirdo, helped me to understand how the language and form of comics was expanding. It provided a generation with material that reset the bar for comics, pushing the medium artistically, politically and aesthetically forward to a new and higher level. Comics that followed Love And Rockets took on new narrative structures, showcased new kinds of story content, and fresh, creative execution approaches. Jaime was a forerunner in this movement, just by challenging the notions of what a comic could be about, and how a graphic story could be told. By executing his vision in black and white, magazine-sized, without the use of colour, Jaime encouraged the reader to focus on the look, feel and atmosphere of the world he was creating. It suited the story he was telling. It also allowed one to appreciate the level of craft and economy of line he put into every artfully composed panel.

For me, what has been particularly gratifying as a reader, has been the opportunity to witness the evolution of Hernandez’s work over an almost 30 year period, from a storytelling vantage point as well as a stylistic perspective. Because Jaime’s characters lived in an approximate “real time,” they have aged along with the reader. Few cartoonists, save for Gasoline Alley’s Frank King, For Better Or For Worse’s Lynn Johnston and a select few others, have chosen this tactic.

Growing up in Oxnard, California in the 60s and 70s, Hernandez and his brothers devoured a cross-genre mix of Marvel and DC super-hero and monster comics, slice of life “funny books” like Archie, Betty And Veronica, Dennis The Menace, Herbie, and Warren horror and Mad magazine fare. Jaime’s style was an amalgamation of several acknowledged influences. The Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko influence is apparent, but one also sees the impact Alex Toth had on Jaime’s compositional strength and choice line work. One interesting revelation found in the Todd Hignite book, is that Hernandez cites not Hank Ketchum, Dan DeCarlo and Charles Schulz as favourites, but their respective ghost artists Owen Fitzgerald, Harry Lucey and the animators of the classic Bill Melendez produced televised Peanuts animated cartoons.

Hernandez wedded his interests in punk music and wrestling culture, peppered with a hint of fantasy-science fiction (dropped very early in the strip in place of a more realistic backdrop, and revived only recently in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek fashion), setting all of this within a southern California Latino urban and suburban environment and milieu. Characters have entered a story arc, played an important role, then disappeared, sometimes for years, sometimes forever. Just like characters in our real lives do.

What was so influential to me at a very impressionable age, was the fact that Jaime Hernandez – in the early 80s no less – chose the make his main female characters Maggie and Hopey bisexual and lesbian, respectively. He was (and is) profiling a three-decade long on again, off again love affair. More importantly, he has depicted and acknowledged their orientation in a natural, subtle way, but not subtle as to be discreet. He never sensationalized this aspect of these characters. He never used their orientation to titillate. It was what it was—acceptable and integral, yet subdued within the larger world he was depicting populated by a supporting cast of literally over a hundred characters with whom Maggie and Hopey interact. As the story progressed, it was just one aspect of what made the fully realized characters of Maggie and Hopey seem so real to readers like me.

Hernandez has been rightfully lauded for his handling of female characters in his stories, gay and straight. Maggie and Hopey were my first exposure to gay characters in fiction though, and it was an enormously positive and profound experience for me as a reader. The existence and importance of these characters in North American fiction comics during this era should not be undervalued. Hernandez, a straight man, gifted me with highly developed, queer characters that helped me learn the truth about who I was as a queer man. I’m grateful to him for that.

Jaime’s Love And Rockets oeuvre is all in print, in various collected forms. If there is one challenge for a new reader, it is in the knowledge that a work that encapsulates a 30-year period can be a daunting one to tackle. Where does one begin? I will be the first to admit that – as great as those early issues of Love And Rockets were to a fresh-faced 18 year old – I wouldn’t recommend a new reader to jump in there. Like any artist, Jaime’s work has evolved, becoming more nuanced as the years progress. I would acknowledge that it might take a reader some time to understand the characters and situations, given that any longtime reader has had the opportunity to get to know the history of these characters over many years and – in some cases – decades.

I have a clear and sunny picture in my mind of a warm afternoon in the late spring of 1986, sitting on the porch of my parents’ newly purchased home in the Sarnia suburbs, with my latest stack of comics purchased in the first week of my summer vacation from college. The trees and flowers were in bloom, the bees were buzzing nearby but not too near, the stereo was playing a familiar tune, and the first comic I reached for was issue #17 of Love And Rockets. Part of the charm of reading this particular comic for so long has been the warm feeling I get returning to characters I have literally grown up with for decades. I remember thinking that life was good on that lazy afternoon, and almost three decades later, I still get that familiar feeling whenever I start reading a new Hernandez tale. Maggie and Hopey, Ray and Penny, Rena and Izzy are, and always will be, my friends. I treasure these stories like I treasure life.

Originally published in an edited version in IN Toronto Magazine, September 2010 issue.
Editor: Gordon Bowness