23 September 2009

Daily Breakdowns 023 - Days of the New

Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 & 2
By Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez and Mario Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics Books. $14.99 USD (ea.)

There hasn't been a bad time to be a fan of Los Bros Hernandez since they started making comics almost 30 years ago, but it's sure a good time to be a fan now, what with collections of almost every old L&R story, plus various Beto projects for Fantagraphics, Dark Horse and Vertigo, like New Tales of Old Palomar or Citizen Rex. But now, at least as far as Fanta is concerned, the age of the floppy comic is winding down, and so the second volume of L&R stories, which lasted from 2001 to 2007, has begat these new, perfect-bound annual volumes.

In both, Jaime gets the lion's share of pages, which is understandable since Gilbert has the aforementioned other outlets for his relentless creativity. Jaime offers just one story, but it's a four-part, 100 page graphic novel, entitled "Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34." As the title hints at, this is a story where Jaime finally tells his own superhero epic, with an all-female cast. He's explored women wrestlers before, but this is really a superhero story, although one no one but Jaime could tell.

His beloved character Maggie provides the initial link to the familiar Jaime universe, but it's really about her neighbor Angel becoming suspicious of another neighbor and discovering she's a superheroine, Alarma, just like in Maggie's comics. She's drawn into a strange, daffy story that essentially hits some standard superhero beats like reforming an old team, bringing down a rogue, a hero gone bad, the evil twin, and an imperiled Earth, but they're all turned inside out. For as much as I think female superhero comics can benefit from more women writing them, Jaime's writing here seems more like what would really happen with a bunch of female superheroes. For one thing, they're much less judgmental. They realize everyone is going to make mistakes and lose their temper, and they're pretty understanding about it. When Penny Century (another L&R supporting castmate, here with her long-sought-after superpowers) loses control, there isn't a huge battle. The maternal instinct present in some of the Ti-Girls gives them compassion--they know she's upset over her missing kids. In most superhero books, when there are a couple female characters, they always seem to be competing or maybe talking about the men. When do they ever have fun and share jokes and really bond with each other? That's what I think would happen, more often than not. The goofy powers and slapstick are icing on the cake, but this is really just another very engaging story of sisterhood and the endlessly charming, mysterious and sometimes downright contrary magic of women.

So what does Gilbert bring? After a page of strips, two haunting and one just a cute fable, we get "Papa," a disturbing tale of a decent farmer experiencing a series of rapid hardships--a long fall, a terrifyingly swollen face from infection, and some angry shots from people scared of that face. But he enjoys kindness as well. It's a Job-like story without a clear reward, but it sticks with you, especially the odd boy he meets who's running away.

"The New Adventures of Duke and Sammy" reveals a hitherto unrevealed appreciation for Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, an obscure '50s variety act modeled on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (thanks to Johnny Bacardi for pointing out to me that Duke and Sammy weren't actually thinkly-veiled stand-ins for Dean and Jerry). This one is played for laughs, as the duo are zapped to another planet and find they have some strange new abilities, but it's not entirely a gag story. Gilbert really can't help being surreal, and the climax of the story is violent and more unsettling for the lighthearted comedy surrounding it. The biggest laugh may just be the reader imagining the reaction if this story was shown to the team back in the '50s as a proposed scenario for a movie.

"Victory Dance" is a highlight of the first book, as two lovers learn the one definitely does not have AIDS. The story seems almost chopped down from something longer, as it's difficult to make the connection from the first scene to the second, or reconcile Julio Juan's seeming happiness for his lover with his decision to go for a long hike on a snowy mountain and throw away his phone. An old women--the second kindly senior in the book--tells him not to waste his life, but is that what he was doing? Or is he wasting it now, away from someone he loves? Gilbert leaves it to the reader to interpret, and that gives the story its power.

Gilbert continues to show his range in "Chiro el Indio," a farcical story written by brother Mario, of a Navajo couple and the greedy con man scheming to take their land by preying on their superstitions, as well as Gilbert's own, "Never Say Never," which finds a poor kangaroo winning big in a casino with a coin borrowed from a giant, silent penis. It's kind of a '60s kids' funny animal comic colliding with dream imagery. Finally, Gilbert's contribution to #1 concludes with "?," which is more surreal dream imagery, masterfully told with stark contrasts of black and white, and benign, nursery images of toy ducks and a happy sun becoming horrific in a different context. Who wants the sun right-up-against-your-window, peeking in?!

#2 has Gilbert's "Sad Girl," which seems somewhat truncated but is appealing for another strange but sexy and irrepressible female character from Gilbert, as well as some amusing dialogue and great character designs. It's something of a change of pace, because Gilbert draws her very buxom and attractive but never even hints at a sexual side, and despite conversations with several male characters, no one seems to desire her, even her boyfriend.

The final story of Gilbert's for #2 is his longest, "Hypnotwist," which takes some of the nursery imagery and the mysterious door with the question mark and explores a longer, much uglier dream in which a woman in a short coat and perhaps nothing else falls into a nightmare world that indicates if she doesn't have a child soon, she is doomed to be exploited by men until she's used up, driven insane and destroyed. But the ending at least suggests she may have some resources available to her that will prevent that from happening.

Longtime readers may miss a more traditional Maggie story from Jaime, although the themes are hardly different in "Ti-Girls," while of course some Gilbert fans may want to see what Luba or other Palomar or post-Palomar characters are up to. But it's clear that the brothers are both still full of stories, and here they take advantage of the new format to try out a number of new ideas, with a high rate of success. Looking forward to 2010.

Christopher Allen

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Blogger Johnny B said...

I took the "Duke and Sammy" story to be a left-field homage to Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, who were a poor-man's Martin and Lewis on stage and in B-movies in the early 50's.

September 23, 2009 10:45 AM  
Blogger ChristopherAllen said...

Thanks JB. I corrected it. I thought they were just stand-ins for Dean and Jerry in the story, not real life. Some good stuff in the Petrillo Wiki entry about Lewis' real-life meanness, though to some extent I can't blame him for resenting Petrillo.

September 25, 2009 2:44 AM  

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